Ka‘ana Mana‘o: Sen. Inouye leaves a rich legacy at UH-Maui College

The passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye affected us all deeply, reminding us of his substantial contributions

throughout his long and distinguished career. He was dedicated to connecting 21st century skills and higher education with economic and community development. He understood University of Hawaii Maui College’s special responsibility to help shape Maui Nui’s future by supporting and expanding sustainable living-wage careers.

From 1984 through 1987, I interned at Inouye’s Hart Building office in Washington, D.C. I entered the “Hill” environment with some degree of reservation about the efficacy of government and the dedication of its professionals, but the focus and activity in the senator’s office quickly reversed my misimpression. The senator often stayed late getting Hawaii’s business done (it was not uncommon that the clock reached 10 p.m. before the staff left the office). Responding to our Hawaii constituents was a top priority.

He encouraged and invited new ideas, including the proposal in 1986 to apply innovative video and networking technology so residents of Lanai, Molokai and rural Maui could pursue higher education through distance learning. With a half-page proposal and an “OK” indicating his approval, we were allowed to use the the senator’s office to generate support for the project that amounted to over $600,000 from the Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

This launched the college’s “narrow band” tri-isle SkyBridge interactive television instructional system, a vast improvement over the first cable television channel that delivered classes “one way,” with teachers providing instruction and students limited to phone calls and “snail mail” back to their instructors for any questions. SkyBridge provided live interactions between students and teachers, and grew from Maui County to a statewide Hawaii Interactive Television System system in 1990.

The senator understood the importance of workforce development to prepare or retrain residents as employment opportunities in Hawaii businesses shifted. In 1997, his leadership helped launch the Rural Development Project, bringing more than $44 million to the state and serving 30,000 individuals, with an additional 40,000 receiving training from a train-the-trainer strategy.

Through our college, funds also supported Kauai and Big Island community colleges to enhance or upgrade workers’ skills and create programs, including our four-year degrees in emerging economic sectors. RDP funds facilitated Lanai’s transition from growing pineapple to creating a thriving visitor industry, and supported projects to give residents new skills in fields like sustainable construction, photovoltaic installation, nursing and oral health.

Students interested in Native Hawaiian culture and science, technology, engineering and mathematics are already benefiting from a $20 million National Science Foundation grant that the senator strongly endorsed. The grant will distribute $2 million a year for 10 years for educational programs and incentives as part of the funding proposal for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope. The college’s Kahikina O Ka La program administers the grant, which has provided over $200,000 in direct stipends to more than 100 college and high school students through the Ke Alahaka summer bridge and Kahikina O Ka La academic cohort.

In August of 2011 we celebrated the renaming of Maui Community College to the University of Hawaii Maui College, the realization of one of the senator’s long-term goals to provide a four-year-degree-granting institution for Maui County. He spoke eloquently at the event, reminding all who attended that it wasn’t so long ago that Maui County residents had to travel to Oahu for many types of medical care, that educational opportunities beyond high school were limited, and those who left the island for their higher education often never returned, finding employment in other parts of the state or on the Mainland instead.

Inouye sought every possible opportunity to improve the economic base of our community, develop the infrastructure to support new growth, and establish higher education and workforce development programs. His legacy is visible in Maui County, a reminder that through hard work, diligence, and tenacity, no problem is too large to address, no vision too lofty to achieve.

* Clyde Sakamoto is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka’ana Mana’o, which means “sharing thoughts,” is scheduled to appear on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.