UH-Hilo welcomes new chancellor

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, departing Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai and new Chancellor Bonnie Irwin smile after receiving lei Tuesday during a Kipaepae Ho’oku’u for the pair at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From right, departing Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai and new Chancellor Bonnie Irwin watch a hula Tuesday during a Kipaepae Ho'oku'u for the pair at University of Hawaii at Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    New Chancellor Bonnie Irwin receives lei Tuesday during a Kipaepae Ho‘oku‘u for her and departing Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

With drums, dance, laughs and lei, dozens gathered Tuesday morning at the University of Hawaii at Hilo for kipaepae ceremonies to celebrate the arrival of new Chancellor Bonnie Irwin and bid farewell to Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai.

Irwin, who most recently served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Monterey Bay, took the UH-Hilo helm Monday.


Her selection was approved by the UH Board of Regents in January following a lengthy and sometimes delayed search process.

Sakai served as interim chancellor since 2017, after former Chancellor Don Straney left the position to become the UH vice president for academic planning and policy.

“It feels wonderful,” Irwin said following the kipaepae. “The community has been so warm and welcoming, and I get a very strong sense that everyone is ready to move ahead and to do great things for our students and the university.”

There are a number of tasks she wants to tackle first.

“I want to talk to local leaders about how the university can partner with the community, and I want to strengthen the partnership with Hawaii Community College, and mostly I just want to listen and hear what people’s hopes and dreams are for the campus and the island, to see how we can move forward together.”

When she stepped into the interim role, Sakai said she felt her responsibility “was to keep our canoe from huli-ing over,” Sakai said. “We have been through some rough waters, (there are) still challenging times ahead, but I have full confidence in Bonnie’s leadership.”

UH President David Lassner said he was grateful that Sakai “answered the call and was willing to step up for these last two years when UH-Hilo really needed a steady hand.”

“We had a great national search to find a new chancellor. We had some great candidates, and Bonnie really emerged as the best,” he said.

For Lassner, it was her understanding of what it means to “be on a campus that’s really at the heart of a community” that distinguished Irwin.

In her last two jobs, Lassner said Irwin has “gone up through the ranks in universities that look a lot more like UH-Hilo. They don’t look like Manoa. They don’t look like West Oahu or community colleges. They look like UH-Hilo. Both Eastern Illinois University and Cal State University, Monterey Bay, these are campuses in rural communities, where she understands what it means to be a really important part of the community. … At Monterey Bay, she was part of a system as well, so I’m really looking forward to the insights she’ll bring to all of us across the UH system from her experiences in other places.”

Irwin’s career in higher education began in 1984 as a graduate student instructor at her alma mater, University of California at Berkeley.

She also worked at Iowa State University before accepting a tenure-track faculty position at Eastern Illinois University, where she was an English professor specializing in world literature and folklore before moving into administration.

She served as the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and dean of the Honors College at EIU before moving to CSU-Monterey Bay in 2014, where her responsibilities included leading six academic colleges, a college of extended education and international programs.

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

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