Lassner talks chancellor search, enrollment at UH-Hilo forum

  • David Lassner

In a forum Friday at University of Hawaii at Hilo, UH President David Lassner addressed the school’s ongoing chancellor search and declining enrollment, among other topics.

The university launched its search for a permanent chancellor in December, but it was announced last month the search was delayed.

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“I saw it characterized publicly as a failed search,” Lassner said Friday. “That is not the case. … It’s delayed from the schedule we had hoped for. My experience is that is not uncommon. I like to personally announce optimistic and positive schedules in hopes that we will make it. This one did run into some wrinkles, and I won’t want to pretend that didn’t happen, but I’m very grateful that (Interim Chancellor) Marcia (Sakai) has agreed to continue on to help see us through that period, and I remain optimistic that we can have a new chancellor in place ideally for the spring semester.”

In April, a school spokesman said the delay stemmed from “a hiccup” in finalizing an initial agreement with a professional search firm to conduct the search process.

Whoever is chosen will replace Donald Straney, who was chancellor until last summer when he was reassigned to another position within UH system leadership. The new chancellor will assume the post during a time when UH-Hilo is working to reverse years of declining enrollment.

Following the forum, Lassner said they’re looking for “great candidates and especially people who have experience in higher education and would love to lead UH-Hilo. It’s a special place.”

What doesn’t work, he said, is someone who may be choosing between several locations: “If you’re thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Missouri, Louisiana or Hilo.’ You’ve got to have a passion for this place to really succeed, I think, and it’s worth it.”

Lassner said enrollment is a “very nuanced conversation” and addressed critiques from those on campus that were reported by the news media.

“I will just say that whether from inside or outside, when we’re looking at issues of enrollment, having this island’s campus bashed heavily by the media is not going to help with enrollment, so I found it ironic in an article about enrollment to have people inside the campus helping fuel that.”

Lassner said he worries about enrollment “of course, because our job is to educate students,” but enrollment is the input measure, while graduates are the output measure, “and the more we increase and improve our graduation rates, the more we hurt enrollment.

“So when we get students out in four years instead of six years, and six years instead of eight years, we’re actually hurting ourselves financially, we’re hurting our enrollment numbers, but we’re doing a better job of educating students because we’re getting them out the door,” he continued.

“And every student we get out in four years is somebody who isn’t paying tuition to us for six years, and it’s a good thing.”

The university could have a bigger freshman class every year, but if it’s not large enough to replace the graduating class, enrollment goes down, he said.

There’s “a lot of complexity that isn’t just about bashing us on our numbers,” Lassner said.

UH-Hilo’s enrollment is “pretty close” to where it was before the Great Recession, he said.

Lassner also said UH has to continuously look at its degree programs.

“I guess I would say that we have to be responsive,” he said.

“If a program has only five students in it, that’s a pretty good time for us to be reflective about, ‘Why is that?’ If that thing used to have 20 majors and now it has five, what does that say about interest of our students today, relative to the interest of our students 10 or 20 years ago when that program was thriving?”

Across the system’s campuses, even as enrollment has decreased a “small, single digit in general” on most campuses, shifts have been “immense,” Lassner said.

“Students are choosing different degree programs today than they were. So we do have areas where there have been very large declines, much bigger than (enrollment) decline, which is where the spotlight shines,” he said. “And at the same time, there are other areas where enrollments are growing, even as campus enrollments are declining.”

Discussion and questions from those who attended Friday’s forum also hit on class offerings, staffing levels and online learning opportunities.

At the start of the hour, Lassner, addressing the current Kilauea eruption, thanked the crowd of nearly three dozen “for all you are doing for people who need help right now.”

Lassner said after it concluded that he tries to do such forums at all campuses.

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He was at UH-Hilo Friday because “I had a couple of things to do, and so I always like to just have this kind of communication if I’m on a campus and have time.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com