Jim Mike, new dean at the College of Natural and Health Sciences, believes leadership is not about telling people what to do, it’s about finding direction.
By Lauren Okinaka.
The new dean of the College of Natural and Health Sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo wants to create a collective vision with students and faculty based on excellence, unique experiences, and community.
James “Jim” Mike decided to come to UH Hilo because he fell in love with the culture of Hawai‘i Island during his many visits over the past 20 years. He started his work at the university in December of 2020.
“The campus is very diverse and it’s a public institution, which is something that I’ve dedicated my life to giving back to because public institutions gave so much to me,” he says. “The fact that it is in Hilo and contributes back to the community is very important to me, so that was a strong attractor.”
Mike grew up and spent most of his life in Ohio. For the last 15 years, he lived in Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor’s degree in medical technology in 1976 and his master’s degree in analytical chemistry in 1980 from Youngstown State University. He received his doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Cincinnati in 1986.
Before joining UH Hilo, Mike was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He also served as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs in 2019 and acting dean of graduate studies from 2017 to 2019. Prior to that, he was associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry at Youngstown State University.
Creating a collective vision
The College of Natural and Health Sciences opened in July 2018. It houses the former Division of Natural Sciences (physics and astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, marine science, computer science, and mathematics), the School of Nursing, and the Department of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences, which were previously housed at the College of Arts and Sciences. The goal of the reorganization is to improve representation of students, faculty, and budgetary issues.
Jim Beets, professor of marine science and former chair of the Division of Natural Sciences, who served as interim dean of the new college from summer 2018 to fall 2020, oversaw the initial integration and operations as well as the collaboration of all involved departments.
The new permanent dean believes his role is to lead the college by establishing a vision, managing expenses, overseeing curriculum development, and serving students and faculty.
“Leadership is not necessarily about telling people what to do, it’s about finding direction,” says Mike. “It’s about understanding the environment that you come into and figuring out how to align what it is you want to do with what others are already doing.”
One of his goals is to create a collective vision for the college that is focused on excellence and UH Hilo’s unique aspects.
“It’s not so much my vision as it is the vision of us collectively—that means the dean participates with the faculty and the students to determine what that vision looks like,” he says. “It is to help people understand that when you come to UH Hilo and join (the college), you get something that is unique in the state of Hawai‘i. Joining that community or ‘ohana is an important step in that it’s not like coming to other Hawai‘i institutions.”
One of Mike’s first priorities is to understand UH Hilo’s connection to the community by engaging with its members. He plans to build an external advisory board and a student advisory council. It is important for students enrolled at the college to have a venue to discuss important topics and share their feedback with him, he says.
Helping first generation students succeed also is a priority. Mike wants to provide more resources, services, and support systems that help students transition to college.
“First generation students sometimes don’t have the family support in terms of people with deep knowledge about how systems work,” he says. “So you come to an institution and if you don’t have that reference point, it’s easy to get lost.”
In addition, he wants to provide students with curriculum and opportunities that can help them get jobs, get into graduate school, and accomplish their career goals.
“It may not be completely obvious to somebody, for example, that they have the opportunity to work with a faculty member on a research project because they have never had that in their family,” he says. “It becomes our responsibility to show those students that these are opportunities they can engage in and why they might want to do that.”
Adapting during a pandemic
On his first day on the job last December, Mike faced an unprecedented situation. Social distancing and remote work guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic required new ways to connect and engage with the university community.
“One of my challenges has been getting a sense of the campus culture and getting to know the people, other than seeing them on a computer screen,” he says. “I’ve learned how to lead from a distance, which is an interesting challenge.” As vaccinations are administered this semester, Mike hopes to have more face-to-face contact with the people and students at the college.
Looking to the future, Mike would like to teach students the value of community engagement through education. When students graduate, he hopes they go back to their communities and give back by using their talent and intellect.
“My hope would be that we build ourselves in a way that gives back to our students, that gives back to our community, and that sets a legacy that pays it forward for the future,” he says.
Story by Lauren Okinaka, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication with a minor in English at UH Hilo.
Photo by Kirsten Aoyagi, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication at UH Hilo.