Dobelle: Kauaians shouldn’t have to leave home for four-year degree

KALAPAKI BEACH – Family is a good reason for not pursuing degrees in higher education, said the president of the University of Hawaii.

Geography is not, said Dr. Evan S. Dobelle, 12th president of UH.

“People shouldn’t have to leave home to get a four-year degree,” Dobelle said while addressing the annual general membership meeting of the Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce at the Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club here.

A fan of distance learning, and of using computers and other telecommunications devices to bring upper-level undergraduate classes to UH campuses like Kauai Community College in Puhi, Dobelle said making higher education more accessible to everyone in Hawai’i regardless of where they chose to live will have at least two positive outcomes.

First, it will encourage borderline students to enroll in college and continue their education. Second, it will help keep educated people in the islands, he said.

A Kaua’i student should not have to leave the island to get a four-year degree, said Dobelle. The current system, which virtually mandates at least commuting to O’ahu to get a bachelor’s degree in a chosen discipline, penalizes some students simply because of where they were born, or choose to live, he added.

He is on a mission to unify the 10-campus UH system for the good of the state, and he has some believers when he says that in a few years the research and other programs at UH-Manoa will be mentioned in the same breath as the University of North Carolina, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford University.

What he wants to do to the UH system sounds much like what Mayor Bryan Baptiste wants to do to the Kaua’i community: unite it.

For Dobelle, an important step is getting rid of KCC, at least the name, and if approval from the UH Board of Regents comes later this month, KCC will officially become the University of Hawaii at Kauai.

It is part of a massive system restructuring that includes everything from staffing to funding priorities to a single university logo to replace the 150 different ones in use now, he said before a crowd of nearly 500 people here.

The idea is to create a UH system that recognizes the interdependence that was the root of the Native Hawaiian culture long before other races arrived in the islands, he said.

“We are a family. We are an ‘ohana. And we will not play favorites,” he continued.

Dobelle said he enjoys coming to Kaua’i, and marvels at the history of the independent spirit that lingers long after the island was the only one not conquered by force by King Kamehameha.

Standing at the podium, he is almost in awe of “the magic and power of this place,” and from his very first time in the islands was “struck” with how the islands seem to always be in motion.

Change in nature is the rule, not the exception, and the changes he is helping to make at the university are designed to get the university culture away from old-style thinking, and toward embracing change, he said.

The UH was silent before, and almost in spite of itself was still very good at doing certain things, such as developing world-class ocean and earth sciences programs, an astronomy department ranked among the best in the world, teaching 32 different languages, and having one of the top programs for teaching and learning English as a second language, he said.

Top-notch environmental law and culinary arts programs, and being the only college in the country offering graduate-level courses and degrees in an indigenous language, are among the other UH programs to be proud of, he said.

At KCC, the nursing and culinary arts programs, as well as vocational programs like auto mechanics and auto body repair, have been successful in providing trained workers for Kaua’i-based businesses.

Not bad for a system that ranks 51st among the states and District of Columbia in terms of per-capita spending on higher education, he said.

Even enduring a decade of consecutive budget cuts hasn’t kept some programs from flourishing, he noted.

Yet the myriad of logos, the seeming reluctance to share UH successes with the rest of the world, and other problems have created “a system of suspicion, a system of cynicism,” said Dobelle.

He aims to turn all that around.

“I am not an agent of change. I am an agent of hope,” he said.

The new UH strategic plan comes with price tags, including $99 million this year alone, he said.

He will ask the state Legislature only for a slight, 4 percent increase in state funds, and will seek grants, federal funds, and private-sector sources to make his vision a reality.

Corporate citizens as partners who have a huge stake in the success of UH will be courted, he said.

Because, the state’s economy cannot grow without a trained workforce, and a trained workforce cannot be developed without a strong university system, he said.

The university must teach courses as well as citizenship, and the state must use its abundance of resources-human and otherwise-as a competitive advantage, said Dobelle.

“Let us aspire to be great. By being concerned with great things, we can do great things,” Dobelle concluded.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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