Seeking the Middle Ground in Hawaii

February 20, 2006

It seemed inevitable that the University of Hawaii's interim president, David McClain, would anger one large group of people or another when he weighed in last week on whether the university should create a center to do research sponsored by the U.S. Navy.

Passions have been inflamed on both sides of the issue. Opponents -- including the chancellor of Hawaii's main campus and an apparent majority of faculty members and students -- have decried the proposal's costs and its potential to "militarize" the university. Supporters of the project said it would be a mistake to turn away millions in research funds and accused critics of impeding academic freedom by trying to limit research they object to personally.

Thursday, McClain sought to find a middle ground. He recommended that the university's Board of Regents create the Navy research center, but he urged them to do so in a way that would mitigate some if not many of the critics' strongest concerns, most notably by restricting it from doing classified research. While the proposal seemed unlikely to satisfy the project's most vocal opponents, some of whom called for McClain's resignation after his announcement, it may well produce a consensus that few thought possible just days ago.

If McClain succeeds in his attempt to play Solomon, he will have done so by listening to critics of the project (at least some of them) and adapting the proposal in creative ways. Opponents had lined up against the University Affiliated Research Center, as it is called, from advocacy groups of students and professors to the Manoa campus's Faculty Senate to the interim chancellor of the Manoa campus, Denise Eby Konan.

They all focused on somewhat different aspects of the proposed research center, with Native Hawaiian groups emphasizing potential environmental damage, among other things. But the critics' opposition ultimately coalesced around concerns that much of the Naval research would be classified, and that language in the proposed contract would require scholars to get Pentagon approval to publish any research conducted by the center (and gives military officials the right to prohibit publication in some cases).

Foes of the project were elated in December when Konan, the chancellor, announced her opposition to it, saying that the $3.5 million in startup costs for the project was more than the university could afford, and that ignoring the many groups at Manoa that objected to the center would "undermine the governance of our campus."

Despite that seeming consensus against the project, some researchers on the Manoa campus not only heralded the importance of the potential research work and funds to the university, but accused faculty members who opposed the center of attempting to hold the university's research agenda hostage to their personal, anti-military views. (The dispute revealed something of a rift between engineering and other professors who largely supported the project and arts and humanities faculty, many of whom didn't.)

Both sides got a chance to make their pitch to the Board of Regents at an intense public hearing last month, but it ultimately fell to McClain, the interim president, to make a final recommendation to the regents, which he did on Thursday.

Given the widely divergent views and intense feeling on both sides of the issue, it was hard to see how he could balance the competing interests in any meaningful way. But that's exactly what McClain tried to do, he said, arguing that the proposed contract between the Navy and the university is "neither as flawed as its opponents assert, nor is it as promising as its supporters claim."

"The way ahead," he said, "involves a question of balance between the rights of individual researchers to pursue topics that interest them and the concerns of some on the campus -- perhaps even a majority -- that all must engage in activities congruent with the majority's particular perception of the university's mission, values and strategic plan."

Acknowledging that classified research "impedes the creation" of appropriate environments for free and open research, McClain said he would recommend that the regents create the Navy center not on the Manoa campus but as a unit of the Hawaii system, but with several key restrictions:

  • The UARC would perform no classified research during its first three years of operation.
  • If the Navy sought to make a research project "classified" midstream, university officials would have the ability to halt their scientists' participation in it.
  • Hawaii administrators would assess the financial and research success of the center during its third year, and if it received an unfavorable review, "UH would discontinue the UARC."

Robert Bley-Vroman, associate professor of second language studies and head of the Faculty Senate at Hawaii, said that many people on the campus were assessing the president's proposal. Bley-Vroman, who in the tradition of Faculty Senate leaders at Hawaii did not take a position on the Navy research center proposal, said he believed that McClain's recommendation differed substantively enough from the proposal rejected by the Faculty Senate in November that it is hard to predict faculty reaction to it -- especially because so much of the opposition to it centered on the issue of classified research.

"We considered a UARC that explicitly would conduct classified research," said Bley-Vroman, "so it is hard to say that this proposal is opposed to the senate action. If we had had this proposal before us, I don't know what the outcome would have been."

Hawaii's regents will meet next month to consider McClain's recommendation. While it is impossible to know at this stage how they might come down on the interim president's approach to the UARC, they sent a signal Friday that they are happy, at least, with his overall performance: A panel of the board recommended that it suspend its national search and offer the full-time presidency to McClain.

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