When? He’s not sure

KAHULUI – At 70 years old, Clyde Sakamoto does have retirement in mind.

But the University of Hawaii Maui College chancellor doesn’t hint at a date for his departure, although he admits he has been trying to implement a leadership transition plan for the past five years.

“If anything, I see the obvious very clearly. I mean all one has to do at my age is look into the mirror,” Sakamoto said with a laugh.

Joking aside, Sakamoto acknowledges he should give someone else a chance to contribute to the community and would like to see his chancellorship in the hands of someone familiar with the island.

“When I wind up announcing, they will do a national search. My hope is that there will be somebody with a Maui connection; someone who is committed to the kinds of things we have started . . . We have a strong foundation for exceptional performance,” Sakamoto said in a sit-down interview with The Maui News on Monday.

In his nearly 40 years at the college in various positions, Sakamoto has overseen many changes and growth on the campus and in its programs.

The college over the recent years has witnessed the construction of state-of-the-art classroom buildings and earlier this year saw the opening of its new $21.6 million ‘Ike Le’a science building.

The college’s academic and trade programs touch every facet of the community, including culinary arts, nursing, carpentry, sustainable technology, Hawaiian music and several four-year degree programs.

For his work, Sakamoto is being honored as the 91st Maui Fair honorary fair director. Sakamoto will be in today’s parade that begins at 4:30 p.m. at the Kaahumanu Avenue entrance of UH-Maui College. It ends at Ichiro “Iron” Maehara Stadium. The fair begins at 5 p.m. at the War Memorial Complex.

The honorary title is given to express appreciation for an individual’s work in the community.

In addition to his chancellor duties, Sakamoto, a former Peace Corps volunteer in India, has served on countless boards and professional organizations, nationally and at home. Those include the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Maui, Maui Chamber of Commerce and Hui Malama.

While sitting in his office, which faces some of the college’s newest buildings, Sakamoto was asked to rate his campus.

He gave it a 6.5 out of scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest.

With the help of state legislators, the community and county leadership, the campus has strong infrastructure and its programs are “improving all the time,” Sakamoto said.

“We have academic faculty leadership who are committed to inspiring learning. We got people within the full spectrum of our operations that are really dedicated into improving our institution. We know where our weaknesses are, and we are working on them.”

The college is struggling to cope with the campus’ growing enrollment.

From 2006 to 2011, the college saw enrollment increase by 59 percent. In 2011, enrollment was at a high of 4,527, a figure school officials had said could be attributed to the downturn in the economy and the unemployed people returning to school. (This academic year, enrollment dropped to 4,075.)

Nationally, the college was one of the 19 fastest-growing institutions in the 2,500 to 4,999 enrollment range, Sakamoto said.

But the school doesn’t receive enough funding to assist it with the growth, he added.

According to UH-Maui College studies, Maui County receives the least amount of state general funds for higher education on a per capita basis in the state.

According to college statistics, each person in Maui County in 2012 received $119 in higher education funding from the state general fund. This is compared to $185 in Kauai County, $312 in Hawaii County and $380 in the City and County of Honolulu.

That trend has carried on since at least 2004 when Maui County residents received $81, compared to $125 on Kauai, $236 on the Big Island and $348 on Oahu.

“What we are frankly struggling with is the 59 percent enrollment growth. If we don’t get support for that, then predictably you are going to have students (leaving when they) don’t receive the kind of academic services, advisement, service kind of support to allow them to continue towards their academic goals,” Sakamoto said.

Had the college received increased funds to support its growth, it could have retained students who have left school for the workforce, Sakamoto added. With funds for additional support, students could have been advised of their opportunities to continue with their academic goals by taking one or two courses while working.

Sakamoto said he and his staff have been advising lawmakers as well as University of Hawaii system officials of Maui College’s need for additional funding. He added that as a tri-isle county, there are additional expenses for the college as well as its residents.

Important meetings are held on Oahu, requiring Maui officials to travel there. Last year, interisland travel cost more than $200,000 for Maui College officials.

As for the future of the college, Sakamoto said his eventual successor will be smarter than he is, and needs to be because he or she will come in during a “very complicated time.”

“We got on the one hand, an awareness of more needs than ever before. We need to turn those needs and problems into opportunities.”

Those needs or issues are all around, Sakamoto said. They include balancing environmental preservation and economic development and dealing with health care.

“All of those are opportunities (for programs and education) within a higher education institution in Maui County.”

Although a four-year university in Maui County has been a dream of residents for years, Sakamoto said the push in the future is not specifically for a four-year university, but instead the school’s focus will still be guided by the economy and the community.

“It’s more critical for us to align where the economy or where employers are heading, rather than being distracted by nomenclature . . . What we want to do is provide a higher education service to our community and its future, that’s the goal.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews. com.