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Chancellor’s Remarks at Hawai‘i County Sustainability Summit

Remarks by Bonnie D. Irwin
Chancellor, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo
Education Sector Keynote
Hawai‘i County Sustainability Summit
March 5, 2021

Aloha kakahiaka and welcome to UH Hilo in this virtual space.

Bonnie D. IrwinEarlier this week, I was at a board meeting for a non-profit in the state and we were engaged in a strategic planning exercise that asked us to envision Hawai‘i in 2030. The group was divided between the optimists and the pessimists. Will we be a better, stronger more thriving community or will we see an increase in the various social and economic issues that divide us? And then last night I attended one of our business classes and heard the energy and optimism of students, who were brainstorming alternate use for the UH Hilo Innovation Center downtown. There was so much hope in those discussions! I am in the education business, so I am among the optimists. If we are to thrive as a community, educating and nurturing our youth is the future. Can we overcome differences, heal past and present grievances and work together to build the future those our youth deserve? I believe we can, as I heard many calls to rewrite the narrative, and your very attendance at this event means you share that optimism.

Next month, it will have been 51 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated. Those of us who remember those times, remember the activism around several other issues: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war. The late sixties and early seventies forever changed the United States. In the wake of that first Earth Day, more schools started teaching students more about ecology, the way in which each species on Earth is interdependent on an entire ecosystem and the way in which human activity can help or harm these ecosystems. Generations of school children became environmentally aware, nagging parents about the need to recycle, compost, buy high mileage vehicles, and myriad other actions that we somewhat take for granted now. The point being that education, what children learn, often drives all of our behavior. As schools began to teach more about ecology in the 70s, students came to colleges and universities with dreams to pursue careers that would help them protect the environment, dreams that we are still working to fulfill. I would not be in the career I am in if I did not believe that education plays a key role in just about everything we do. As I looked over the many types of sustainability listed in the summit program for these two days, I found that every item had some connection to the University of Hawai‘i, many of the items having a connection specifically to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo or Hawai‘i Community College.


Just a quick look at our UH Hilo academic programs—Biology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Hawaiian Culture, Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science—along with programs at Hawai‘i Community College—Hawaiian Studies, Natural Science and Tropical Forest Ecosystems and Agroforestry Management—among others shows how seriously we take environmental education and preparing students for careers as researchers, conservation advocates, and policy makers. In addition, the two campuses partner on an annual Earth Day celebration that brings hundreds of schoolchildren to the UH Hilo campus (or, this year, a virtual space) to learn more about conservation and environmental sustainability. Each campus has an Ameri-Corps VISTA volunteer to help with our sustainability efforts and to help us track the content of sustainability in our curricula. Our PIPES interns have enhanced conservation work across the island. The outreach programs at the ‘Imiloa Center, which celebrates its 15th birthday this month, enrich the environmental knowledge of people of all ages in our community.

At the same time, we work to model sustainable practices, from our composting program to our energy reinvestment fund, which enables us to replace high energy lights and appliances with more energy efficient, green systems. Another initiative I am very excited about is the removal of invasive plants on our campus and their replacement with native species or canoe plants. Still in its very early stages, this work engages our students, faculty, and staff in a joint project that will make our physical campus more sustainable and a model for the community.


The sustainability of our community, of course, includes much more than just our natural environment. Our economic sustainability and the lifting up of families ensure that we will be fiscally healthy into the future. Through our business programs, we place interns in local companies and organizations; these interns not only help those organizations to which they are assigned, but also become better prepared to enter the job market upon graduation. The College of Business and Economics offers executive education programs as well, because just as teacher and health professionals need to stay current in their fields and pursue continuing education, so, too, do our business professionals. While it is easy to assume that our business program is the sole source of contributions to economic sustainability, we actually see these contributions across the board as we train students to excel in a variety of professions.

When I asked a local business professional what the greatest need was in her sector of our community, she told me “we need more accountants.” Someone from county government once told me we need more trained planners. Certainly, as we look across the board at pathways toward economic prosperity, we can see the need for an integrated and varied system of trained professionals. Our College of Business and Economics also partners with other campus units, such as the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management to prepare students to work in the bioeconomy, the business side of sustainable agriculture, and the future of agricultural tourism. COBE also partners with our health care programs on a certificate in health care management. This cross-disciplinary collaboration is what helps colleges and universities prepare students to address real world issues, the solutions to which are not found in the back of a book.

Health care

Which brings me to one of the fields we all know we need to grow and sustain in our community and that is health care. Our campuses prepare nurses, pharmacists and mental health counselors, but we also need doctors and other health care workers to support thriving communities. We have witnessed over the past year the increasing health disparities in our state and the need for public health education. The #OurKuleana campaign has certainly helped us keep the number of COVID cases under control. Our pharmacy and nursing students standing side by side with professionals giving vaccines, explaining the value of handwashing and face covering to the public, and modeling those behaviors is an important contribution to our continued health and well-being.

But I have witnessed often in my career that people and organizations will step up during times of crisis and work together to solve problems and help one another, but then when the crisis wanes, we go back to our everyday activities and cannot always sustain the collaboration and energy that helped us to address the challenge. Sustained support for health care on this island is a place where we must not waste the pandemic, but channel what we have learned and try to guide our energy into ways of institutionalizing this collaborative, focused energy. This is a shared kuleana. Our front line health care professionals need relief in part because there are simply too few of them. One of the areas in which the university seeks to make a contribution is in rural health care. On our largely rural island, we often see greatest need in the outlying areas with the shallowest infrastructure. How can we expand sustained services to our rural and most underserved areas?

Food systems and agriculture

Despite the rich natural environment in which we find ourselves, Hawai‘i, like many rural areas, has many food deserts, places where it is difficult to find nutritious food at an affordable price. While many of our friends and neighbors fish and farm, not everyone has that opportunity and we still cannot entirely sustain ourselves. Here the agricultural programs in the University of Hawai‘i system, including at our two local campuses, can help with educating our students and the broader community in sustainable and efficient techniques. The curriculum includes not only plant and soil sciences, but also animal science, from large animals to our smallest but mightiest food producers, bees. We also can work with our community partners on distribution systems.

Finally, many of our students perform community service including food distribution and food preparation. As we move forward to greater food security in our state, our expertise in island agriculture can help local growers improve their processes and keep the supply chain intact.

Society and culture

The irony of where we find ourselves today, chasing a life that is more sustainable, is that Native Hawaiians had much of this figured out long ago. But now that we find ourselves accustomed to 21st century creature comforts, we need to figure out how to knit those two lifestyles together so that we can both remain economically competitive on state, national, and global scales and preserve the rich natural and cultural environment in which we live.

We still have much to learn from the way the earliest Hawaiians set up their sustainable communities in moku and apuhua‘a. I am speaking to you now from the moku of Hilo and the ahupua‘a of Waiakea. These original land divisions ensured that the original inhabitants of this island had what they needed and could work together within their communities for the benefit of all. This vertical arrangement mauka to makai was practical and sustainable. This is but one small example of indigenous knowledge that can benefit us today. I am happy that UH Hilo’s new podcast series features these traditional districts and their many contributions to island life. Our pharmacy program also does research on natural remedies based on plants native to our region. Listening to our kupuna, researching and preserving these ancient ways can help sustain us into the future.

Even sustaining the Hawaiian language plays an important role here, as much of this traditional knowledge is embedded in chants such as the Kumulipo, and by preserving the language, we sustain the Native Hawaiian community and its vast store of knowledge for future generations. In addition to its formal curriculum, Ka Haka ‘Ula e Ke‘elikōlani, our College of Hawaiian Language, also partners with Hawaiian medium schools and the campus has recently launched Hua Maka, which brings mini language lessons to the greater community. By bringing together western technologies and education with Native Hawaiian knowledge, we build a future that is appropriate to this place and this time. Of course the university is not the exclusive or primary holder of traditional knowledge and we still have much to learn from the kumu, but what we can provide is a space to integrate that traditional knowledge with academic knowledge of science and society, and in that space is the path forward for Hawai‘i Island in the 21st century.

Throughout all these areas I am reviewing, the university faculty contribute not only through their teaching but also through their research. As a comprehensive university, UH Hilo specializes in applied research, much of it community based, and research that enables our faculty to engage students in the work. Our scholars and faculty study volcanic eruptions and whale behaviors; opihi health, ʻōhiʻa health, and taro health. They study sustainable foodways and healthcare reform. They contribute to the visual and performing arts that enrich our lives and feed our souls. Bringing together art and science, we can lift our spirits and create a society where we lead with empathy, even as we focus on physical sustainability and economic development. The roots of this work and its sustainability start in elementary school and carry all the way forward through the university. A sustainable P-20 educational system is key to all I have discussed thus far.


Of course, in order for our educational sectors to contribute to the many facets of sustainability we are discussing this week, we also need to address sustaining and evolving the educational system itself. I’d like to address five aspects of sustainable education: content, structure, modality, pathways, and partnerships.


This summer, the University of Hawai‘i system is revising the strategic directions for the system as well as reviewing and revising its general education curriculum. Often a battleground for discussions of what is essential in a college education, general education is in many ways the most important piece of a university degree. (And I don’t say that just because Gen Ed classes were always my favorite to teach!) Through general education courses, we provide all students with a grounding in knowledge and some tools for success. Our accreditors look at how well our students perform in what they call the core competencies: Can our graduates think analytically, question their own assumptions, and assess the strength of an argument (all of which we call critical thinking)? Can they communicate clearly and effectively in both oral and written forms? (If our emcee today, ‘Ilihia Gionson, who is a UH Hilo grad, is any indication, we are pretty successful at this!) Are they information literate and can they assess the validity of information they encounter, especially in these days of information overload? Can our graduates apply basic mathematical skills? We want all of our fellow citizens to have these skills, so that they can perform well at their jobs, vote responsibly, and be good neighbors.

While we can teach these skills in many ways, general education is also usually designed to cover many subjects, so that all students have a grounding in arts and humanities, social sciences, and science. That is not to say that the mixture and specific content cannot change, however. In my experience as a literature professor, for example, I witnessed the broadening of what we call the canon, the great works that we teach. The works of Shakespeare, as magnificent as they are, do not encapsulate the experiences, for example, of Asian and Pacific Islander culture, so faculty need to make decisions as to what they teach in these classes so that they are relevant to students, interesting and engaging, and worthwhile. Sustainability in education includes the regular review of curriculum, ensuring that it is relevant and that it resonates with students.

How we teach those core competencies also adds to the preparation of our students for the world of work and citizenship. Students notoriously hate group work, but we know they need to learn to work in teams. At highly diverse institutions such as UH Hilo, students also learn how to communicate and collaborate across cultural differences, another skill employers tell us they need to see in their workforce.

The goals of relevance and resonance, as well as rigor, characterize our major programs, all of which need regular review to stay current in the fields and to meet local needs. In addition to periodic reviews of current programs, we continually look for other needs of our state where we can help to provide an educated workforce and fill other knowledge gaps. This is often challenging, in that we need to recruit permanent faculty to build stability into our programs, but we also need to take care not to grow too much too fast and saturate a job market that is limited in some areas. This is particularly tricky in small communities. If we want to keep our young people here in our community, the university and college need to work with local employers, both public and private, to assess the needs of the present and anticipate the needs of the future. Where can we make investments in new industries? How can the university best train people for the needs of those industries? And, how do we ensure that those industries are the ones which will support our community over the long term?

Only by working together can we thrive together. The plan for a post-pandemic UH and its recently commissioned third decade study represent the best thinking of the UH system on the future needs of the state, many of which parallel the needs of this island: health care, education, technology, and jobs that support a green economy, as well as food and energy sustainability and environmentally responsible tourism. Where do we make investments in educational programs to support these growth areas and where can we afford to rely on the resources of others? How do we make the best use of our rich natural and cultural environment by creating education that is truly ‘āina and ‘ohana based and then in turn, sustain that rich environment through education? As UH Hilo refines our campus strategic plan, these are some of the questions we seek to answer (more questions than answers).


Collaboration will drive decision making also in the structure of education. In higher ed, we tend to look at training in terms of degrees, but more and more attention is being paid to certificates and other smaller credentials that employers tell us that their employees can use. On our island we have many people who have some college and would like a degree, but they are working full time and cannot attend college full time. Can we work together to design stackable credentials that will eventually lead to a degree but which will contribute to the income and standard of living that our citizens deserve along the way? Colleges and universities can design these programs, but we may need some part time faculty with specific expertise to provide some of the classes, and we definitely need input from the broader community about what is needed.

Co-creating these programs will help ensure that what we are offering is what you need. This is not a situation that if we build it, students will come. We need to discover together where the gaps are and address those with a type of education that best suits the needs of the students. The university needs to teach, but we also need to learn. One of the ironies of higher education is that we are in the business of advocating lifelong learning, but we do not always practice what we preach. If a non-credit workshop will best suit a local need, we need to find a way to provide it. If the need is for a trained professional with a broad set of skills, then maybe a bachelor’s or master’s degree is needed. These structures extend throughout the education sector: sometimes a CTE program fits the bill, other times the grounding in theory and research included in a graduate program is needed to truly prepare a student for the job and life they seek.


Online learning, of which we are all a little tired at the moment, having few other options, is certainly needed, especially for adult learners with family and work obligations that make it difficult to attend class in person. At the same time, we find that many younger learners find the in-person, personal touch to be what best suits them, enables them to learn better, and keeps them focused. So along with structure, we are looking at how to sustain our educational delivery through a variety of modalities. Since I arrived at UH Hilo, I noted the need for more online offerings. Now that we have been forced to do everything online, we are learning what works in that modality and what doesn’t. Another modality option is hybrid weekend formats and low residency experiences where students come to campus for a few days or weeks and then continue their education online.

There are multiple formats that we can pursue, but as a small college and small university, Hawai‘i CC and UH Hilo are coming to terms with what we can reasonably provide the community ourselves and what might be better provided through partnering with other UH campuses. It is a matter of personnel bandwidth. The big question here is what kinds of education does this island need to see us into the future? Who can best provide that education? How do we become the institutions that this island and our people deserve? If another campus has a group of expert faculty in a particular subject, can they deliver the degree remotely? Is it something that can be taught online and can students best learn it online? If not, how does our local campus partner with a campus on another island to deliver the best education we are capable of?

The online modality is a great thing in many ways, but for it to be truly successful, we need better infrastructure to support it. While no one relishes a cell tower in their backyard, we need to find a way to better deliver broadband to our rural communities. Chancellor Solemsaas and I have discussed this challenge often. We have learned over the course of this pandemic year where our system does not measure up, and this challenge is not limited to our island. When we surveyed students last spring, many cited connectivity problems, causing them to struggle in their classes. DOE schools report much the same experience. At UH Hilo we boosted the WiFi in our large parking lots and we opened computer labs, but these are short term solutions. Just as no one should have to live in their car, they should not have to learn in their car either. Even homes that did have decent internet have struggled over the course of the past year with multiple people in the house trying to log into classes or work at the same time. Broadband access is key to a sustainable education system, so I was glad to hear yesterday of the work of the broadband hui and the Broadband for ALL (Access Literacy, Livelihood) digital equity initiative.


In this age of COVID, all sectors of education have worked together to provide the best quality of education we can under these challenging circumstances, and there is no doubt we will face other extreme challenges in the future. Continuing to work together to provide pathways for learners in all fields will allow the education sector to contribute to sustainability in all areas. The P20 office at UH has held a number of convenings, bringing together teachers and faculty and students to discuss topics from internships to certificates. On our west side, Hokupa‘a works to positively impact education outcomes for students by strengthening community networks. The education stream of the Vibrant Hawai‘i project explores how we can provide better access to high quality education and empower students through ‘āina-based education. The pathways from K-12 to the university are not as clear as they could be, however, and even the pathways from Hawai‘i CC and UH Hilo need to be cleared of the brush that currently impedes the progress of students.

Co-created curriculum, minimal amounts of red tape, and easy on and off ramps as students change their minds or circumstances—all these are all needed to create clear paths forward for students. One of the most important of these is the co-created curriculum, faculty from the two institutions sitting down together and determine what students need to learn in their CC classes and what they need to learn at the university level. This one works when the faculty can come together as colleagues. Administrators can point the way, but the work and the kuleana resides with the faculty. Professors meeting with high school teachers is also important in understanding the kuleana of each sector in relation to one another. The university trains teachers and those teachers in turn train the students to enroll on our campus. Communication and collaboration can help make these pathways become highways from one institution to the next.


Just as all the sectors should be able to rely on education for preparing the workforce and the creation of new knowledge through research, so, too, education needs to partner with others in order to sustain itself. Whether it be working with county and state government on greater broadband access or sitting down with local business and industry to develop curricula that will best prepare the workforce. This will take time and intention. Education is the answer to many of life’s challenges, but it is also a resource intensive operation, and the more diverse the body of students we serve the more services we need to provide. Food and housing insecurities and mental health needs are as prevalent on college campuses as they are in the greater community, and they draw resources away from our core educational mission. If we are sustain ourselves into the future, we need to find a way to partner with social services to support our local students.


All of the forgoing needs resources, both human and financial, as well as a heavy dose of will and skill. Sustainable educational systems provide the foundation for all other manner of sustainability, and yet, teachers are underpaid, there is a disparity in resources from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood. We will need to bridge income and experience gaps as we work toward closing them. At the university level we need to focus on the assets that our students have rather than any shortcomings. After a year of crisis management, we need to transition from crisis thinking to strategic thinking once again. Taking stock, seeing what we have learned about ourselves and our systems during the pandemic, will help us now pivot toward the future and healthy sustainability. For those of us in the education sector, the skill of nimbleness, usually in short supply, is what we will need to keep pace with the changing needs of our community and our students, in whatever modality they choose to join us.

I have often said that the future of this island and our university are inextricably linked. I can easily make that same claim for the whole education sector. There are plenty of good ideas and strategies out there; we do not have to invent it all. But we do have unique assets in our people and this place, and we will be able to take these ideas, whether they be in hybrid learning, stackable credentials, or stronger pathways and make them work for us and become a model for other diverse communities. It is time to get past thinking and on to acting. We are in it together, and I am confident we can confront the challenge of the future together and create a more sustainable, thriving community on Hawai‘i Island.

Bonnie D. Irwin was named chancellor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo on July 1, 2019. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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