The Right Coast

July 02, 2004
The University of Hawaii is ... well ... exotic.
By Gail Heriot

When I was a little girl, my Uncle Paul attended the University of Hawaii, where he received a Ph.D. in pineapples. Or something like that. He and Aunt Louise went on to live exotic lives tending to exotic fruits around the world. And they would send me exotic presents to my very unexotic home in the Washington suburbs. So I've always had a warm spot in my heart for UH.

But UH is starting to make it hard. Last month, UH President Evan Dobelle was unceremoniously fired. Among other things, he had a nasty habit of appearing in television ads to endorse gubernatorial candidates. More troubling, Dobelle has been accused of "publicly enlist[ing] the University of Hawaii as a political force fighting for racial supremacy for ethnic Hawaiians," pledging that UH "will work as a 'partner' to help [ethnic] Hawaiians 'redress past injustices'; achieve 'self-determination,' 'decolonization,' and 'social justice' ..." The University's Center for Hawaiian Studies has been called "a political and propaganda factory" in the service of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. And the evidence looks pretty substantial.

If you're like me, you may not even have known that Hawaii has a well-organized movement for sovereignty (defined by some as complete independence and by others as special status as nativist state within the United States). But I suppose the state that gave us Rice v. Cayetano was bound to have such a movement. And these days most well-organized political movements have a university department somewhere dedicated to furthering its goals. Dobelle's UH was fulfilling that function for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

What is interesting is that UH's new acting President David McClain does not appear to be an improvement over Dobelle. At a press conference last week, he made his priorities clear: "My first commitment is to Native Hawaiians and our host culture. My second commitment is to the students and to their families and our faculty and our staff. And my third commitment, of course, is to the people of the state of Hawaii." His first commitment is to a particular minority group? What if the University of Arizona president said his first commitment was to the Navajo? Or the University of Massachusetts president said his first commitment was to the descendants of the Pilgrims? It seems a little odd to me.