New UH-Maui chancellor says focus is students first

KAHULUI – Lui Hokoana said he brings a “student-centered” philosophy, or one that “puts students first,” to his role as the University of Hawaii Maui College’s new chancellor.

The 45-year-old Maui native assumed the college’s highest position Monday, replacing longtime college head Clyde Sakamoto, who retired Sunday after more than 40 years of service.

“It’s really as simple as saying putting students first,” Hokoana said about his philosophy, during an interview at his office Monday afternoon – just over a half-day into his new job.

He said everything that is done, from budgeting to programming, will be based around the students and how decisions affect them.

As for his first day, Hokoana began by walking the campus talking with faculty, staff and students. He plans to continue his introductory session, probably for the rest of the week.

“I know the place but I don’t want to take it for granted,” said Hokoana, who was a counselor at the college in 1991 and has been in the UH system since.

Faculty and staff welcomed Hokoana.

“We look forward to teaming with Dr. Hokoana, whose confidence and abilities are deeply grounded in student growth and development. As faculty capture emerging opportunities for applied research, employ new technologies for learning and resource development, it’s exciting to be a part of Dr. Hokoana’s team,” said Debra A. Nakama, a UH-MC professor and articulation coordinator.

Cynthia Foreman, the student government faculty adviser said: “The Student Government Council was well-supported by Chancellor Sakamoto and we are looking forward to working closely with our new chancellor. We are excited to welcome Chancellor Hokoana to UH-MC and look forward to seeing him at our campus events and Student Government Council meetings.”

Although still in introductory mode, Hokoana had already grasped the reins of leadership Monday by making decisions on who will lead the college on some various multimillion-dollar grant funds. While Sakamoto took the lead on various grant funds, Hokoana said that he declined leadership on some projects Sakamoto was tasked with leading. One such project is the grant tied with the Ka Hikina O Ka La specialized program at the college which is funded by the National Science Foundation in response to the application to erect the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala.

“I’m decentralizing a bit,” Hokoana said.

He added that some of the grants were handed off to a vice chancellor or faculty member more closely tied to the projects in a move he described as “sharing the governance.”

“Those are the people you want. They understand what is going on, they know what ‘s going on, they know what’s best.”

Hokoana said that his role as chancellor is to be a coach or an adviser to those who oversee the grant projects for the college.

Although Sakamoto has offered his assistance to Hokoana during his transition, Hokoana said that he had declined.

“I think it’s better for me and better for the college,” Hokoana said, noting that Sakamoto probably also needs a break.

Hokoana said that he had some “separation anxiety” in leaving his vice chancellor for student affairs post at UH-West Oahu, where he had been for a year and a half, a short time compared to Sakamoto’s tenure. “The best way to do it is cut clean and let the new person go on from (there),” he said.

But he commended Sakamoto, who was able to build the campus from a small community college to one with state-of-the-art buildings and obtain in excess of $60 million in federal and state grants.

“He had led the college well this past 40 years,” Hokoana said of Sakamoto.

“It’s a new era; I’ll use my strengths to build on the foundation he created,” Hokoana added.

When asked, Hokoana said that his strengths are being an advocate for students, obtaining grants and also being a “people person,” something he has done throughout his career. “I think people want to be listened to.”

Some longer-term goals at the college will be to boost enrollment. He acknowledged that UH-MC at one point had more than 4,000 students (in 2011, the school had 4,527) but now that number has dropped below 4,000 to 3,809 students – down 6.6 percent from the fall of 2013.

Hokoana said he will use analytics to see how enrollment can be increased as well as to implement changes and possibly add staff to recruit students.

He reflected back on his appearance on Maui as a candidate for the chancellor position, during which he told people that at UH-West Oahu, recruiters include former car and vacuum salespeople who could connect with students and sell the education programs.

UH-West Oahu has seen enrollment growth. Hokoana attributed the bump to being at a new campus with many large high schools in the area and being part of the fastest-growing region in the state.

Hokoana said he will await the completion of UH-MC’s strategic plan, which is expected to be finished in about half a year, to see what else can and should be done at the college. The plan will run from 2015 to 2020.

Another area Hokoana will examine is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission’s recommendations in its accreditation of UH-MC. The recommendations included having a more transparent budget process, which will be addressed in the strategic plan, as well as assessments of the school’s programs, which may be done too often, and focusing on student success.

In regard to student success, Hokoana said that 40 percent of the school’s freshmen are not retained after the first year. Although the trend is similar to the national average of 50 percent at community colleges, “surely we can do better,” he said.

Hokoana’s tasks include making sure the school’s budget is balanced as well as making sure that excess funds tied to grants get spent and do not expire.

Looking at his predecessor, who spent more than 40 years at the college, Hokoana said that he probably wouldn’t stay as long.

“God, I hope not,” he said with a laugh. “It’s good to have change.”

Hokoana said that, if at all possible, he would want to stay at least seven years at the college, or up to a decade at the most.

“I need one more job in 10 years,” he said jokingly.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at