UH President David McClain

In March, the University of Hawai’i Board of Regents appointed David McClain the school’s permanent president. He had been working as the interim president since Evan Dobelle’s early departure in 2004.

photo: Jimmy Forrest

Q: Last November, you said you wouldn’t be pursuing the UH presidency, and that whoever did take the post should be able to commit to a seven-year tenure. What changed?
A: Nothing. Last November, Wendy [my wife] and I said that, if I was appointed, I’d likely serve for a limited period, until 2009. As you know, the regents then asked me to serve through 2009. So, in our minds, it really hasn’t changed. The regents [also] received counsel from executive search firms that they ought to think twice about a national search. I guess the firms felt that the chances of finding someone the regents liked as much as they like me would be less than 50 percent.

Q: After the way UH treated Dobelle—deserved or not—was UH simply unable to fill this position?
A: I don’t think it would have been a problem. I go to a number of national meetings, and my sense has been that, within 12 months after Evan’s departure, it was in the rearview mirror for most people. We’re hardly the only university to have had a fairly public departure of its president.

Q: Now that you’ve taken the “interim” off your title, does anything about the job change?
A: I’ll be better able to recruit top faculty and administration, and raise money for the university. I’ve been in a number of conversations in which people have said, “We like you fine, but we’d like to know who’s going to be permanently leading the university.” I think that will change now. We’ll test that hypothesis when I call these same people and say, “I’m back.”

Q: You’ve been described as being, in many respects, Dobelle’s opposite. What do you think about that characterization?
A: I think that characterization is mistaken. I think everyone brings something to the party. And everyone has a flat side. I’m certainly no different. I’ve tried to focus on ensuring a good experience for our students, on executing what I think is a sound vision for the university. But executing, not just talking about it.

Q: Your recommendation to create a system-wide University Affiliated Research Center with the U.S. Navy has met with resistance—protests by student groups, a formal complaint to the Board of Regents by a group of faculty members. Why do you feel this is important for the university?
A: I concluded that, if we took classified research off the table completely for the first three years, it would go a long way—maybe not far enough for some people—in addressing concerns. We would [also] reserve the right to terminate contracts [if they were to become classified]. That’s what Stanford University does. At the end of the three years, we’ll see whether we want to continue with this. That’s my proposal. The next step is for the regents to take a look.

Q: For eight years, UH Manoa has been ranked in the bottom half of universities nationwide by U.S. News & World Report. Is this something you’re aiming to change?
A: We’ve taken a close look with U.S. News at some of the reasons for our slippage, and the general impression I get is that it’s not that we haven’t been moving forward, it’s that others have been moving forward at a greater pace. They’ve had more resources to move forward with.

Q: What happens in 2009, when your contract is up?
A: We certainly plan to stay here. But at that point I’ll be 62. Wendy and I have come to understand that the time in your 60s is very precious. It’s a time, while you’re still pretty healthy and active, to do some other things you haven’t done before. Of course, you never say never. My expectation, though, is that we will conclude our service on July 31, 2009. But who’s counting?