Skip to content →

Category: Remarks, Messages, & Writings

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, April 2020: The meaning of essential

In Governor Ige’s stay-at-home order, he exempted a number of “essential” services: health care, first responders, gas stations and grocery stores, mail and shipping, transportation, and, indeed, education. Being on that list gives us in higher education a special responsibility.

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

How do we define “essential”? It’s been used in many ways in recent weeks, and how we understand it differs with the context and the speaker.

When helping my mother in California stock up for stay-at-home living, essential meant coffee, butter, and, yes, toilet paper. Upon returning, when my husband went to the store so I could stay in self quarantine, it meant chicken soup and chocolate cake. My mother’s list demonstrates her simpler needs, learned from growing up in the depression. Mine are built around that which brings me comfort. In both cases, however, “essential” also was limited to what we need for the next two weeks, immediate needs. I am confident that the supply chains are intact.

When we think of what essential means at the university we also distinguish between immediate needs and long-term success. If we had a hurricane bearing down on us, our sense of immediacy would be quite different than what we need now for the long haul of the rest of the semester and perhaps beyond.

In Governor Ige’s stay-at-home order, he exempted a number of “essential” services: health care, first responders, gas stations and grocery stores, mail and shipping, transportation, and, indeed, education. Being on that list gives us in higher education a special responsibility, both to our students, some of whom are still living in our residence halls, and our community, which depends upon us to continue building toward the future. Our students and their families have made an investment in us; we are essential to their success.

On campus we need security, maintenance and custodial staff, housing staff, library staff, mail room staff, and many others who cannot do their work from home. We also need all those people who are working at home on our behalf because each of us has an important role to play in keeping our university functioning and keeping our students on track.

We have folks working on campus who would rather be home; we have folks at home who would rather be at the office. Our specific roles largely determine how and where we work, but all of us need to cooperate in order to see our students through to the finish line.

Sometimes those of us who do not have direct contact with students very often can feel that our efforts are not actually critical for student success, but each one of us plays a role in keeping our institution healthy and available to our students and community.

All of the above are “essentials” in one way or another, but each of us has other things in our lives that we consider essential. A walk in nature to appreciate the ‘āina, a piece of art or music that moves us, a book that lets us escape to another world, even for a short while.

In the end, however, the thing that might be most essential is human connection. As I see examples from across the island and the world of people stepping up to help others—whether it is reserving special shopping hours for kupuna, providing meals for those keiki who depend on school lunches, sewing face masks for medical professionals, or sharing helpful resources to cheer up someone—I know we will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger.

We all need one another, and in that regard, each of us is essential.

Aloha to you and yours. Stay safe.

Bonnie D. Irwin

Comments closed

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, March 2020: Looking back, looking ahead

The last UH Hilo Strategic Plan guided our efforts in student success, diversity, research, and community collaboration. But the work of bettering ourselves and our campus is not over; hence the strategic doing initiative that we begin now.

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

Preparation is well underway in developing a new Strategic Plan at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. As we prepare to launch our “Strategic Doing Initiative” that will lay out new long-term goal areas for the campus and identify priorities for action, it pays to reflect on our previous strategic plan and how far we have come over the last decade, despite the many challenges faced as a campus and community.

Too often strategic plans are put on a shelf or posted on a website and forgotten, but just because we may not be able to rattle off all the goals and objectives in the last plan, it does not mean that plan has not guided our efforts in student success, diversity, research, and community collaboration.

Let me share a few examples of our progress.

Place-based learning experiences

One of our main goals is to provide learning experiences and support to prepare students to thrive, compete, innovate, and lead in their professional and personal lives. We are making good progress in this area.

Our students are doing their studies in a culturally, economically, socially, and geographically diverse place, the perfect preparation for being productive citizens in a global community. Anchoring this diversity is the recognition that an important knowledge base resides in the indigenous people of Hawai‘i—a concept now policy for the UH System.

It is from this foundation of diversity and Native Hawaiian ways-of-knowing that UH Hilo now grows, and you can see it in new programs.

For example, the kinesiology and exercise sciences program just won a national award for inclusive excellence and diversity; the nursing program has a strong transcultural component; medical anthropology focuses on effects of globalization on health disparities; and programs in sustainable agriculture and environmental science have strong Native Hawaiian influence. These programs and more are building relevant intellectual capital for our region to address the challenges of a diverse population and fragile environment. Our graduates are prepared to lead the way.

Vibrant campus

Another goal, aimed to foster a vibrant and sustainable environment in which to study, work and live, has also made great strides.

We now have six living-learning communities where students thrive. Technology upgrades, new student media rooms, and expansion of Wi-Fi have helped bring our campus into the modern world. Several solar-powered gathering spaces have been built with more planned. Library hours are extended. Both the Campus Center Dining Room and Mookini Library have undergone redesigns that engender rest, conversation, and rejuvenation.

And a UH Hilo Sustainability Policy is now in place, governing virtually all growth on campus. Photo-voltaic is part of all new construction. Electric demand meters have been installed to track usage. LED light conversion is completed in over 20 buildings. Student-driven programs to recycle, compost (including food waste), and maintain sustainable gardens on campus are established. The new data science program, supported by the National Science Foundation, is part of a statewide water sustainability project. This is great progress.

Regional stewardship

I’d also like to highlight the good progress we’ve made in the goal that addresses our impact on the community, island, and state through responsive higher education, community partnerships, and knowledge and technology transfer.

We have strengthened the P-12 pipeline through programs such as Early College and Upward Bound; Nā Pua No‘eau, established at UH Hilo, now a UH systemwide program in support of Native Hawaiian students; and Hawaiian language medium schools thriving throughout the state.

We work with and provide technology, expertise, and research data to many government agencies—County of Hawai‘i, National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service, to name a few—in tackling local environmental problems such as lava flows, soil erosion, and Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death.

On campus, the tenants at UH Hilo University Park of Science and Technology help advance our entire community through partnerships between the university and public and private organizations. UH Hilo also now partners extensively with Hawai‘i Community College, sharing resources, facilities, services, pipelines for transfer, Hawaiian protocol development, and expertise.

Of course, the work of bettering ourselves and our campus is not over; hence the strategic doing initiative that we begin now. What we value remains constant: creating environments in which students will thrive and succeed; bettering our local community, island and state through our research and community outreach; and, fostering a respectful and supportive workplace for our staff and faculty.

Bonnie D. Irwin


Feature image at top of post is of painting, “Voyage of the Navigator,” by Clayton Young (11X14, 2013), courtesy of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Comments closed

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Feb. 2020: Walking the equity walk

If we hold as a basic tenet that our foremost kuleana is to support all students, then we need to discover the areas where we can improve equity on campus.

Last fall, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was ranked by US News & World Report as the most ethnically diverse campus in the country. This rating followed another in the Chronicle of Higher Education 2018 Almanac that named UH Hilo the most ethnically diverse four-year public university in the nation. This comes as no surprise to those of us who live in this diverse state where many of our communities and universities rank highly in this category, but lately we have been talking about what this ranking means, and, more importantly, what it could mean.

Across the country, universities talk about the need to support all students regardless of their race or ethnicity, and across the board, we all can do better. A new book, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education, teaches us to expand our knowledge and tools to better support all our students. Drawing from campus-based research projects sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, the authors challenge educators to specifically focus on racial equity as a critical lens for institutional and systemic change.

In our case, we are rightly proud of our diversity ranking, but this does not mean we can rest on our laurels. The very structures and systems of universities privilege certain students over others, and make it difficult for students who are first generation to attend college to thrive and succeed at the rate of their more privileged peers. If we hold as a basic tenet that our foremost kuleana is to support all students, then we need to discover the areas where we can improve equity on campus. We absolutely, positively do a lot of diversity and gender equity initiatives well, but how do we accidentally discourage students along the way?

I strongly believe all students can thrive when each has full access to all the support, encouragement, and resources needed to succeed. I believe a love of learning and a growth mindset is contagious given the chance, and that it is our job to create an academic environment where all can succeed. Right now I am looking at our curriculum, our processes, and our support programs to discover who shows up and who succeeds, and how do we expand that success to more of our students?

For examples, let me share with you two initiatives—one an academic program that has just received a prestigious national award for its stellar success at inclusive excellence and diversity, and one still in the visionary stage that seeks to establish a hub on campus to coordinate all existing diversity and equity programs.

The Department of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences has been awarded the 2019-2020 Inclusive Excellence Award from the American Kinesiology Association. The national award honors the department’s commitment to inclusiveness in its recruitment, retention, hiring, curriculum development, and administrative structure, specifically noting the diverse student make-up of the KES program: 84 percent come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, of which 35 percent are Native Hawaiian.

Of great interest is that enrollment in the KES program has increased over the last 15 years by over 500 percent. Today, it is the largest undergraduate academic program at UH Hilo with six faculty advising and teaching over 200 students. Of note is that the nominator of the award, Jennifer Stotter, director of our Office of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action, believes the success of KES is largely due to the faculty’s commitment to Uluākea, a program that trains faculty to develop curricula that includes Hawaiian cultural and linguistic applications in support of all-inclusive and place-based education. She also notes that KES faculty have been active supporters of Hawai‘i Papa O Ke Ao, a UH systemwide initiative supporting an indigenous and Hawaiian approach in teaching, research, and service.

Meanwhile, a group of diversity and equity experts at UH Hilo—Director Stotter, Director of Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center Gail Makuakāne-Lundin, and Chair of the UH Hilo Diversity Committee Dana-Lynn Ko‘omoa-Lange—have drawn up a proposal for a Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that would coordinate existing DEI programs for students and employees (support services, resources, training, professional development, curriculum, research and scholarly activities, community partnerships). Although the plan did not receive the originally sought funding, I think this is an idea we should keep alive and continue to explore implementing.

Thank you all for your hard work, dedication, and support in making UH Hilo not only the most diverse campus in the country, but also in our striving to lift up all students to their greatest potential.


Bonnie D. Irwin


Photo at top of post: Standing with students from the incoming class of Fall 2019, Aug. 22, Campus Center Plaza.

Comments closed

Chancellor’s Monthly Column, Jan. 2020: New Year brings renewed energy

The next year promises to be a busy and exciting one, a time for collaborating more with one another and with the local community to move our university into the future.

Aloha and Happy New Year!

Bonnie Irwin
Bonnie D. Irwin

The spring semester will be a busy one at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo: we will be working on searches to stabilize our administrative staff and we will be moving into the planning stages of our new strategic plan.


Four major searches will be underway soon: a permanent vice chancellor for academic affairs, deans for the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Natural and Health Sciences, and also a dean of students. All of these positions will bring us increased stability and help us to improve our support for students.

This month we welcome on board a new director of institutional research, thereby doubling our staff in this area! I am pleased to announce the appointment of Bradley Thiessen, Ph.D., as our new director of institutional research effective Jan. 2. Dr. Thiessen has over fifteen years’ experience in higher education. He has established offices of institutional research twice in his career and has led institutional assessment efforts at three different institutions. He also has served as a faculty member in statistics, earning tenure at two institutions and advancing to the rank of professor in 2014.

Brad’s extensive background and experience will be extremely valuable to our university as we move UH Hilo into the future. This is especially important this year, as we move from the pre-planning stage to the planning stage of our new strategic plan. We’re going to move forward driven by our values—notably diversity and collaboration—but also informed by data. And Brad will be instrumental in analyzing the data to identify emerging trends and prioritizing goals and tactics.

Strategic plan

Too often strategic plans remain merely plans, sitting on a shelf or posted on a website and soon forgotten. For that reason, in addition to building on our foundation blocks of values and data, the new UH Hilo plan will be organized around “strategic doing,” the process of collaborative, action-oriented planning that moves us toward measurable outcomes, all the while making necessary adjustments along the way.

Further, and perhaps most importantly, the main areas of focus will be on people, namely our students, and in our sense of place, meaning that strong identity we share with our local community and our island home. In other words, our students and the incredible place in which we live will be at the center of everything we do in the strategic planning process.

The plan will also be informed by the many conversations that have taken place over the last year or so—the listening tour headed by our strategic planning project manager Kathleen Baumgardner. The listening tour was a series of meetings with various stakeholder groups from across and beyond campus, with sessions that engaged people with diverse perspectives, and encouraged robust conversations that sparked fresh ideas.

In addition, the plan will be informed by what I have learned on my own listening tour, which I began as soon as I arrived in July and will continue through at least February. What I have learned so far:

  • Almost every promising practice regarding student success exists somewhere on our campus, but few of them are institutionalized.
  • Everyone at UH Hilo genuinely cares about students, even if we practice that care in different ways.
  • There are many good ideas on how we might improve what we do.
  • There is a craving among people to find ways to work together, across the boundaries of academic disciplines and across the divisions of the campus.
  • Our common ground is larger than our differences.
  • The biggest challenge may not be what we do next, but what we stop doing in order to free up some time and energy for the initiatives we want to undertake.

The next year promises to be a busy and exciting one, a time for us to take stock, gather and analyze the data, connect with one another in meaningful dialogue, and to think of innovative ways to collaborate more with one another and with the local community to move our university into the future.

I wish you all a Happy New Year. Be well, stay safe, and do good work in the world.

Bonnie D. Irwin


Header photo: Flowering tree on the UH Hilo campus. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri.

Comments closed

Holiday Greetings from the Chancellor

Na ka maluhia a me ka ‘oli‘oli o nēia kau e hō‘olu‘olu a ho‘opūmehana iā kākou a pau.

May the peace and joy of this season bring comfort and warmth to us all.


Bonnie D. Irwin

A screenshot of a cell phone


Photo by Bonnie D. Irwin: Koki‘o ‘ula‘ula, a native species of hibiscus in Hawai‘i. This bloom was photographed in the award winning Native Garden at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i, an educational outreach center on the campus of UH Hilo. The center’s garden is a living exhibit of endemic, indigenous, and Polynesian introduced plants often called “canoe plants.”  

Message: Composed by Lei Kapono, Interim Executive Assistant to the Chancellor, and Larry Kimura, Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies.

Comments closed