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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, July 2020: An institution of learning must be an institution that learns

We are faced with the immense challenges of the ongoing pandemic and an impending budget cut. As we navigate these challenges as a university community, we will need to marshal creativity and resilience, but we also have to dedicate ourselves to being not just a learning institution, but an institution that learns.


Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

Some days it feels like I have been here for years; other days, it seems like mere weeks, but here I am at the one-year mark as chancellor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. I invite you to read our 2019-2020 Annual Report to see the progress we’ve made; even with the disruption of the coronavirus, the university overall has had an immensely successful year filled with accomplishments, accolades, milestones, and celebrations.

This first year has been a year of learning and a year of gratitude for me. Having listened to voices and read ideas from across the campus and the East Hawai‘i community, I feel I have learned a great deal indeed, but at the same time, I have realized how much I have yet to learn. It has been a humbling experience and an energizing one, and as I transition into my second year here at UH Hilo, we are faced with the immense challenges of the ongoing pandemic and an impending budget cut.

As we navigate these challenges as a university community, we will need to marshal the creativity and resilience I referenced in last month’s column, but we also have to dedicate ourselves to being not just a learning institution, but an institution that learns.

Peter Senge, long considered the father of this concept, defines a learning organization as a place “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

This definition encompasses the sense of community that we acquire when we pull together to achieve a goal in which we all have a stake, and as we launched our strategic doing teams last month, I saw ample evidence of a desire to move the university forward as a community, with Hawai‘i Island and for Hawai‘i Island as well as for all our students.

Yet, institutions of higher education are often not learning organizations. As a group we are exceedingly well educated, professionals and experts in our respective fields, but we sometimes lack the courage and willingness to wander outside those areas of expertise to learn new things.

At UH Hilo, we must and can show that courage. We can learn from our students’ life experiences new ways to educate them more effectively. We are learning from the Black Lives Matter movement and Maunakea protests that we are perhaps not as open to other perspectives and diverse ideas as we once thought. But if we approach these opportunities with a humble and welcoming attitude, we will grow and be a better institution because of them.

Perhaps most importantly, our university has to be a place where grace is given freely and we have space to make mistakes. We will try new things, but we may not always get them right. As long as we reflect upon and learn from our mistakes, the university itself continues to learn.

We have been granted an opportunity learn as an institution this year as we have never learned before. We are exploring what it means to keep a community safe: mask wearing, physical distancing, increased disinfection, disciplined hygiene, and perhaps more important than those all, individual responsibility.

This month we are rolling out our campus guidelines for the fall semester. We have measured the classroom spaces and are removing or blocking off seats so that a safer distance between students may be maintained. We are erecting plexiglass barriers at service desks. We are developing enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, and we are providing training for faculty on online and hybrid instruction so that students can experience the high-quality education that they deserve in as safe an environment as we can prepare.

We also will be asking each member of our ‘ohana to do a daily health check and requiring that they stay home if they become ill. We are establishing a quarantine protocol for any of our resident students who may become ill, and making sure we can make our residences as safe as possible.

We are studying, learning, and growing, just as we ask our students to do every day. They come to us because we are an institution of higher learning. What we owe them is an institution that learns.

Aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

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