Making its Mark

Forty years later, Hawaii Pacific University has shown there is — as there should be — more than one university in town

August, 2005

Even into the mid-’90s, people would button-hole Chatt Wright at social gatherings and test the good manners of the charismatic president of Hawaii Pacific University. The pressing issue was not about the academic performance of his students or faculty. It was that he and his institution existed at all. “People were angry,” Wright says. “They would say ‘We have a university. We don’t need you.'”

“When I first came here, everything was dominated by big entities,” says Wright, who has been president of HPU for 29 years. “There were the Big-Five corporations. There were big, dominating labor unions. There was big government, still is, and there was one political party,” Wright says. “We were part of a whole movement of plurality. Part of a movement showing people in Hawaii, you are not just one thing. You can have two universities. That competition is good.”

That mindset ran well into the ’90s and for Wright, into a few social events. “It remains in the very parlance that we have here. When people say ‘The University,’ everyone means UH (University of Hawaii). In the mid-’90s, I ran this marketing campaign, because it irked me so much,” Wright says, with a smile. The ads called HPU, “The University.”

“It showed people that we had really arrived,” says Wright.

Arrived, it has. As HPU is set to reach its 40th anniversary, for Hawaii, it is the little university that could. When it started Sept. 17, 1965, HPU had 57 students. Today, the student body tops 9,200.

In recent years, academic programs to expand and a new partnership with the Oceanic Institute is expected to bring more growth. HPU has evolved from a small college aimed at educating working professionals in the downtown area, to a medium-size U.S. university that aspires to produce upright, global citizens. Today, HPU is one of the most diverse universities in the country, with students from more than 110 countries.

Here’s how that looks by the numbers: In the past 10 years, since Wright ran his “The University” campaign, HPU’s annual gross sales more than doubled, from $42.2 million in 1995 to $102 million in 2004. That puts HPU at No. 70 on the Top 250 list for 2005. Today, HPU has an endowment that tops off at $70 million. HPU, with Wright at the helm, has not run a red budget since 1976.

HPU estimates that among its students, faculty and rental costs for its downtown space, its economic impact is $160 million annually.

Wright, whose long tenure is largely credited with HPU’s success, attributes the growth to strong marketing, sound fiscal management and creating an administrative and academic culture where good people could excel. HPU is now the largest private university in Hawaii.

The ’60s and Free … Enterprise

Back in 1965, Paul Loo, longtime Hawaii area executive director for Morgan Stanley, felt like the token liberal.

After he received his MBA from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he started teaching part-time at a small Baptist college in Manoa. But the college ran into financial trouble and he and three other community leaders wanted to keep it alive. Loo says he didn’t want to leave “the students out at sea.”

Among his more conservative counterparts, one of whom was a minister, there was also a concern with the ’60s counter-culture rolling over America, the anti-war demonstrations on college campuses and the feared rise of socialism. The other cofounders, Eureka Forbes, Elizabeth Kellerman and Edmond Walker, wanted to counter the counter-culture. In 1965, the four received a charter for Hawaii Pacific College, an independent, nonsectarian, liberal arts college.

Loo says the college was modeled to a degree after Wharton, which was tucked in downtown Philadelphia to tap the expertise of top business leaders there. The classes, nestled in Honolulu’s downtown, were also structured around the work day, and the program was geared to teach people to excel at free-enterprise endeavors. “I like that philosophy of putting students downtown so they can interact with the people from downtown. Besides, we didn’t have the money to hire full-time professors,” adds Loo, who is an HPU trustee today.

But the start was slow. In 1972, Hawaii Pacific College graduated its first seven students and established a School of Business Administration, naming Wright its founding dean. Wright says he only expected to be around for a year. At the time, the college had no business students, no budget and just 5,000 square feet. “I was named president [in 1976] because really nobody would take the job,” Wright says. The college at that time was $300,000 in debt.

By the end of 1976, Wright had balanced the books and could turn his attention to growing the university. In 1980, he started his push to build an endowment. “The most difficult thing in raising our endowment was raising our first $100,000. The second most difficult thing was raising the first million dollars,” Wright says. “I had to go out and ask people for a lot of money. People of means. Eventually, we started to attract prominent people to the board of trustees.”

Then the milestones started to snowball.

Leaps and Bounds

Among the major events in the history of HPU, Wright says accreditation sits high on the list. In 1973, Hawaii Pacific College received full accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. “That was a critical validation. We just grew very rapidly from there,” Wright says. In 1975, the college began offering courses on military bases on Oahu. By 1980, the college had nearly 1,500 students.

As the college grew, so did the academic programs. Some highlights were the addition of an MBA program in 1986. Others followed, such as a master’s in information systems, in diplomacy and military studies, and teaching English as a second language. In 1990, following a national trend, Hawaii Pacific College was renamed Hawaii Pacific University.

Then in 1992, Hawaii Loa College, a liberal arts college located on Oahu’s Windward Side, no longer had the financial means to continue operating, says John Fleckles, HPU vice president of academic affairs, who was with Hawaii Loa back then. Agreements were reached and Hawaii Loa was merged into fiscally strong HPU.

Fleckles says, “That was a major turning point for HPU.” HPU had been a small college with a business and professional emphasis. With Hawaii Loa, the academic program advanced into new, more diverse areas, including what is now the state’s largest nursing program.

Today, Fleckles says HPU maintains its hands-on philosophy, with a faculty that has practical experience in their fields and professors who thrive in a close-knit environment with students. The average class size is 25. There are no teaching assistants. Today, HPU has 46 bachelor’s degrees and 11 master’s degrees, and evening and morning classes are still offered for working adults.

The 132-acre Hawaii Loa campus is the site for future growth, though Fleckles says HPU will always be a downtown university. An alliance with the Oceanic Institute in 2002 – also driven by HPU’s financial stability – continues to develop, with the chance of further expanding the academic program and developing HPU’s research arm.

“President Wright has attracted people here who want to build something, and he lets them do it,” Fleckles says. “We never sit still. Just when the community thinks they have us figured out, we surprise them and take another leap.”

The Wright Moves

As Loo is retelling the history of HPU, he reaches the mid-’70s. His story abruptly ends: “Well, Wright was made president and the rest is history.” Wright has one of the longest tenures of university presidents in the United States.

Early on, Wright began marketing HPU and Hawaii as places of diverse cultures, of a generous and embracing community. The ads would say, “Come study where the Orient meets the Occident.” In the 1980s, HPU began attracting Asian students. Wright says there was a backlash in the community. There was an image that the foreign nationals were mostly third-world, poor “with crooked teeth,” he says. Wright ran another ad campaign.

“We ran ads featuring our [Asian] students,” Wright says. When people saw that the Asian students were attractive, ambitious and intelligent, the stereotypes were dispelled. “People saw these smiling, pretty faces, and attitudes changed,” he says. In the 1990s, as HPU began attracting European students, those groups were also put in the ads. HPU more received positive feedback to its pictures of Norwegians alongside Chinese alongside Pacific Islanders. At the same time, the academic program had grown tremendously.

By the mid-’90s, HPU had a student body of more than 7,000. HPU was still attractive to Hawaii residents, but throngs of Mainland students were coming, too. Not to mention overseas students. Swedish students would become the university’s largest foreign contingency.

It was in the mid-’90s that HPU’s diversity was formally integrated into the overall university mission. Fleckles says the theme “educating for global citizenship” was coined as the umbrella theme for the HPU experience. Students pursue the question of what it means to be a global citizen through their studies, examining it in class, but more so, in dialogues with each other, he says. HPU’s Intercultural Day and symposium on global citizenship are the most public manifestation of that emphasis.

Fleckles says one of HPU’s strengths is its size, not too big, so it can maintain a cohesive culture. It is difficult not to make the comparison to sprawling UH down the road. HPU has come a long way since the days of The Big Entity, when there was just The University. Wright says Hawaii today has come to embrace competition. Competition spurs people to build better mousetraps or, in this case, educational programs, he says.


2005 Student Body 
Total: 9,200
Hawaii: 3,989
Mainland: 3,494
Asia: 732
Pacific Islands: 62
Europe, Africa, Middle East and Canada: 859
Latin America and the Caribbean: 64

Source: Hawaii Pacific University

Wright notes that Chaminade University and Brigham Young University Hawaii are both doing well and Hawaii is better for it. The universities also tend to complement each other, as every student is not fitted for the same experience.

Colleen Sathre, vice president emeritus of planning and policy for the University of Hawaii, agrees that Hawaii Pacific complements the state institution, in many ways offering a different educational experience and also addressing specific needs of the business community. “It definitely has been a very impressive and positive growth,” Sathre says. The UH folks also learned something from Hawaii Pacific. “It helped the university understand the importance of going out and telling people what they do, because being good is not good enough,” she says.

It may be 40, but Wright says HPU is just getting started. “Hawaii Pacific University along the way has become very important to Hawaii and the Pacific Basin,” he says. “But our best days are ahead. We have built a good base and we will continue to grow – rapidly.”

At the very least, he won’t have to defend that at his next social event.

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