EXCLUSIVE: UH West Oahu chancellor to step down

Published: Oct. 8, 2012 at 8:26 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 8, 2012 at 10:18 PM HST
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Gene Awakuni
Gene Awakuni

KAPOLEI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gene Awakuni, the man in charge of the newest campus in the University of Hawaii system, plans to retire months after opening the UH West Oahu campus which suffered a "cash-flow" problem because of change orders to the project.

Awakuni has been chancellor of UH West Oahu for the last seven and a half years. He briefed the UH Board of Regents about the new campus last month.

"We need to hire staff and faculty to be able to really stay in sync with the number of students we expect over the next few years," Awakuni told regents during their meeting at the new West Oahu campus Sept 28.

Awakuni told Hawaii News Now he plans to retire from his $211,000-a-year job heading the West Oahu campus at the end of the school year.

"This will allow me the time to complete a few initiatives that are currently underway, including continuity in representation during the next legislative session, before passing the baton to someone who will take UHWO to the next level," Awakuni said in a statement. "My goal, when I accepted this position in March 2005, was to get a new campus built and opened and to start a four-year degree program. When the new campus opened on August 20, that goal was achieved."

UH President M.R.C. Greenwood released a statement that said she and the regents charged Awakuni with getting the new campus built and he did.

"This is one of the most important projects for higher education in the entire state of Hawaii and we are very proud that this campus opened to excited and enthusiastic students," Greenwood said. "We thank him, we will continue to work with him over this period and we will begin the search for a new chancellor in the near future. Once again, I have appreciated working with Chancellor Awakuni over the last few years and wish him the best."

"In six years, he got us out of those shacks, built a campus.  I mean, it's a very nice campus," said Dan Boylan, who spent 34 years as a history professor at UH West Oahu.

Boylan credited Awakuni with getting state lawmakers to provide the money to build the long-awaited new campus, allowing UH West Oahu to move out of portable classrooms from a corner of the Leeward Community College campus.

"We were always the campus the system forgot and did the minimum in order to get by the accreditation committee," Boylan said.

"Gene's resolve was incredible and he understood that to build it, you had to be downtown in that big building, the capitol.  Not out on the campus, deciding about my tenure, or my promotion or anybody else's," said Boylan, an emeritus professor at UH West Oahu who now works as an instructor, teaching one course a semester on the new campus.

The new campus has not been without controversy. Construction there went about $14 million over budget because of change orders, something Awakuni said should be expected given the complexity and size of the $170 million project.

UH officials admit construction of the new campus ran into what they call a "cash-flow problem" and the university is now counting on an $18 million special loan to fill the gap.

"Getting the new campus built and opened was the most challenging yet rewarding experience in my over 30 years in higher education," Awakuni said in a statement. "Since its beginning, UHWO has always had to struggle to secure resources. That was true also in the construction of the new campus. We had to be innovative and entrepreneurial, exploring all forms of financing and depending heavily on the goodwill of our contractor, subcontractors and community partners, all because the goal of providing a convenient center of education in the region was much needed and long awaited."

In addition an accreditation team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges recently faulted the "academic leadership" at the school, noting that almost all the senior staff had been replaced in the last four years.

With campus operations under funded and housed in temporary facilities, it was difficult to recruit and keep top academic leadership, Awakuni told WASC.

Awakuni has told friends he's mulling over a couple of job offers, one of them in higher education and another in a different field.

Since he has more than six years of service to UH, he would be eligible for a paid sabbatical or professional development leave upon his departure.  But sources said because of increased scrutiny of UH in the aftermath of the canceled Stevie Wonder concert and State Senate briefings, it was unclear whether Greenwood would propose and the regents would approve such a paid leave for Awakuni.

Greenwood faces an uncertain future as the regents hold a special meeting Friday to discuss her fate with UH in the aftermath of the concert fiasco.

Awakuni joined UH as chief executive of the West O'Oahu campus in March 2005. He previously served as vice provost for student affairs at Stanford University, where he had joint oversight for a division of 650 staff members, and managed eight major departments at Columbia University, including dining, health, business and financial services; university bookstores; residence halls; the registrar's office and student information systems.

He also served as vice president for student affairs and university advancement at Cal Poly Pomona, assistant vice chancellor for student academic services at University of California, Santa Barbara and director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at University of California, Irvine.

Awakuni earned his doctorate in counseling and consulting psychology at Harvard University. He received a master's in clinical social work and a bachelor's in political science from the UH Manoa.