Reflections on my five years at UH Hilo

I started my tenure as chancellor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo five years ago this month. When I arrived in July 2019, I found a campus community hard at work preparing to develop a new strategic plan. I knew my first tasks were to listen and learn about the aspirations of our university ‘ohana and local community, and to make sure those desired goals would help the island with its needs — economic, educational, and cultural — while also protecting the ‘āina through sustainable activities. We’ve made great progress on all fronts.

Itʻs been an interesting, challenging, productive five years. I have found our university ‘ohana strong and resilient, each person steadfast in remembering that no matter what challenges come our way — pandemic restrictions, enrollment declines, budget restraints — our dedication to the primary mission of the university never waivers: knowing that our ultimate kuleana is to challenge our students to reach their highest level of academic achievement, and through that, to improve lives. 

Yes, we have our work cut out for us. Reflecting nationwide trends for schools such as ours, we have had enrollment declines for the past 10 years. But although to fix that we may adjust things to grow our out-of-state enrollment somewhat, I am proud that we continue to place as a high priority never displacing a Hawaiʻi student with one from elsewhere. We are creating a culture of equity that makes diversity an asset at a university that is ranked one of the most diverse in the country. This is a significant part of UH Hilo’s identity, and we will continue to hold as a top priority increasing access for our island students wherever possible.

I also have held as a top priority seeing UH Hilo as a gateway for upward mobility of those students, improving their lives. This means preparing our students for meaningful employment (that answers island workforce needs) that not only brings them a high quality of life but also lifts up their families and communities. I believe this is our responsibility as a regional university.

As I emphasized in 2019 and throughout my five years here, an effective way to prepare students for important regional work is to increase their engagement in applied learning and independent research for benefit of the community and the environment. This hews to UH Hilo’s mission of creating academic opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.

UH Hilo has always excelled at this and I have prioritized creating even more ways to open up independent research opportunities for even more students. More and more opportunities are available for students to conduct place-based research in our natural environment, in our agriculture and business communities, in our local schools and health care facilities, and more.  

I feel so strongly about this being a priority that earlier this year, I personally launched a new fund with the UH Foundation to help students access important opportunities outside the classroom. The fund, called the Chancellor’s Fund for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity, will support undergraduates with expenses like travel for conferences or materials needed for their research. My dream for UH Hilo is that every student will be able to do something meaningful outside of class, whether it is research, studying abroad, an internship, or community service. 

With my eye on the future of the university, some of the biggest changes at UH Hilo during my tenure thus far have been in university leadership. All three vice chancellors have come on board in the last couple of years, two hired from within the UH Hilo ʻohana. Four of our colleges are now led by current or former members of the UH Hilo faculty. Two others are led by new deans from elsewhere who each brought with them the insight and skills needed in a dean. And we have a new interim director for University Relations. 

I feel really good about this new leadership team. It is a diverse group, reflecting our student body, including among others, women and men, scientists and culturalists, newcomers and Native Hawaiians. They are working as a team, communicating with each other on common goals, bridging silos, using our new data “dashboard” to make decisions. Behind it all is the constant priority of increasing students’ access to education along with caring about their wellbeing and their futures.

I mua!

Bonnie D. Irwin