The Future of UH Hilo?

Pot, Planes, & YouTube Videos

Chancellor Straney on the future of UH Hilo

Editor-in-Chief Brian Wild

Photo Courtesy of the Office of the Chancellor

As silly as the title may sound, it’s not far off from what’s currently on the agenda for UH Hilo Chancellor Donald “Don” O. Straney. Now in his sixth year as chief executive of the University, Straney recently invited members of the media – including Ke Kalahea – to attend UH Hilo’s “Fall Media Coffee Hour,” which took place in the conference room of the Administration building.

Donald Straney
Donald Straney

In that meeting, held on the morning of Sept. 21, Straney discussed with those present his priorities for UH Hilo in the months and years ahead. Below is a list of topics covered at the meeting, including questions asked by Ke Kalahea:

What is the overall status of enrollment at UH Hilo – especially concerning student recruitment and retention?

According to Chancellor Straney, who at the time of the meeting only had “tentative numbers,” enrollment is currently “down on the order of 160 students from last year. That’s overall, which continues a decline of several years – which is not what we wanted to see at all. We had planned to be down about 1.5 percent; I think we’re down on the order of four [percent.]”

In an attempt to reassure those worried by these statistics, the Chancellor continued to elaborate on the numbers, saying that “there are two pieces of good news related to that. One is that this is part of a trend across the state and across the U.S. Enrollments continue to decline; they’re down about the same at Mānoa – if not a little bit more – they’re down at the community colleges, they’re down on the mainland. The only place that’s up [in Hawai‘i] is West O‘ahu.” Students who enrolled at UH West O‘ahu, however, generally did not “apply to come to Hilo… they’re recruiting students from West O‘ahu to go there, and they’re not eating our lunch of Mānoa’s lunch. They [West O‘ahu] have – still – classrooms to fill, and they’re being very aggressive about recruiting in their local region and doing it successfully.” Another prominent feature of West O‘ahu’s recruiting success lies in the early college program: “getting high school kids to take college classes during their junior and senior year – they’ve done that more than we have,” Straney said.

Aside from lower enrollment rates nationwide, “the other piece of good news is that new students here are almost exactly the same number as last year – I think we’re off by six, that’s a rounding error in numbers this big. So the decline is not in our ability to attract new students, we’ve stopped that decline. And if Admissions continues doing what it’s doing that should be able to reverse, and then it’s a question of how do we keep the students who are here,” Straney said.

To understand how critical retention is for UH Hilo’s enrollment, the Chancellor explained that “last year, the retention of freshmen to the fall of their sophomore year was 63%. So in very round numbers, we lost one out of three, and that number has been pretty similar for a number of years,” Straney said. “We’ve retained as many as seven out of 10… as recently as 2010,” the year Straney first became Chancellor. “But that [current] number has to change in order for the sophomore to junior number to change – and so we’re putting some effort this year on looking at what can we do with freshman, to improve the probability that they come back as sophomores. Straney continued, saying: “We’ve done exit surveys… and we lose students for every reason under the sun. There’s no single burning issue… Frequently, though, there’s a constellation of reasons around money, family, obligations outside of school, work.”

The Chancellor further stated that, generally speaking, “students who come here from the Mainland are retained at a lesser rate than students from down the road.” Straney believes this is partly due to a lack of information on the part of new students; he recalled “this one story about the student who called Admissions from the airport and said, “So how do I get to campus? I’m here to start; the taxi driver doesn’t know how to get there.” And Admissions comes and goes, “Which airport are you at?” It was Honolulu. So sometimes if you come from the mainland, you didn’t quite know where you were going. Maybe you were expecting sand and surf.”

Ultimately, Straney said, “the challenge for Admissions is to recruit students who will succeed here. And, for out-of-state students, that means students who haven’t been here, more often than not – because unlike the Mainland, there aren’t a lot of kids from Iowa who drop by the college tours to see what Hilo’s like; we have some, but it isn’t as likely. So it’s been important for us to look at how we’re recruiting students, and admissions has just rolled out a new set of recruiting materials… One person I heard describe [the old recruiting material] as ‘It looks like a brochure for a summer camp.’”

As a result, the Chancellor asserts that the Office of Admissions will not rely on any “rosy pictures” of UH Hilo. “It has to be an authentic view of who we are and that’s what we’ve tried to capture here… Part of the challenge is to convince people that UH Hilo isn’t a four-year community college, where you come and you go as you will,” Straney said. What makes UH Hilo different from other colleges, Straney believes, is that “it’s in a great part of the world. And it’s not so much this is where you come to have fun, but the theme that they’ve used throughout this is that this is where you come to be inspired. So the whole message has changed from, sort of, the adventure-type language to ‘How are you going to be different by coming here?’ And pictures of the stuff that you can do, and the things that distinguish us… trying to send the message that you come here to get something out of it personally, and we do this because, frankly, we’re inspired by the work that the students do.”

The Admissions office recently released a YouTube video geared towards attracting new applicants. Does this video mark a new beginning in student recruitment?

From the Chancellor’s perspective, the answer is yes. “We haven’t used a video before; that’s a three-minute video, and it’s on the Admissions website. They’re working to cut it down to a 30-second video that might be used in a television commercial… something that sort of teases you to say, ‘I want to know more,’” Straney said.

What specific goals are in place for increasing enrollment at UH Hilo?

In the Chancellor’s words, “Yes… at the moment, we’re the only campus that has told the Board of Regents what our enrollment goal is, and the Board is asking each campus to do that this year. We were at 4,000 students when I came here in 2010, and that’s where I want to be again in five years.” For comparison, Straney mentioned that the approximate number of students currently enrolled at UH Hilo is 3,680. With a difference in over 300 students from 2010, “we have some ground to make up; [2010] was when our [freshman] retention rate was about 70 percent,” Straney said. With additional construction for the pharmacy school underway, are there any new construction projects set to go forward in the near future?

“No,” according to the Chancellor. “Since I’ve been here, they’ve completed the Hawaiian Language [‘ŌLELO] building, Hale ‘Alahonua, and now Pharmacy. ‘ŌLELO was $27 million, ‘Alahonua was $33 million, and the Pharmacy building is $31 million. The Chancellor added that “that was a lot of money to ask for,” and that he expects the University to “take a few years off” from completing any other major construction projects.

What should students know about your proposal to split the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) into two separate colleges?

The proposal, outlined in the Chancellor’s official blog this September, would essentially divide CAS into two colleges – one for humanities and social sciences, and another for natural and health sciences. In detailing the process of how such a proposal was crafted, the Chancellor stated that “last year, there were discussions about reorganization [of CAS.] The Faculty Congress appointed a task force to look at it and to come back with possible models; there were a number of town hall meetings about that, and then over the summer, the Vice Chancellor [of Academic Affairs] and I considered what we heard. We did some more consultation, and we submitted a proposal to the unions,” including the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association, “and the unions are consulting with their members about that. So that’s going on right now.”

For students in CAS, Straney assured that no particular departments or programs in CAS are expected to be eliminated as a result of the split: “From a student point of view, the departments are the same; we haven’t changed any department boundaries, we haven’t changed any majors, all we’ve done is to take one big college of over 150 faculty and put it into two units that are about the same size… it means the departments will be in closer contact, and it’ll be a more compact set of disciplines in one college, and my expectation is that the leadership and management and the organization will be tighter and easier.”

As for when this proposal will come to fruition, “it would be in effect as of the next academic year. There’s a bunch of housekeeping that has to be done,” Straney noted, including possible adjustments in administration, and rules concerning tenure and promotion rules. “That’s what I imagine taking place during the rest of this year,” Straney said.

Speaking of administration and other UH personnel, a well-placed source has informed Ke Kalahea that we should expect to see at least one, if not two, major leadership changes in the Division of Student Affairs. Is this true?

The Chancellor did not emphatically confirm or deny these allegations. Though Straney cautioned not to “make too much out of this analogy,” he went on to describe administration as “something of a gypsy profession. People do tend to come and go; when opportunities arise, they tend to take them.” Straney added that with the advanced “age distribution of the leadership on this campus,” it’s only expected that “changes happen.”

What kinds of research opportunities can students take advantage of at UH Hilo?

While “grant dollars across UH are down” this year, Straney added “there are always new research opportunities” for students at UH Hilo. With the ascendance of a fledgling medical marijuana industry in Hawai‘i, Straney placed special emphasis on how UH Hilo can one day play a role in developing new cannabis-based medicine. At the moment, “we don’t have the federal permits yet to work with cannabis;” nevertheless, Straney imagines a future where the University will house and cultivate marijuana for research. If the federal government allows such research to go forward, Straney foresees certain challenges that researchers must address. “Plants have a complex set of chemical compounds, and depending on growing conditions – the amount of water they’re getting, and sunlight – the amounts of the chemicals can change quite a bit during a short period of time, and it can differ from the top of a plant to the bottom. So if you want to do medical treatments with a plant, you’ve got to understand how to standardize it,” Straney said. For him, the main question then becomes “how do you customize and turn this complex mix of chemicals into a managed set that can be used for treatment?”

The ramifications for this potential development will be significant for UH Hilo’s Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy (DKICP), as well as the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM). When that day comes, “Fortunately, the College of Pharmacy has most of the equipment that you’d need to do that sort of thing; that’s what having a college of pharmacy makes possible,” Straney said.

Are there any updates on the proposed aviation program?

Confirming that a proposal for an aviation program is indeed underway – “those aren’t rumors,” Straney replied – the program has yet to be officially approved by the UH Board of Regents. “The way new programs are developed is such that you don’t do things overnight. There are [preliminary] proposals that come up, the faculty review it – that’s been done for aviation. Then it goes up to the [UH] system… it’s the Board [of Regents] that has to approve everything. We took an initial version of the proposal to the Board over a year ago, and they gave us feedback on it,” Straney said. After receiving input from the Board, Straney now says that “we’re now getting ready to go bring the final one up, which I believe will be this semester – probably near the end of the semester. The Board only considers new programs twice a year, and I think the next time is in December.”

When asked whether funding for an aviation program would jeopardize the well-being of other departments or programs at UH Hilo, Straney said that a new “program proposal is designed to ask the questions: How much revenue will be generated from tuition? And what are the expenses?” Concerning aviation, “in the way the numbers come out, in about three years, the tuition exceeds the expenses.” Still, Straney conceded that “it’s not cheap.” Among the expenses for an aviation program include hiring instructors and flight and time – the latter of which is likely to be managed by an outside company, according to the Chancellor. Once the program has “admitted three or four classes” consisting of approximately “20 students a year,” Straney believes “things will begin to balance out.” Before any of this comes to fruition, of course, “the case has to be made to the Board that this can be done, and so that would not take money away from other programs” at UH Hilo. When asked if the aviation program could be in place by the beginning of the next academic year, Straney mused that it “could be.”

In Straney’s view, a notable benefit for prospective students in the aviation program are the job opportunities. According to Straney, UH Hilo has “been in discussions with small regional airlines about taking graduates from the program and placing them into entry-level positions,” specifically mentioning graduates “who don’t have enough flight hours to be a pilot, but have enough to be a co-pilot.” The plan would therefore be “to hire them as a co-pilot, to generate the hours – while they’re being paid – to graduate to a pilot’s seat.”

When asked if Hilo’s misty weather would hamper the appeal or practicality of an aviation program, Straney instead argued that the local weather could be an advantage for pilots-in-training: “if you learn to fly here, you can fly pretty much anywhere… I don’t want to fly on an airplane with a pilot who’s never flown in the rain.”