3rd chancellor finalist visits UH-Hilo

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Chancellor candidate Terisa Riley speaks to faculty, staff and students Wednesday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

A third chancellor finalist paid a visit Wednesday to the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Terisa Riley, one of four finalists vying to be the school’s top administrator, met with community members and university employees during a public forum.


Riley has served at public and private universities during the course of a nearly 25-year career and currently is senior vice president for student affairs and university administration at Texas A&M University at Kingsville.

As with the prior two candidates who visited UH-Hilo this month, Riley discussed the challenges and opportunities at regional universities during a presentation before taking questions from the audience.

Riley said a university does three major things: seek truth and knowledge, or research; teach; and service, or “promoting and protecting our culture (and) handing down our important and precious traditions and rituals and values that we hold dear as a community.”

“And so universities have these really three distinctive areas that we’re working on all the time, and the truth is that’s how we connect with each other and how societies work,” she continued. “What I love about this place is the diversity that I see in the research, the teaching and the service opportunities here.”

Riley said she focuses on challenges in the terms of opportunities “because the truth is, that’s really what we all get are opportunities to tackle challenges together as a team.”

Her presentation began by looking at the issues faced by regional universities nationally, including dwindling enrollment and budgetary restraints.

“Most regional campuses have discovered the following: … that students are not engaging in higher education at the same rates that they were, and that they are not graduating from high school at the same rates.”

Riley said birth rates play a big role in how many people are graduating from high school and then are eligible to immediately go to college.

However, university enrollment is “made up of many parts,” she said.

Traditional freshmen students are about 18 years old and immediately enter higher education after high school.

“But we know that our students aren’t nontraditional necessarily, but they’re not meeting that definition of that traditional freshman,” Riley said.

Universities have to redefine those students, understand who it is they’re serving and try to personalize those experiences, she said.

And when looking at transfer students, Riley said “we have a really actively engaged community college system,” but if students aren’t enrolling as traditional freshmen in four-year degree programs, “you can imagine they’re also not seeing that in some of our community colleges. So there may not be that automatic and larger pipeline to bring students into a four-year institution.”

There also are challenges nationally when it comes to student retention.

Asked after the forum how she would specifically address UH-Hilo’s enrollment, which has declined every year since 2012, Riley said she would look to break down the student body into categories, such as first-year freshmen and transfer students, among others, to see where the decline is happening.

“It may not be in attracting new students. It may be in keeping them, and that’s equally important,” she said. “In fact, it’s cheaper to retain students that you’ve already attracted than it is to go out and recruit a lot of additional students. Plus, by retaining students, you’re making good on your promise to deliver a full educational experience, where if you’re investing, you’re actually getting something great for your money. So I would really start by looking at retention, persistence and graduation rates.”

But that takes time, Riley said.

“I can’t get you a new, great six-year graduation rate in one year,” she said. “It takes years of strategies to help improve that.”

A self-described extrovert, Riley told the audience that she gets “a lot of energy” from interacting with people and being out in the community.

When asked after the forum about her leadership style, Riley described herself as a transparent and energetic individual.

“People talk about open door, but that’s not good enough because people would have to then come to you,” she said. “I get out to people. My current students, faculty and staff would tell you I’m on social media, I’m out communicating with folks, I joke with them, but I’m available, and I’m in their spaces. I’ll walk through hallways and just peek my head in and talk to faculty members who might otherwise be head-down in their work.”


The final chancellor candidate, Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, professor of business emeritus at California State University at Sacramento, who recently served as vice president for administration and business affairs and chief financial officer, will participate in a similar forum at 10:15 a.m. Friday at the Rose and Raymond Tseng Terrace at UH-Hilo.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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