Name in the News: M.R.C. Greenwood
—The Star Advertiser article by Vicki Viotti ran on January 23, 2013*
One of the perks of M.R.C. Greenwood’s job is the office in Bachman Hall. It’s a haven of wood paneling, comfortable furniture, a nice campus view and shelves filled with memorabilia, mainly from her 3-1/2 years as University of Hawaiʻi president but also photos from years as associate director for science in the Clinton adminstration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
At 69, Greenwood’s career is a mix of such achievements—she’s nationally known for her public health acumen, particularly in the field of studying obesity and diabetes — and low points, including the controversy, which resurfaced when she was hired here, that she showed favoritism in creating opportunities while she was an officer in the University of California system.
And now there are the weeks of upheaval over the handling of a $200,000 swindle, a bogus Stevie Wonder fundraiser for the athletic department, that she’d love to leave far behind her. There’s still work being done on improving administrative operations and oversight as a result of that episode.
But Greenwood is bullish on the progress UH is making on several fronts — including a new cancer center, the West Oahu campus, a boost in enrollment and growth of its research operation — and said firmly that the public needs to keep their eyes on this prize. She said with the Legislature opening, her focus will be on repairing strains in relationships there, not on the scandal.
“It’s over,” she said. “I’m very clear in my own mind about this. This is 2013. I am focused on going forward. We really can’t let an episode that happened six months ago, it really shouldn’t hold the university back from the important work it has to do.”
QUESTION: What can you tell me about the university’s new innovation economy push?
ANSWER: We’ve been working for about two years to try to build the case — particularly here at the university, but not exclusively — that research is itself a business and an industry. Sometimes when it’s written about or talked about, people talk about research as the place where things get discovered that lead to jobs, when in fact the research industry itself is a very solid job base.
When you have researchers come to the university, if they’re competitively successful, they establish their own units. They’re sort of like small-business people, if you want to allow me that analogy, and they have to get the resources to support themselves, their work, their laboratory and a number of other people, like technicians.
So we’ve been trying to build the case that when we’re looking at economic analysis in the state of Hawaiʻi, we should be looking not just at startup businesses and venture capital investments — which are important. But we should be looking at what the university has done over the last decade, which is to grow our research operation to over a half a billion dollars, and put together a plan to grow it yet again. …
Q: What does Hawaiʻi have to attract the researchers?
A: Well, we have a fine university. We have a university that is now in the top tier of research universities. And that’s why faculty members come to universities. They come because you’ve got a good reputation, because you’ve got good students, and because you’ve got an opportunity to build a program.
On top of all that, in Hawaiʻi we’ve got a wonderful place to live. It’s not cheap, but it’s wonderful. …
These people teach our students. They create a business, if you will. They bring equipment to the state that we train our undergraduates and our graduate students on. The state does not provide us with a significant amount of equipment. …
Q: Looking back, what’s your takeaway from the 2012 experience?
A: Of the years I’ve been here, it probably was the most difficult year. But I think my current motto, and the motto we will have going forward, is “Carpe annum” (seize the year), for 2013. You know, 2012 is gone, 2013 is here and we want to seize this year and make the very best progress we can for the university. Let me put it in perspective. The media focus was largely on the publicity associated with a failed concert in the athletic department of one campus. In the same year, we’re completing the cancer center: a $103 million project which was on time, under budget …
It’s hard for me to understand why that is not more interesting to the public.
Q: Wouldn’t the Stevie Wonder and athletics elements be the fascination here?
A: But isn’t cancer important? Saving lives? Completing a building that people had had difficulty trying to get together for over than a decade?
Q: Rationally, but I guess I’m more of a cynic about what people find interesting.
A: Well, that’s part of what I think did learn from last year, which is episodes that we went through last year can make you very cynical, can make you lose sight of the fact that the real job of the university is to serve the people of Hawaiʻi in areas like cancer research. It is our job to graduate more students. We have 10,000 more students than we did before the recession, even though we have had cuts. …
The university has a very serious strategic plan. We have goals which we measure every year … and we’ve either made or beat our goals on everything except deferred maintenance, and we’re not doing as well as I would like to see us do on patents and things of some sort. But otherwise this is a very positive story. The attainment of Native Hawaiʻians has gone up, the degrees have gone up, the distribution of financial aid has gone up phenomenally. …
So I try to put 2012 in that context, because I think the state and the university should be very, very proud of what we accomplished. We had, I would say, a very intensely focused set of issues we had to deal with. But they’re over. I mean, that happened last July.
At this point we’re moving on. …
Q: What’s your perspective on UH West Oahu, which opened its first permanent buildings last year?
A: That’s what the university should be focused on serving. This is the fastest-growing region of Hawaiʻi. It is populated by a large number of groups of students who have not had college as an aspiration, who really haven’t thought about the careers they might have, and a lot of older people who have lost jobs and are looking for an opportunity to retool and build something for themselves and their family. For many of them, driving into Manoa to come to school was just not going to be a realistic aspiration.
So what I think we’ve done out there was open the door, and open the eyes and opened opportunities that people just did not have 10 years ago. And now they’re going to have them.
Now, there’s a lot of development to be done with the campus, we have to work on the academic plan. There’s a lot of property that needs to be developed in order to support the campus. But, in the middle of the worst recession since the Depression, we pulled that off. And that is an accomplishment a lesser university might have just closed it out, said “No can do.”
Q: Aren’t there still bumps in the road?
A: Of course there are. They don’t have enough money to do everything they need to do. There are going to be challenges. The accrediting agencies are going to want to see an academic plan, and you have to get those things done. In this case we’re doing it on a shoestring, so you get done what you can get done, and then you start on the next thing. I think it’ll be fine, but it’s going to take 10 years.
Q: Weren’t there red flags on the accreditation front from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges?
A: Yes, there was an accreditation report that said that now they wanted to see the campus’ academic plan much more fleshed out, and understandably. …
You’re so focused on getting the buildings done and the construction done and just getting through that. At some point you have to say, OK, now we know there’s going to a campus here, now we have to be sure we’ve got a good array of programs. And that’s where WASC usually says something. And they did. They said, “Well, we are impressed by what we have seen. We congratulate you on your diligence in getting the campus moving and the construction effectively completed. But now we need to see more evidence of a solid academic plan.” So that’s what we’re focusing on for the next couple of years. The accreditation’s not in any danger, but we have to pay attention and do our job and make sure we have what’s necessary. …
Q: What are your thoughts on the accelerating tuition rates and the need for federal tuition grants?
A: We are very concerned about how much we are going to become dependent on tuition. We are now about a $1.4 billion operation. About a third of it is coming from extramural grants and funds and things that our faculty and staff bring in, about a third of it comes in state appropriations, and about a third of it comes from tuition. …
To be more efficient, you have to utilize things like online teaching more. You’ve got to change the business model of how education is delivered. Our regents are very interested in business efficiency, and so we had the advisory task group that came after the problems this summer, which focused on those specific transactions. But now there will probably be another phase where we will look at the structure and delegation of authority and responsibility in the university. …
Q: What are the lessons you have learned from the Wonder crisis?
A: I think we failed to communicate as clearly as I would have liked to have done, what the issues were at the time. That’s always difficult when you are in an investigation. … Looking back on it, I probably would have assembled more people and had more conversations. …
We’ve talked with the media relations people at several other universities that have had episodes like this, and all of them had the same experience, which is once the media starts that cyclical process it is very, very hard to do anything other than wait for it to stop. …
In the final analysis I still think my responsibility is to talk to people like you about what the university is really doing, and put this $200,000 issue in the context of a $1.4 billion operation, the vast majority of which we’re doing a great job with.
*Reprinted from The Star Advertiser with permission
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