MyPearlCity Q&A: Gene I. Awakuni, Chancellor, UH West Oahu


Photo provided by UH West Oahu

Ground breaking for the much anticipated University of Hawaii-West Oahu Kapolei Campus is scheduled to commence on August 16, 2010. UHWO Chancellor, Gene Awakuni couldn’t be happier to get the bulldozers and construction underway. 

Rendering of Laboratory Building to be constructed in Phase I. Photo provided by UH West Oahu.

 It hasn’t been an easy road for Chancellor Awakuni and his administration as construction financing for the project experienced delays in previous years. The financing situation put in jeopardy the land donated by the Campbell Estate for the new Kapolei campus if construction did not begin by next year. Financing was secured in 2010 through a revenue bond issue allowing the groundbreaking and construction to begin in August.

Chancellor Awakuni took over the helm of UHWO in 2005. His experience as an administrator and educational background made him a clear choice for the job. Before taking over the top job as chancellor at UHWO, Awakuni served as vice provost at Stanford University. He also managed eight major departments at Columbia University and has experience as an administrator at Cal Poly Pomona, University of California, Santa Barbara and University of California, Irvine.

His educational accomplishments lists a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in clinical social work from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Chancellor Awakuni also earned his doctorate in counseling and consulting psychology at Harvard University.

The new UH West Oahu Kapolei Campus under the leadership of Chancellor Awakuni, will truly benefit the higher educational needs of West Oahu as the second city of Kapolei and the Leeward coast further develops to accommodate its growing population.

Chancellor Awakuni has set his sights on developing world class, four year baccalaureate programs that attract Hawaii, continental USA and international students to study and earn their degrees at UH West Oahu Kapolei. He has also expressed an interest in developing a Division I or Division II Athletics Program.

Someday, with the right planning and growth in enrollment, the UH West Oahu Kapolei Campus could become the UH Manoa of the West. 

For now, the excitement is on the west side horizon. Soon, Phase I and II of the new UH West Oahu Kapolei Campus will begin to rise in the second city of Kapolei. I’m sure at that time Chancellor Awakuni will already be working on making his vision for Phase III and IV a reality.

Mahalo to Julie Funasaki Yuen, Ryan Mielke and Cynthia Vinluan for assisting me in arranging the following Q&A with Chancellor Gene Awakuni.

For more information and to view renderings of the new UH West Oahu Kapolei campus log on to:

Q: What are the initial construction plans, following the ground breaking on August 16 for the new UH West Oahu Kapolei Campus? 

A: That will be Phase I with funds to be used for three buildings. It’s an estimate of 49 million and we have 2 million left over from a revenue bond issue. We have an additional 60 million that we’re raising through a revenue bond issue in September. The total is about 112 to 113 million. With the 60 million we’re going to build three more additional buildings, a library, campus center and an administration building. The first three buildings will be a classroom building, lab building and maintenance building.”

Q: When will the buildings be completed?

A: “All those buildings will come online in spring and summer of 2012. It’s coming up very, very quickly. The first buildings will completed by February, March and the last building will be done by late May or early June.”

Q: How much will enrollment increase with opening of the new Kapolei campus?

A: “Once we move into the new facilities we expect enrollment that fall to go from about 1400 that we have now, to about 2000 to 2300 in the fall of 2012.”

Q: What was the enrollment in your first year as chancellor back in 2005?

A: “When I started here in 2005 we had barely eight-hundred students. It will triple the size of what we were even five years ago.”

Q: How do you see enrollment increasing beyond 2012?

A: “My guess is that we’re going to be similar in size to UH Hilo which is about 4000 students in a matter of three to five years, once we get there. By 2015 my sense is that we’ll be at 4000. We cannot expand much beyond that because we need additional facilities. I think it would really require us to begin to look at Phase II soon after we get into the new facilities.”

Q: Is there enough land to support future campus expansion and growth?

A: “We have ample land. For the campus proper we’ve set aside about two-hundred acres. Just as a way of comparison, at Manoa, if you exclude the East West Center, the Lab School and the Quarry, the campus proper at Manoa has one-hundred fifty acres. That gives you a sense of how much land we have and how we can build capacity.”

Q: Any potential opportunities to acquire more land?

A: “We have an additional 300 acres that will be in the private development zone and some will be for resident housing and some will be commercial retail use.

As soon after we start construction about a year from now, Tokai University is moving their campus from Kapiolani Boulevard out to a five acre site on our campus. Their project is scheduled to begin construction in the summer of 2011 and completion is set for summer of 2012.”

Q: Your thoughts on the future Rail Transit route to include a Transfer Station near the UH West Oahu Kapolei Campus?

A: “There are two rail stops planned near our property that are a little under a mile apart. One is being called the UH West Oahu Rail Station the other is called the East Kapolei Rail Station. Students will be able to cross a pedestrian overpass and come down on our property and then walk to the campus.”                                                    

Q:  What kind of impact do you think the Rail Transit will have in West Oahu?

A: “We’re expecting that over time when the rail gets going that we’ll have opportunities for our faculty, staff and students to utilize mass transit and it will help not only the private businesses and retail in the area, but it will also benefit through the campus as well.”

Q: Do you feel that the rail system will significantly help increase enrollment?

A: “Very definitely, especially when it links, I believe, through the stadium area and Pearl City and maybe even in to town.”

Q: Light vehicular traffic in the westbound during the morning rush hour must be a plus for students and staff heading towards UHWO?

A: “If you’re going in the westbound direction, even now, once you cross Red Hill there’s virtually no traffic. I live in Kakaako and once I get through the town traffic it’s a breeze. My sense is that a lot of students are going to do the same thing, they’re going to find out that we have high quality baccalaureate programs and that the commute is not as difficult as they might have imagined.”

Q: How about the impact and opportunity for students on the Leeward coast to attend a quality, four year college in Kapolei that’s connected to the University of Hawaii system.

A: “Well, it puts in the whole Ewa plain and the Waianae Coast. There are a lot of kids down in Ewa, old Ewa Beach, Waipahu as well as Waianae, Nanakuli and Maile that are really going to benefit. We’ve seen it already even in our freshmen numbers. Up until three years ago we couldn’t admit freshmen, we could only admit upper class students. We got the approval from the Board of Regents to offer the four year baccalaureate.  Since then, we get about fifteen to twenty students from Campbell; we get about the same number from Mililani and Kapolei. Fewer numbers from Nanakuli and from Waianae but we’re working on it.”

Q: What is your strategy to reach the Leeward coast schools?

A: “When the Kamehameha Schools puts in that Learning Center in Makaha Valley, even though we haven’t talked in any formal way with them but we would like to make sure that we can be involved when that enfolds. When those students go through preparation programs, KS is putting 150 million dollars into that project. Where are the students going to go? The most logical place for them to continue their education would be to UH West Oahu. We want to be sure we’re working with KS, DHHL with OHA and especially with the native Hawaiian kids. We want to make sure they have a home at UH West Oahu.”

Q: Does UH West Oahu offer a Hawaiian Studies Program?

A: “We have a Hawaiian Pacific Studies Program, it’s a combined program, and in fact we hired Leilani Basham, Hawaiian Studies professor from Manoa. We also hired Sa’iliemanu Lilomaiava-Doktor. She’s one of the few PhD’s of Samoan Women in the country. Her research is internationally known. She’s received awards from the United Nations. It kind of formed a core. We’re going to be hiring a lot more faculty in that area. We’re building the program over time, making sure that we’re serving the needs of not only native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders but all students who want to take classes in that area.”

Q:  How about programs in the healthcare field?

A: “We call it Allied Health. We have for example, respiratory care. There are technicians who used to be only able to get a community college degree and now they can get a four year Baccalaureate. We had our first graduates in this past spring commencement. We will be doing Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Health Administration. We’re also looking at Nursing. We’ve been approached by a couple of different groups who tried to establish a nursing program out on the Waianae Coast. We have all of those disciplines already on our radar screen.  We have Kristina Guo who received a grant for about eighty-thousand to help in development for the healthcare curriculum. That’s an area we think is really important especially as the baby boomers start to age and healthcare insurance within the Hawaiian community starts to increase.”

Q: Are there plans to develop a UH West Oahu Athletics Program?

A: “I’ve been asked this question a lot . When I was at Cal Poly Pomona, I was in charge of inter-collegiate athletics. It was a Division II program and I did it for seven years. I oversaw the sports teams. In fact, I hired a guy, Greg Lemanski who took Cal Poly this year and won the Division II National Basketball Title. The women’s basketball team won a couple national titles when I was there. It had a following. Here’s what I think we can do and having spent those many years going to NCAA conventions, I think this is feasible. I think we can field a Division I Athletics Program. If you look at St. Mary’s, three to four years ago they were at the bottom of their league. Now they make it to the Sweet 16. The school is about the same size as what we will be in three to five years, about 4000 students.”

Q: So you feel confident that UH West Oahu Kapolei will be able to field a competitive Division I level Athletics program as the student body increases?

A: “It’s not necessarily the size of the student body, it’s what you’re able to emphasize and how you’re able to recruit. When I looked at the number of sports that they field, the reason why they can make it work is because they don’t have football. The number of scholarships you provide for football, you got to have an equal number of women’s scholarships available. But for example, if you have a men’s baseball team and women’s softball, you have men’s basketball and women’s basketball, I think there is a minimum of five sports that you have to field.”

Q: What about the difference between Division I and Division II with regard to generating a healthy fan base?

A: “Even at the Division II level, you get some fan base but really the real fan interest starts to get generated when you can play a DI program. I think the benefit for UH Manoa is the fact that when a team comes to Hawaii they can play two DI programs. Having spent seven years overseeing inter-collegiate athletics, I don’t think that it’s unconceivable that we can do something like that.”

Q: How about facilities?

A: “Facilities wise, St. Mary’s, if you’ve been to their basketball gym is like a high school gym. We don’t have to build a Stan Sheriff or Blaisdell. If you look at the Central Oahu Region, it has some of the best sports complexes so fielding tournaments wouldn’t be an issue.”

Q: Where do you see the school as well as yourself in the next 3-5 years?

A: “The University will be a regional leader as a comprehensive university. We’re creating “Center’s of Excellence” in areas where we think that we can really grow and become well known, like in the Academy for Creative Media or Teacher Education Academy or the Sustainability Industry. Jobs, where it’s for the new economy with all of the job creation and growth in the area with sustainability. I think in those areas we’re going to become known throughout the western United States. We’ll be a place that has a collegiate atmosphere with a little university village right adjacent to the campus itself. It will be unique to Hawaii.”

“For me, I’m committed for the next three years. Beyond that I’m probably moving to Maui where my wife comes from, riding off and playing golf into the sunset.”