Chancellor Bonnie D. Irwin is featured in Midweek Hawai‘i Island this week.
When University of Hawai‘i at Hilo students returned to campus last week, there was a new face waiting to greet them. Bonnie Irwin, who began her tenure as the university’s chancellor on July 1, has big plans for the small-town university.
“I have spent most of my life in smaller communities,” says Irwin, who previously was provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Monterey Bay.
“While I have a lot to learn about the diverse cultures that make up Hilo and Hawai‘i Island, I know a lot about small towns and small campuses. Relationships matter. I am committed to transparency in the way we operate, consultation with faculty and staff about how we do what we do, and empowering others to grow and become leaders themselves.”
Regional universities in small communities have a greater impact on the local area than the bigger research universities, says Irwin, who has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, including positions at University of California, Berkeley, and Eastern Illinois University. Irwin continues to seek out opportunities in places where she feels she can make the greatest difference.
Summit participants will discuss the university’s past and future, dreams and actions, possibilities and specifics.
The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo invites the public to a strategic planning summit to be held Sept. 25-26, 2019. The Seeds of Opportunity Strategic Planning Summit will give members of the general public a chance to share their perspectives and to co-create the future of the university. The summit will be held in the Performing Arts Hall at the Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, 113 Nowelo Street (photo above). The event is free and advance registration is required.
The summit caps the university’s strategic pre-planning stage of collecting information to help inform a new strategic planning process. The conversations at this summit, along with those from a recent listening tour with faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and business partners, will help move the university forward into the planning stage.
Summit participants, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, community partners, and guest event facilitators, will discuss the university’s past and future, dreams and actions, possibilities and specifics.
Our primary mission at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is to educate our students and graduate responsible citizens, lifelong learners, and productive employees. Beyond that, we also have talented staff and faculty who contribute greatly to the civic and social fabric of our community, and who can lend their expertise to any number of issues including public health, K-12 education, economic stability, natural disasters, climate change, environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture and more.
Last month I spent several days meeting with our state legislators, asking them about current issues in the community and pondering how the university might help address them.
And I heard about a lot of needs.
Transportation and accessible housing are island-wide concerns, as is health care, including mental health services. General economic development in the form of small businesses, co-ops, and new industries also is of interest.
And while the university alone cannot solve all the issues we face in the state, we can form partnerships around some of the biggest, most urgent needs, and I will be spending the coming weeks learning more about UH Hilo’s capacity to contribute.
These projects and the work done by many others from our campus community have demonstrated to me that our faculty and staff have much to offer. And they are lifting up the next generation through our many undergraduate research experiences that give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning in class to real world needs.
I am also excited to learn about Vibrant Hawai‘i, a collective impact movement, from Rachel Solemsaas, chancellor at Hawai‘i Community College. Vibrant Hawai‘i is just taking hold here to address the hardships experienced by breadwinners and families with limited liquid assets such as cash or a savings account. These households are especially vulnerable when faced with emergencies such as a costly auto repair, a natural disaster, or health issues. I have seen the power of collective impact partnerships in California, and I am eager to find out how UH Hilo might engage in this important work to address the needs of our most disadvantaged citizens.
I am also proud to learn that UH Hilo is a designated participant in Blue Zones Hawai‘i, encouraging our campus community to e ola pono. Blue Zones is a nationwide initiative taking place in several states to promote healthy living and long lives. The Blue Zones concept of healthy living is modeled on the best practices of places in the world where people live longer by reaching the age of 100 while enjoying a high quality of life. A number of businesses and organizations are working together in Hilo to create a Blue Zones community by adopting healthy best practices. This collaborative project promotes healthy minds and healthy bodies, and serves as a model for communities throughout the country to follow.
None of these accomplishments at our university is possible without the support of the community. In my July column, I wrote about the campus now working on a collaborative plan to achieve our highest of aspirations in helping the island with its needs—economic, educational, and cultural—while also protecting the ‘āina through sustainable activities. I look forward to learning more about our campus and our surrounding community, and working toward strengthening UH Hilo’s contributions to our island and state’s most urgent needs.
Above: Chancellor Bonnie Irwin with Governor David Ige, Hawai‘i State Capitol, July 11, 2019.
A note from the Chancellor about her week:
One of my priorities is to hear about local issues from our elected officials, and I so I spent much of this week listening to senators and representatives about issues important to their districts and the state so that we can work on partnerships and provide more educational opportunities for our students. I was gladdened by the level of support I heard from the island delegation and the governor for the great work we do here at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
As I begin my tenure as chancellor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, I find a campus community hard at work preparing to develop a new strategic plan. Through a series of over 40 discussions that began last fall with faculty, staff, students and the local community, information is being gleaned and groundwork laid to produce a collaborative plan to achieve the highest of aspirations.
My favorite definition of leadership is that it is a process of moving an organization from its current reality to its aspirations. My first task at UH Hilo is to listen and learn what the campus and community aspirations are and then focus our energy toward achieving them, all the while making sure we are ambitious enough in those aspirations to really help the island with its needs—economic, educational, and cultural—while also protecting the ‘āina through sustainable activities.
I take this responsibility to heart. I strongly believe in the concept of regional stewardship for comprehensive universities: i.e., that a primary mission of our campus is to lift up the region, in this case Hawai‘i Island. One of the reasons I wanted to come to UH Hilo is because of our unique cultural emphasis in programs and curriculum, notably the acclaimed work being done to revitalize Native Hawaiian language and culture for the benefit of not only Hawai‘i’s indigenous people but also everyone in the state. The future of our university and our local community are inextricably linked.
Let me share some thoughts about where my attention is already focused.
I envision UH Hilo as a gateway for upward mobility. This means educating and preparing our students for meaningful employment that not only brings them a high quality of life but also lifts up their families and communities. One effective way to prepare students for important regional work is to increase student engagement in applied learning and independent research for benefit of the community and the environment; UH Hilo already excels at this in several fields and I would like to explore ways to open up this opportunity to even more students.
Traditionally we think of higher education as preparing young women and men for their future, but national trends are moving toward developing a new higher education model that also meets the needs of non-traditional students returning to finish a degree. This is a challenge facing universities throughout the country and if we want to stay current, we will need to adapt to this emerging trend not only to properly serve our region but also to thrive as an institution of higher education.
Woven into advancing the university to meet the needs of a modern student population is the challenge to improve retention and graduation rates. I support wholeheartedly the current ongoing efforts at UH Hilo to develop best practices to enable students to pursue their aspirations with purpose and confidence through to graduation and beyond, whether the student wishes to further her or his education or launch a meaningful career. I look forward to working with faculty and student affairs professionals to develop and strengthen innovative and effective ways to meet this challenge.
I am pleased to see UH Hilo placing a high importance on practicing, teaching, and researching sustainability and protecting the ‘āina, both on campus and in our island environment. Every student has a role to play—now and in the future—to help heal the emerging environmental crises facing our island, state, and Pacific region, and the university community and our graduates should be leaders and role models in this field.
We cannot achieve our aspirations alone. Building on partnerships with the local community, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, along with strengthening UH Hilo’s relationship with Hawai‘i Community College and partnering more with the Pālamanui campus, are crucial to all our success.
It is the university’s responsibility to take the lead in stewardship of regional economics, education, and improving the quality of life for all our island citizens and their communities. I start my new position as a chancellor ready to listen, learn, and collaborate as we prepare a new strategic plan for the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
Bonnie D. Irwin
Photo at top by Raiatea Arcuri: UH Hilo main entrance at West Kāwili Street.