Leadership & Governance

Ouster in Hawaii Highlights Tension Between a Flagship and Its System

U. of Hawaii-Manoa

Tom Apple negotiated the terms of his departure as the flagship's chancellor. His ouster by the U. of Hawaii system's president prompted faculty protests and questions about the university's leadership structure.
August 01, 2014

Less than a month after taking over as president of the University of Hawaii system, David Lassner fired the chancellor of the flagship campus this week, sparking protests from students and faculty members and a defiant response from the ousted leader.

Tom Apple was two years into a five-year term as chancellor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa when Mr. Lassner handed him a termination letter on Wednesday. It cited a "less than satisfactory" performance but provided no details.

President Lassner, who had been the system’s interim leader for 10 months before taking the permanent job, on July 1, has not responded to interview requests since details of the firing were made public, but he told protesters who gathered outside his office on Thursday that the chancellor had been unable to manage serious financial troubles on the flagship campus and had failed to assemble a cohesive leadership team.

In a settlement reached this week, Mr. Apple will remain a tenured professor of chemistry at the flagship, in Honolulu’s Manoa neighborhood, earning $299,000 a year. He’ll also receive a lump-sum payment of $100,000 for additional compensation and legal fees.

While the chancellor enjoys widespread support from many students and faculty members, some administrators have objected to his handling of budget matters during a financially challenging time for the university. They also have cited the controversy swirling around his unsuccessful attempt last year to fire the head of the university’s cancer center, Michele Carbone, who had been the subject of numerous faculty complaints.

The chancellor’s supporters say that interference from politicians, hospital executives, and the system president made it hard for Mr. Apple to do his job, while his critics say he advocated controversial cost-cutting proposals and lost the confidence of some of his deans. In January the Manoa campus’s Faculty Senate approved a resolution supporting the chancellor and warning that interfering with his decision-making authority could jeopardize the university’s accreditation.

"His authority was completely undermined at that point," said J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the union representing faculty members.

Negotiating the Terms

Mr. Apple is one of 10 chancellors of the system’s three universities and seven community colleges who all report to Mr. Lassner. His contract agreements, which were subject to satisfactory annual evaluations, promised him a "fall back" tenured position in the medical school, earning a salary as high as the best-paid professor there. This week, however, Mr. Apple refused to take a position in the medical school because it would have meant reporting to a dean, Jerris R. Hedges, with whom he has repeatedly clashed. That, Mr. Apple wrote, "would have been untenable" and would have forced him to leave the university.

The final settlement, announced hours before a planned protest by students, allowed him to switch to a tenured position in the chemistry department on the flagship campus, earning a salary well above that of the top-paid professors in the department.

The chancellor said he was initially given one hour to agree to the terms, but was later given until the end of the day.

Mr. Apple, who became chancellor in 2012, was earning $439,000 a year in that position. When the president told him last week that he was unsatisfied with his performance, Mr. Apple hired a lawyer, Jerry Hiatt, to negotiate a settlement. Mr. Hiatt said, in a written statement, that removing Mr. Apple would violate the terms of his contract, which has three years remaining. "Mr. Apple wants to complete the job he started," he wrote. If the university had had to pay him for the remaining three years, that would have cost it just over $1.3-million.

The Chancellor’s Defense

The settlement came one day after Mr. Lassner released a statement apologizing for the "public spectacle" the rumors swirling about the chancellor’s firing had become. He said he had wanted to maintain confidentiality "both to provide the chancellor the privacy and dignity that any of us would want for ourselves in a difficult personnel situation, as well as to attempt to avoid disruption" to the university.

That explanation didn’t appease faculty members like John G. Learned, a professor of physics and astronomy. "This is completely insulting to the faculty and staff who weren’t consulted," he said as he rushed off to join Thursday’s protest. "They’re just saying, ‘Screw you, we don’t need you.’"

In a statement released to reporters late Wednesday, Mr. Apple said the president had handed him a termination letter that afternoon saying that he was being "forced out" over "alleged unsatisfactory performance."

Mr. Apple disputed that assessment. "I believe I have done my job to the best of my ability and in service to the true needs of this institution," he wrote.

When he received the letter, "I asked one more time if there was any chance that he might reverse his intention to release me from the post, and was told no," Mr. Apple wrote, adding that he was disappointed because "there is a lot of work left to do here at Manoa."

Too Many Leaders?

His lawyer, Mr. Hiatt, has a lot of experience helping embattled Hawaii leaders land on their feet. He represented M.R.C. Greenwood when she was pressured to step down last year as president of the university system. She left in the wake of a Stevie Wonder concert scam that cost the university more than $200,000.

Ms. Greenwood, who said her decision to step down was not related to that fiasco, has a tenured position in the university’s medical school.

The search for her replacement was fraught with controversy, but the regents ended up elevating the interim president, Mr. Lassner, to the permanent position, effective July 1.

The Manoa chancellor’s firing has renewed debate about whether the flagship needs both a campus chancellor and a system president, which were combined in a single position until the late 1990s.

State Rep. K. Mark Takai said in an interview on Thursday that this would be a good time for the regents to consider combining them, which he said would save the financially strapped system at least $6-million a year.

"It’s time to relook at our governance structure," he said, "to see if we can curb some of our administrative bloat."