All faculty and staff at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are invited to the next “Brown Bag with Bonnie,” a live Q&A with Chancellor Bonnie Irwin on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. via Zoom.
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.
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.
Goals in the age of COVID and beyond: Student-centeredness, stewardship, resiliency, resourcefulness.
Way back in March, I had planned a “State of the University” address to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo campus. COVID came roaring in, plans were changed, but as I reflect on what I was going to say, I had four main goals to share with our campus and broader community:
Becoming a truly student-centered campus
Becoming better stewards of our region and our island
Building a resilient campus community
Becoming more creative and resourceful in addressing the first three things.
The COVID crisis has only heightened the need for all of these goals and has made the fourth one—creativity and resourcefulness—more urgent than ever. The state and thus the university have some serious budget issues to address, and none of us really know yet what the “new normal” will look like for our society. We have learned that we can be flexible, that we can make dramatic changes in the course of a week, and that we can support our students through it all.
As a state institution, we will always find ourselves stretched thin. Grant funding rises and falls. Determining the difference between what we need and what we want and making sure we always support what is essential will be a permanent part of our operation. But UH Hilo has proven time and time again that it can do more with less. We can be resilient when we need to be, but if we are resourceful, we can ease up from time to time. With whom can we partner in Hilo, across the island and state, and in the Pacific region? What are we doing that will attract more students, donors and partners?
Collaboration across the boundaries of divisions (academic, student affairs, administration) is key here. We have so many pockets of success, but if we are to truly succeed as an institution, we need to be intentional about how we partner, with whom we partner. And sometimes that even means saying “no” to a great opportunity because it may distract us from our core mission. Sometimes resourcefulness includes deciding what we are going to stop doing to make space for something more important. Being thoughtful about our choices and enthusiastic about our potential will help us navigate the future with confidence. Searches for permanent leadership in some of the units are underway and many are reaching completion; candidates remain excited to join our community and engage with us in the challenges ahead.
I look forward to working with these new members of our team as well as our veteran employees to make UH Hilo a stronger university. Our “strategic doing” committees are about to launch, and I am excited to see what ideas they develop for our future. While the formal teams are small, they will be reaching out to engage colleagues across campus and in the community. They will help us become not only an institution of learning, but also a learning institution; we need to assess our systems, our processes, and our decision making often to ensure we are on the right track and doing our best to succeed.
While the present has so many unknowns, I take comfort in the fact that the core mission of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo—to challenge students to reach their highest level of academic achievement by inspiring learning, discovery and creativity inside and outside the classroom—remains strong and relevant, as does our kuleana to improve the quality of life of the people of Hawai‘i, the Pacific region, and the world.
Bonnie D. Irwin
Photo at top: A close-up of the wall wrap in Mookini Library’s lobby. The design, created by UH Hilo graphic designer Tanya Ibarra, shows UH Hilo’s Mission Statement overlaid on print of ‘ōhi‘a blossoms. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri.
At UH Hilo, we will continue to live up to our responsibility as one of the most diverse universities in the nation by making that designation mean something, as we continue to spread aloha into our community and beyond. We will continue to combat systemic racism.
Dear UH Hilo ‘Ohana,
I have been struggling to find the right words to say that might bring solace to our campus in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last week at the hands of police officers who are trained to serve and protect. This event is both angering and heart-wrenching, and the fact that this is not an isolated incident, but one in a series of attacks on black and brown bodies, makes it all the more maddening. Since the very earliest days of the United States, race and racism have often overpowered justice. Ninety-nine years ago today, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, burned in one of the deadliest racial incidents in American history. And still, in the twenty-first century, racial justice still eludes us.
To the African American members of our ‘ohana, we see you. We can only imagine your grief and anger, but we hear you. On our campus, you are loved and valued. At the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, we will continue to live up to our responsibility as one of the most diverse universities in the nation by making that designation mean something, as we continue to spread aloha into our community and beyond. We will continue to combat systemic racism.
Our students, faculty, and staff will value one another and the contributions made by each member of our university community. We will respect the right of each member of our community to live and work in an environment free from violence and hatred. We will honor the dignity of every member of our campus family. And we will continue to instill these values in our students and community. Discrimination has no place on our campus, and we will be guided by aloha and a commitment to equity in all we do.