HPU leader looks back at career
Chatt Wright began his career at what was then Hawai'i Pacific College in 1972 as the founding dean of the business college with 57 students and a $212,000 budget.
Some 38 years later, he plans to retire in June of next year from a university with an enrollment of 8,300 students, employing 1,100 faculty and staff and annual budget of $115 million.
Wright, 68, grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., where his father was a rancher.
He started college at the University of California-Berkeley but transferred to the University of California-Davis, looking toward a career in wineries. "I thought that would be a cool thing to do — winemaking."
His interests shifted and he earned a bachelor's degree in political science then joined the Peace Corps.
"I was in Africa, the Republic of Guinea," he said in an interview. Then he moved to Hawai'i in 1965 to earn a master's degree at the University of Hawai'i in economics.
"One of the reasons I liked Hawai'i, was that it seemed like a welcoming place. I'm kind of a positive person," he said.
"I thought I'd be here for a two-year period," Wright said, never imagining he'd remain for more than 40 years, most of them as president of HPU.
The college struggled early on to make it in one floor of a Downtown office building, catering to students who were already working and going to school part time.
By 1976, Wright was president and the mission of the school by the 1980s had shifted to an international focus.
"We started focusing on attracting students from all over the world," he said. "The mission then evolved to educate for global citizenship. We have students from more than 100 different countries."
Wright said the next big change came with the merger in 1992 with Hawai'i Loa College in Windward O'ahu, which brought residential dormitories , arts and sciences, natural sciences and nursing expertise into the new university.
"That was a major turning point for us," he said. And Wright felt that the community was shifting to a more internationally welcoming place for students.
"Hawai'i was a very parochial turned-in community," he said, adding that he thinks HPU helped change that by attracting students from all over the globe to its downtown campuses.
The next big change came in July 2003, when HPU became affiliated with the Oceanic Institute, adding in marine and ocean sciences as well as a major research component.
"Oceanic has taken us to another level because we are now a comprehensive university. We're not just a teaching university," he said.
He's proud of the university, its staff and students, the growth in athletics as well as academics and the arts.
Wright said he didn't have an "aha moment" where the global vision came to him but the identity evolved.
"I didn't really have the vision back then. And if I said I did then, I think people would have laughed at me," he said.
Looking back, he said the most influential people in his career at HPU were chairs of the board.
He singled out the late Robert E. Black; Jean Cornuelle; and the late longtime board chairman, William E. Aull. And he added, "I am quite close to my longtime friend and current chairman, Charles A. Sted, who is the president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health."
But it was the death of Wright's father at age 48 that also helped shape him.
"I think I succeeded because I was afraid to fail," he said. But his father's death at such a young age also prompted him to strive for a balance of work and family and keeping perspective.
"I try to live a balanced life," he said.
When he's not reading three books a week, he likes to play tennis with his wife, Janice, and he goes fly-fishing at least once a week, often with friend Bruce Anderson from the Oceanic Institute.
What's next for the man whose name has been synonymous with HPU for decades? "I'm looking forward to traveling a lot with my wife and expanding my fly-fishing experience."