New UH-Hilo chancellor makes student success a top priority

STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, who started in the role July 1, sits in her office Wednesday morning.

Three weeks on the job and University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Chancellor Bonnie Irwin is wasting no time in her new role.

Irwin, who began on July 1, has several priorities already in place for the university.


Irwin said she has spent a lot of time so far reading and studying, and is “not nearly done yet.” And last week met with some Big Island legislators, which was was “very informative.”

“I’m really rather relieved that I’m finally here,” she told the Tribune-Herald. “It was a very long time from the time that I accepted the position to the start date, mostly because I needed to finish things where I was, but my husband and I are all settled in now, and it feels like we’re here, really, and the job begins.”

One of her first priorities is to “really look at how we can make our students more successful. How we can get more across the finish line to graduate. What are the obstacles in their way? So I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about that, because for me, students always come first,” Irwin said.

Other priorities feed into that.

“We have a number of people on this campus in interim roles, and so I’d like to start doing some hiring and getting people into permanent positions,” Irwin said. “… Sometimes when people are in interim roles they feel that they can’t really do anything major, they can’t make changes because they’re not going to be in the job for a long time. That’s not true of everybody, but we need to get things moving.”

Irwin said she has been reading notes from strategic planning sessions held last year, “so coming up with a plan to move us forward will be something that we do later in the year. …”

Enrollment and retention has long been a struggle for the university, with UH-Hilo’s student population declining every year since 2012, when it peaked at 4,157 students after several years of growth.

Irwin said she’s still studying what has been done at UH-Hilo, and what has been successful and what has been less successful in those arenas.

“But I have a lot of experience in student recruitment and retention activities,” she said. “… First and foremost, we need to make sure that the students we have are successful, which means getting the retention and graduation rates up. You do that in a number of ways.”

One is ensuring students have necessary support, like academic support, access to needed classes, counseling services and financial aid — things to help the students finish school, she said.

“Because I think the more students we graduate, and the more working professionals we have in this community who are alums of UH-Hilo, then more of the local students will see this campus as a destination for them.”

Irwin said she also wants to “build on the good work of this campus” by providing meaningful and applied learning experiences for students, whether that’s research with faculty, community service or study abroad opportunities.

Another piece in the enrollment puzzle is to recruit more students, both from the mainland and internationally, Irwin said, “and to keep those numbers up.”

“I think Hilo has a lot to offer,” she said. “One of the things we have here is a nice, small campus (with) a lot of individual attention, and most students are looking for that.”

Another step is to look at how the university makes its academic programs distinctive.

“There are some things that people would immediately think they should come here to study,” Irwin said. “Marine science is a really good example. Where better to study the ocean and life in the ocean than on an island?”

But Irwin said she’ll also talk to faculty about ways to bring a sense of Hilo and Hawaii to programs that can be found elsewhere, “so people from other places realize there’s a value added to studying their discipline here.”

The university’s Division II athletics also can be a draw for “scholar athletes,” people who want to keep engaged with their sport and go to school, she said.

Additionally, Irwin said she already has started partnering with Hawaii Community College Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas.

“We’re very interested in building pathways from the (local) schools to the community college to the university,” she said. “And one of the things I talked to island legislators about is what are the needs in the community. So if Chancellor Solemsaas and I, and our teams, get the students across the finish line and they graduate with degrees, are there going to be decent jobs at the other end of that pipeline? And what are the fields in which we see needs?”

Areas frequently mentioned in conversations were mental health and medical services, as well as teachers, in rural areas.

“So, how can we create those pipelines so a student in high school now or even middle school who wants that career can get there, and how can we facilitate that?”

Those efforts will require collaborations between faculty at both institutions, she said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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