HONOLULU — Diversity is not a problem in paradise, just how to pay for it.
The University of Hawaii is perhaps the most ethnically diverse campus in America — an opportunity for education that extends far beyond the state's home islands, embracing an Asian Pacific student base all the way to Japan and Korea and China. It is, in fact, at the center of the nation's cultural outreach to the Far East, a sprawling institution on four campuses in settings so beautifully verdant as to convince one that the educational trials plaguing its mainland sisters couldn't possibly exist here.
Take the issue of affirmative action, for instance. As the rest of the country's educational community focuses anxiously on legal challenges to the University of Michigan's preferential admissions standards, those in charge in Hawaii are wrestling with policies designed to protect and nurture the state's largest minority, Native Hawaiians, who make up 27 percent of the state's population. It is a costly effort and one being questioned now by some of the university's board of regents who believe the millions of dollars in tuition waivers and lower admission qualifications based largely on race alone ultimately will meet the same kind of court tests faced by other schools.
The university gives up $31 million in tuition annually to provide a free ride to 7,600 of some 90,000 full and part-time students. The waivers cover not only those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, but also band students, athletes and others including Pacific islanders who live in remote areas with no access to higher education.
"Sure it costs, but it is the right thing to do," says Hawaii President Evan Dobelle. "This is the only show in a vast area. You can call this affirmative action if you wish but these really are just scholarships. You have to understand that this was an island republic we took over and its native inhabitants are due our utmost attention and consideration."
Dobelle left the presidency of Trinity College in Hartford two years ago to take over here. He came to this assignment with a national reputation as a visionary with the political skills and money-raising abilities to effect dramatic change. In some ways, Dobelle, who at times appears to be as close to perpetual motion as humans can achieve, is himself a shock to an aloha culture of seductive breezes and swaying palms.
At Trinity, a premier New England liberal arts school, his policies had been instrumental in rejuvenating one of Hartford's most blighted neighborhoods in a unique program of cooperation between the college and the city that drew nationwide acclaim. His assignment here was to inject some dynamism into an institution with great potential but little follow through. He has done so, spearheading changes that include the construction of a new $300 million medical center in downtown Honolulu. But his brief tenure so far has not been without controversy.
As an important industry, the university ranks only behind tourism, and, of course, the military in its impact on the state. It employs 14,000 and its presidency is as high profile as the governorship. And therein lies the rub. The newly elected governor is Republican Linda Lingle, a former mayor of Maui who has little love for Dobelle, who endorsed her opponent. Friction between the two, if that is what it can be called, is not surprising. Dobelle is a former White House chief of protocol and adviser to Jimmy Carter. At 27 he was the youngest mayor in the history of Pittsfield, Mass. He resigned his White House position to help lead Carter's reelection campaign in 1980 and his wife, Kit, took over the protocol job.
Adding to Dobelle's problem is the fact the governor is prepared to name several new regents who would not be expected to be as friendly to him as the current members. Also, the governor, like nearly every other state chief executive today, has budget problems and has promised not to solve them by raising taxes. Thus, there is strong pressure to reduce the amount of tuition waived to make up the anticipated reduction in state support.
Then there is the question of the legality of preferred treatment of the minority Hawaiians. Dobelle and his board hope that the special status of the native islanders will be sufficient to justify the current policy. If, however, there are challenges, Dobelle says the university may have to base the waivers on scholarship rather than ethnicity or find another creative solution.
If there is trouble in paradise, those who face it seem ready to deal with it. Whatever occurs, one thing seems certain. The many hues of those who call themselves Rainbow Warriors will remain as a model for the diversity everyone else is trying to achieve.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service