A Conversation with the Chancellor

A discussion of the history and future of UH Hilo from the eyes of Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai

Editor-in-Chief Peter Holden Chao
Photos Courtesy of UH Hilo

Photo of Marcia Sakai

Ke Kalahea sat down with UH Hilo’s Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai to get to know her a little better. Sakai became a professor of economics at UH Hilo in 1991, and then in 2005, Sakai was appointed dean of UH Hilo’s College of Business and Economics. In 2011, Sakai became the university’s vice chancellor of administrative affairs and in 2017 she was appointed interim chancellor. The conversation covered Sakai’s history with UH Hilo, as well as her hopes for the future. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

PHC: I wanted to get a feel for who you are and your history with the university. You began here in 1991; can you walk me through your journey here at UH Hilo?

MS: “I was born in Honolulu and got all my degrees from the University of Hawai`i. The order was a bachelor’s degree in math and then a master’s degree in math. Then I worked for a bit at the Honolulu Community College. Then we went to California and stayed there for about three years. That’s when I said I’d kind of like to go back and see what I might find.

We came back to Hilo in 1976. At that time, because I had been teaching at Honolulu Community College, I was looking for work here as an instructor. I started off with Hawai`i Community College and UH Hilo as a lecturer in mathematics. I don’t remember the year anymore but it was back then.

I worked as a lecturer for a number of years and wanted to see how I could make progress in terms of something more permanent. I looked around for growth areas and thought it would be in the area of business. There was a business department and an economics department that were part of a division of social science. I spoke with the department chair about what it would take and he said I needed a PhD as a minimum requirement to be placed as an assistant professor, and that there were no guarantees if I were to go get one.

I decided that I would, and in 1982 I relocated to Honolulu and enrolled in two programs: the PhD program in economics and MBA program. At that time it was just the College of Business. That was a good time for me. I learned about the application of math, which is my core area, to a social science.

One of the things I really enjoyed was the ability to apply the math that I had learned. The story I tell is that when I was a graduate student in mathematics, I could count on my hand the number of people locally I could talk to about what I was doing. I wanted to be in something where it would be of more interest to people and it could become a topic of conversation. The economics ended up being what was available for me but it also ended up being something I really liked.

I got my PhD degree in 1985 and returned to Hilo. I worked as a lecturer again for a number of years. I then took a job with the Public Utilities Commission as their staff economist. Then a job ad came out for UH Hilo, for which I applied and fortunately I was hired. That was in 1991.”

PHC: Being the founder, if you will, for the College of Business and Economics, what does it mean for you to see that 13 years later, our number one major among students this year is business?

MS: “It’s an affirmation for me that that program is one that is needed at a college like ours. Business administration is really about management, leadership, and motivation of getting groups of people to accomplish an objective. That’s not an easy thing to do but it can be done through a range of methods.

The first thing is making everyone feel that they’re being treated fairly and that people feel valued. Once you have those two things in place, you can lay the groundwork for saying we need to do this; can we do this together? That way people align better with the direction that’s being set.”

PHC: As the dean of the College of Business and Economics until 2011, and then transitioning to vice chancellor of administrative affairs, what was the big difference from being the dean of a college versus the administrative side?

MS: “It’s a big difference; well, going to administrative affairs is a big difference. I don’t know that it would have been as big of a difference if I had become vice chancellor of academic affairs because many of the strands of thinking would be similar, you would just be responsible for a broader scope of academic programs.

Moving over to administrative affairs was a very big change for me. I appreciated the opportunity. I have always looked for chances to grow and challenge myself to step into things where I’m not quite sure, but I’m somewhat sure, that I’ll be able to handle it.

In the beginning it was like drinking from a fire hose. When you are accustomed to dealing with courses, each course has a beginning and an end, a schedule laid out by the syllabus, and activities that are clearly defined, whether they are exams, papers, or presentations. Over the years of which I had been teaching, I was accustomed to the semester rhythm and knowing how to work with the students within the semester.

With administrative affairs and being the vice chancellor, it’s like you’re running a little city. I’m not going to do this necessarily in the order I might have, but because of recent events, the vice chancellor for administrative affairs is responsible for campus security and is in charge of facilities, janitors, groundskeepers, construction and planning for new construction. The vice chancellor for administrative affairs is also in charge of human resource personnel, hiring, retirements and is in charge of the day-to-day buying of supplies and services that the university needs. So that’s the business office, as well as information and technology, and web infrastructure.”

PHC: What does the chancellor do?

MS: “Every step higher in the organization usually comes with responsibility for a broader range of things. It’s not possible for any one person to be an expert in all of the things that have to be covered and to know what’s happening in all that is going on. As vice chancellor, I had very clear areas of responsibility and I had people that were leading the areas. In one sense, there’s no difference, but there is a difference.

The no difference part is that as long as I had people in each area that could communicate well, and I knew what was happening, if they needed to escalate something to me because it’s getting more difficult, rising above, or spanning areas that they couldn’t deal with directly, it would be something that I would become involved with as vice chancellor.

As chancellor, what has become clearer to me is that I can no longer do things the same way as I did when I was vice chancellor. Now I have three vice chancellors, and if I see an issue that I think needs to be worked on by more than one of them, then I will delegate it to them if the case calls for it in order to resolve the matter and report back. It’s a lot more delegation. Knowing when to delegate and when not to is the thing you have to learn the higher in the organization you go.”

PHC: How have you seen things change over the years? Where have you contributed? What are the big accomplishments?

MS: “The big accomplishment that I could attribute to my time as vice chancellor of administrative affairs would be energy efficiency, in terms of more renewables, and improving our ability to monitor what we use.

Solar panels, during the time I was vice chancellor, made a big contribution. We attempted to do an educational approach about having people be more aware of energy waste. We’ve done a big lighting retrofit project that is now pretty much completed. We switched out all the fluorescent lighting to LED lighting, which uses a lot less energy. We did it on a building-by-building basis.

PHC: UH Hilo in particular is very high on offering Pell Grants at 47 percent versus the nationwide average of 18 percent. What ways do you see the strategic use of financial aid, and how do you plan on increasing retention and enrollment?

MS: “The strategic use of financial aid would be to award financial aid in a way that maximizes our enrollment or, I should say, optimizes our student enrollment and success. Those are two different things; they’re not necessarily always the same. They don’t always produce the same results.

We want students to complete their degrees The goal is typically four years but for institutions of our type, students take longer, so we’re monitoring both our four-year graduation rate and our six-year graduation rate. We don’t want students who are eligible for aid to have to feel that they have to drop out of school because of financial need. Financial aid can be used in a strategic way to ensure that we support students’ progress. If finances are something that are in the way, then we need to try to help support them with financial aid.

To use the language of higher education administration, that’s the retention and persistence impact of using financial aid. The other way of using financial aid could be to see how we could have more students on campus. There are two ways for that to happen. One is through the retention and persistence; if someone stays rather than leaves, they then contribute to enrollment. If we’re using financial aid as a way of getting students in, then we look at two buckets. One would be need and non-need. Because the students and families on our island have so much need, a large part of financial aid is put into the need bucket.”

PHC: What are the challenges that you see as common to Hawai`i residents, such as lower income, or local education? Are there things you see as problematic that you see in the community or on this island as a whole?

MS: “I saw some data on achievement exam performance that show our reading and math levels of achievement could be higher. If you come to university, a large part of what you’re going to do is read in order to learn. It’s not just about sitting in a lecture and hearing someone talk; there’s still a lot of reading and writing that has to occur.

One of the most important skills that I think a student needs to have, and should be included in the process of continued development, is writing. Writing is one of the forms of communication by which we persuade people, inform them of what’s happening, and by which we influence people.”

PHC: What are the projects you see on the horizon for UH Hilo?

MS: “We know what our mission is; we know our direction. Even though our strategic plan says 2011 to 2015, the goals are still going to be valid goals in my opinion. Everyone I’ve talked to, no one has disagreed. It’s just the action steps that will be different.

We do want to grow back to the size we were in 2010-2011. I would like to see the college grow to 5,000, but the timeline for that is such that we’re doing things in shorter increments. We’re planning to try to get back to 4,000, if I remember the plan correctly, in about four years. What that would mean for us is growing by 100 students every year. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you seem to be shrinking, trying to grow is harder.

The reason for the growth is not just to be big. I don’t think UH Hilo would be the same kind of place if it were 15,000 students. We still value the closeness that can occur and the familiarity with who does what in a smaller setting. You have the enrollment plan and the steps we have to take, but the reason why being bigger would be valuable is that there are certain fixed costs that we have to cover whether we have 2,000 students or 5,000 students. The extra enrollment would simply provide us with the enrollment revenue that will allow us to enhance and enrich what we’re able to offer students. I’ve said at university gatherings that we all have to remember that our highest priority should be our students.”

PHC: What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced as chancellor or that you anticipate facing?

MS: “Last year seemed like a tough year, and this year seemed like it was going to be easier in the sense that I was more used to the pace of things. Last year, we had a faculty petition to stop the reorganization of the College of Arts and Sciences. That whole decision created a lot of tension and concern.

I think the departure of the former chancellor created uncertainty, which in itself created more concern and stress. That was a big thing that I thought was going to be just a matter of implementing the decision, but it was much more than that. We had to figure out how to re-tool based on whatever information I was able to get. If you asked me this question last year at about this time, that’s the answer I would’ve given you. We got through that. I’m not able to tell if people are happy or unhappy, but I do feel people are calmer regarding the reorganization now than they were a year ago.”

PHC: What are your goals for UH Hilo?

MS: “You know that we’re in the middle of the chancellor search and if the process works out, well, I would expect that next year there will be a permanent chancellor in place. Given that expectation, let me tell you what I think my goals would be. I want to begin the strategic planning process. We have brought on board a half-time casual hire person that will be responsible for actually going out and meeting stakeholders one-on-one, but in groups, and just gathering data on some key questions such as where they think UH Hilo’s strengths are and where we ought to grow.

In the process of that there will likely be things that people think we are not doing the right way. The issues about how we need to improve or things we need to do differently will come out too. I would like all of that to be completed this year so that it’s part of a study. There will be findings that the chancellor that comes can then use, and that the strategic planning committee that’s selected at that time can use to begin the process of identifying what it is we need to do.”