Layoffs, Budget Cuts and Aloha Tower: What’s Next for Hawaii Pacific University?

A change in leadership, job cuts, a sharp jump in tuition, and faculty and staff job cuts have shaken Hawaii Pacific University, even as it embarks on an ambitious plan to develop Aloha Tower Marketplace as its new core.


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Chatt Wright University  

View from the university’s Hawaii Loa campus, formerly Hawaii Loa College in Kaneohe.
Photo: Courtesy of HPU


For decades, the state’s largest private university was synonymous with the man at its helm, businessman and San Francisco native Chatt G. Wright. He joined HPU, then known as Hawaii Pacific College, in 1972, when it was a two-classroom business college with 57 students, less than a dozen faculty and staff members and a $200,000 budget.

As he claimed his place as president in 1976, Wright began to shape a vision for the school that is still its hallmark today: international education. He and a handful of faculty members began to sell Hawaii and the school in Asia, on the Mainland and in local high schools.

Michael Chun, former president of Kamehameha Schools, has served on HPU’s board of trustees since 1989, including a recent stint as its chairman. He credits Wright for building the university up to where it is today.

“It’s unbelievable what Chatt did. How many people do you know who can look at their lifetimes and say, ‘I took a small business program and I created a university’? It’s astounding,” Chun says.

Chun credits Wright for some of HPU’s biggest milestones, including the historic merger with Hawaii Loa College in 1992, which added to the university’s liberal arts base, and its then-affiliation with the Oceanic Institute in 2003, which enabled the university to expand into comprehensive research. Chatt also left HPU with an endowment estimated at more than $80 million. When he became the university’s president in 1976, it had no significant endowment.

“He was a businessman. He relied on his business instincts to create a budget, an endowment, to convince the movers and the shakers in the business community to buy into this concept,” Chun says.

Unlike most university presidents, who spend an average of seven to 10 years at a school, Wright made HPU his permanent home, guiding the school for 35 years. In fact, Wright was at the university for so long, he cashed out on more than $873,000 in retirement-plan payments accrued from 1994 to 2008, according to the school’s federal 990 filings.

In a September 2005 interview with HONOLULU Magazine, Wright said, for him, HPU was part passion, part destiny. “This has been my baby, really. I have been fortunate enough to be involved with something I could be with for such a long time, and I love what I’m doing here.” He noted how he coincidentally joined HPU on Sept. 17, 1972, and how the university was chartered on Sept. 17, 1965. Sept. 17 is Wright’s birthday.

Chun says Wright was the right president for the right time in HPU’s history.

“In any organization, there is a time for different kinds of leadership. We can honestly look back and say, ‘Thank the Lord’ for putting him, not someone like him, but him in place. We would not have HPU if it had not been for Chatt Wright,” he says.

 

A Rocky Transition

Provost Matthew Liao-Troth joined HPU a year ago, enticed by Geoffrey Bannister’s vision to transform the university into a comprehensive, research institution.

Provost Matthew Liao-Troth joined HPU a year ago, enticed by Geoffrey Bannister’s vision to transform the university into a comprehensive, research institution.
Photo: Olivier Koning


Chun readily admits that Wright took a business approach to managing and growing HPU. When Wright retired, he says, the university began looking for a different kind of leadership, one that would solidify his vision of global education, while guiding the university’s academics into the future.

Enter Geoffrey Bannister, a Ph.D. in geography and the former long-time president of Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., from 1989 to 2000. From there, he became president of Schiller International University and of Cultural Experiences Abroad, one of the country’s largest providers of study-abroad opportunities. In Bannister the university found the right mix of academic and international focus that could move HPU from its fledgling years into a period of academic excellence, Chun says.

In an interview with Pacific Business News in March of 2011, prior to his arrival in Hawaii, Bannister described a university “trending toward expansion.” He talked about continuing Wright’s vision of a multimillion dollar buildup of HPU’s Windward Hawaii Loa campus and hiring “at least 100 new faculty.”

The reality, however, was Bannister inherited a university that had already begun experiencing the effects of a financial decline. While the school would not reveal exact figures, it would say the university had been experiencing a downturn in enrollment—a drop of several hundred students a year—since 2008, when the national economy began to flatline.

Minutes from an April 6, 2009 Faculty Assembly meeting appears to bear that out. In it, the faculty assembly chair, assistant professor Dale Burke, at the time, described “disturbing enrollment numbers,” including a 10.3 percent decrease in continuing students for the fall 2010 semester. He also described cash-flow problems and a decrease of some $4 million in the university’s budget. “Endowments during this same time have gone down from $90 million to $60 million,” Burke writes. The minutes end with a final comment from the President’s Council: “The way out of our budget crisis … grow the student body!”

 

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