HPU president celebrates 30 years
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
From its humble beginnings as a two-classroom business college with 57 students to its position as the state's second-largest institution of higher learning, Hawai'i Pacific University has undergone many changes.
But one thing has remained constant for almost all of those four decades — President Chatt G. Wright, who took the helm 30 years ago today.
When Wright joined what was then called Hawai'i Pacific College on his birthday — Sept. 17 — in 1972 as business dean, the college was a speck on Hawai'i's higher education map. Today, HPU boasts a $115 million annual budget, more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs, and 9,000 students from 110 countries on three campuses.
HPU is second in size in the state to only the University of Hawai'i.
And while Wright is closer to the end of his presidency than its beginning, he is forging ahead on even more changes for HPU, from campus housing to new athletic and academic facilities.
REALIZING A VISION
Wright, 65, is quick to credit the people around him for helping shape the university, but those same people credit Wright's vision and leadership for the school's success.
"When he came on board it had been very rough going. Hawai'i Pacific was struggling, but he had a vision for it. And I don't use that word lightly," said Helen Chapin, HPU vice president emeritus. "He brought the school from almost nowhere to where it is today," she said.
Wright recalls the excitement he felt when he was presented with the challenge of steering the future of the small, unaccredited college.
"I was asked a thousand times: 'Why are you doing this? There isn't any need for you. We have a state university, why would we need a private university?' " Wright said. "You had to sell it and it took a long time."
But Wright, a California native, said he believed in having strong private and public university systems, much like the competition between private Stanford and public University of California-Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay area.
While he attempted to sell the school at home, Wright also packed his bags and sold the school abroad. It was all a part of fulfilling his vision, which later became the school's mission — to create an international learning environment and educate toward global citizenship.
Chapin recalled how in the late '70s and '80s Wright and faculty would recruit in Asia, on the Mainland and in local high schools.
"We deliberately sought a student body that was internationally diverse," Chapin said. "That was absolutely crucial" to fulfill the school's global mission, she said.
As HPU grew, the university relied on a network of full-time recruiters in Asia, Europe and on the Mainland to attract students. Wright said the school now purposely keeps its student population at one-third from Hawai'i, one-third from the Mainland and one-third international.
Wright initially had to sell the idea of international education, but now he says it has become "as normal as apple pie."
"The elite American universities ... always had a global mission. But most American universities did not," he said. "For a new university, and even for most American colleges, that was a brand new thing."
Sue Wesselkamper, president of Chaminade University of Honolulu, has marveled at Wright's ability to market HPU abroad.
"During his thirty years as president of Hawai'i Pacific University, Chatt Wright has demonstrated extraordinary leadership. His contributions to higher education in Hawai'i and to the local economy here are substantial and significant," she said.
Wesselkamper recalled a meeting she had with Wright when she first became Chaminade's president in 1995. She said she wanted to meet Wright, since she was new at the job and had heard of Wright's reputation as a successful university president.
"At the end of lunch, he said to me, 'Sue, I wish you well, and let me know how I can be of help. I really want Chaminade to succeed because it's important to have someone to compete with,'" she said.
Wright played a key role in several events in HPU's history. He led HPU's historic merger with struggling Hawai'i Loa College in 1992 and created the university's endowment fund, which is now worth nearly $80 million.
He also reached out to the Oceanic Institute, and their recent affiliation represents the university's next frontier — an added emphasis on research, Wright said.
"Getting the Oceanic Institute to be affiliated with us jump-started (research). It gave us about $12 million worth of sponsored research and that is stimulating research in the other colleges," he said.
John Fleckles, vice president for academic administration, said many HPU professors are engaged in research and are encouraged to publish their findings.
Fleckles said most of the research is in the sciences and social work. Many faculty also are engaged in research in other areas through the HPU Trustees' Scholarly Endeavors Fund.
A RARE COMBINATION
Martin Anderson, an HPU trustee since its merger with Hawai'i Loa College, said Wright offers a rare combination of talents in a university president.
"He had a vision of a superior private university in Hawai'i and he had the ability to implement that vision," he said. "It's very seldom that you get an academic and a marketing guy together in one person. ... It obviously isn't just one man, but a lot of the success has been taking people and encouraging them."
Anderson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, also noted that Wright has been president of HPU much longer than the seven-year average for a university president.
"At Stanford they have a rule — a dean is there for 10 years because they figure by then it is time to move on. Chatt keeps moving, but he takes the whole university with him," he said.
Wright makes no secret that he intends to retire soon, but still feels there is much more work to be done.
"I've committed myself to the university for another five years by contract," he said.
By then, Wright said, he intends to finish work on HPU's master plan, which includes the construction of a new student center, campus housing, academic facilities and athletic facilities on the university's Windward campus.
He and the university's board have already begun looking for a successor, he said.
"I want to make sure that the next leader has a vision. We need a visionary who is very practical who really believes in and loves what Hawai'i Pacific is," he said. "We want someone who is going to build it, but will also bring a renewed vision."
But for now, Wright remains committed to the president's desk.
He acknowledged that his name will always be synonymous with HPU.
"I didn't know this about myself until later, but I'm someone who likes to build something," he said. "When you're old you can look back and say, 'That was my vision.' But when you're young, the reality is you're frightened, you're worried about making payroll, making sure you succeed."
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.