A little over a year ago, I was preparing to deliver a State of the University address, but COVID-19 had other plans for us and the address was postponed. As we emerge from the pandemic, however, it is time to take stock and look ahead, and thus I virtually delivered the 2021 State of the University on March 31. I’d like to share some highlights with you here.

Where we are today

Despite all the challenges brought by the pandemic, the general state of the campus is good, and I believe the outlook is bright. Here are some quicks stats on where we are.

We were once again named by US News & World Report as the most ethnically diverse national university in the country. We still serve more women than men, a nationwide trend and something to pay attention to especially as it pertains to students from Hawai‘i Island. Over 70 percent of our enrollment is in-state and over 50 percent is from Hawai‘i Island. This reflects our primary responsibility.   

But our total enrollment has been decreasing from fall to fall. Given the way enrollments across the country decreased due to the pandemic, however, I am pleased that we held on as well as we did. Before the pandemic, we were definitely slowing the trend, with enrollment being down only one percent from 2018 to 2019.

Some good news is that there is upward movement in first-time freshman. Programs in business, psychology, marine science, and kinesiology and exercise science continue to be our most popular. There also is an upward trend in first-generation students. Our number of students of Hawaiian ancestry remains robust, accounting for over a third of our enrollment and growing. Serving these students is a major part of our kuleana as a Hawaiian serving institution.

Our freshman-to-sophomore retention is good but it could be better. Still, the last two years are better than the three before that, so we are definitely moving in the right direction. Retention is the key to growing our enrollment. The more students who have good experiences here and are successful, the more students will want to attend our university.

Our graduation rates are certainly influenced by our retention rates.  The good news is that the average time to degree is under five years. The not-so-good news, is that not enough students are graduating. We shall be directing our attention even more strongly to student success in the new strategic plan now being developed.

We’ve been talking about budget a lot this year, and while I am more optimistic about the next few years than I was several months ago, we need to stay fiscally conservative. We have been able to keep our tuition reserve strong, which will help us make investments in the future. The legislature still has not decided our general-funds budget for the next biennium, but it is now looking as though the cuts will not be as deep as the governor originally proposed.  

Two other important sources of funding are donations and grants. We are fortunate and grateful that our community supports us to the extent they do with private donations. In a reciprocal commitment, one of the ways we show our value to the community is through grant-funded research, much of which impacts our island’s people and environment in meaningful ways.  

A Vision for the Future

UH Hilo exists to improve the quality of life on this island, in this state, and in the greater Pacific region. Our purpose is to empower leaders who will cultivate opportunity in our communities. We challenge students to reach their academic, personal, and professional goals through hands-on learning in our rich natural and cultural environment.

Further, we recognize that one learns through many sources—ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi—and thus we recognize that our campus ‘ohana has much to learn from the ‘āina and our community.  

Through the current planning of our new Strategic Plan, three goals have emerged:

  1. Support Student Success with a Focus on Equity. Our diversity is our strength and truly meaningful when we focus on equity, removing barriers to opportunity, fair treatment, and access for all.
  2. Strengthen Our Relationship with Our Region. True partnership with the island means ideas, collaborative learning and research, and reciprocal relationships make a difference in the lives of people, contributing to a resilient and sustainable future for Hawai‘i.  
  3. Support and Strengthen Our Campus Culture. This includes strengthening infrastructure by improving facilities and operations, but it also means improving the ways in which people support their colleagues.

By working together, we can build a bright future for our students, our university, and our community.


Bonnie D. Irwin