Over the past decade, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has transformed from a little known liberal arts college with 2,800 students to an internationally recognized comprehensive university with nearly 4,000.
Infrastructure expansion includes the three-story University Classroom Building, Marine Science Building and Student Life Center. A new Science and Technology Building will be completed soon and a Student Services Building is on the horizon. Planning is underway for a pharmacy building, and the current capital improvement budget includes $28 million for a new building for the College of Hawaiian Language.
Extramural funding increased from $3 million in 1998 to $20 million in the 2009 fiscal year. UH Hilo is now on the international map for innovative applied research, and federally funded education and research programs serve as models for other universities throughout the country.
For 12 years, Chancellor Rose Tseng has worked with students, faculty, staff and community members to make the Hilo campus a 21st century model of higher education and an engine for social, cultural and economic progress on the Big Island and across the Pacific region.
“If I had to pick one thing I’ve enjoyed most, it would likely be that of a matchmaker—matching an idea whose time has come to the right team and going after the resources that will provide the wherewithal for them to get the job done,” she says.
Born in northern China, Tseng studied architectural engineering and chemistry at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan and earned a BS in chemistry from Kansas State University and an MS and PhD in nutritional sciences, with minors in biochemistry and physiology, at the University of California at Berkeley. She holds a certificate in education management from Harvard University. Her 23-year educational career includes appointments as professor, department chair, dean and chancellor, and she has served as a nutrition education consultant for the United Nations. She was named an Honorary Professor by China Medical University and received an honorary degree from the International Technological University in Santa Clara in addition to numerous business and community awards.
Tseng serves on the board member of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and American Council on Education Office of Women in Higher Education. She is a commissioner and evaluator for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and served on the Presidents Council at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II.
The first Asian American woman to head a four-year degree granting institution in the United States, she remained one of the few Asian Americans to head a university campus at the time she stepped down as chancellor on June 30, 2010, according to the American Council of Education.
She reflects on her tenure in this conversation with Mālamalama Online.
Who were your early role models?
My parents moved us to Taiwan when I was five. Both are trained doctors. My mother organized a clinic in our home. We were poor, but my mom would see poor patients, often charging them nothing. My parents worked hard, always treating people with kindness and compassion, and that made a big impression that stays with me today, shaping the way that I administer.
My formal education began in Taiwan’s public schools. At my high school, called The First Girls’ School in Taipei, the principal was a woman who devoted her whole life to education. She served as a strong role model. I was especially good in math and science since grade school and I was highly encouraged to pursue the highest goals possible.
You describe a two-month visit to Ethiopia, where your parents were working for the World Health Organization, as pivotal.
Seeing so many very poor and malnourished Ethiopian children turned my attention toward health and nutrition. While at UC Berkeley, somebody asked me, “Why are you majoring in nutrition?” I said, “I want to solve world hunger!” I was young, enthusiastic and very optimistic.
Since the age of 20, I had the idea that I wanted a career where I could really help people. I thought that I could do something to solve world hunger. I love science and food and people, so I did biochemistry/animal research to help understand nutrition and health.
What led you into educational administration?
While pursuing my PhD research and teaching at Berkeley and San Jose State University, I found that many of the students had very poor backgrounds. Many were immigrants, many were what we called “boat people” from Vietnam who came to California to find a better life. Some were very, very poor. But I noticed that once people had access to education, they went on to become very successful in their chosen professions. I noticed that the local economy grew because of these hard working people. I began to see the linkages between education and community building, and how important those ties are.
To this day, my number one priority in leading a university into the future is to connect the university to the community. I focused on building community linkages in Silicon Valley where I served as a dean at the College of Applied Sciences and Arts at San Jose State University and later as chancellor of West Valley-Mission Community College District, and it’s been my focus in Hilo.
UH Hilo’s University Park of Science and Technology has attracted international observatories with telescopes on Mauna Kea. During my watch, the Smithsonian Array base facilities, USDA’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry complex and Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center joined the park’s community. By 2007 total investment of tenants at the park was $800 million with the creation of over 400 jobs.
What attracted you to the UH Hilo job?
I saw a very special place with diverse people working together, everyone very friendly, hard working, all working together harmoniously, and I saw a university that had so much potential. I love the fact that it is between the East and West and it has so much natural science and culture to study.
When I first came, I didn’t have a specific vision except to make the university a better place for the students, the faculty and staff; for the community; and for the economy of the island, state and region. The island had just experienced the demise of the sugar industry and was faced with a big economic challenge. Many people were somewhat pessimistic about the future. I saw that they were in need of positive leadership and support.
I surveyed the university community and the East Hawaiʻi community at large to discover what was needed to take the university to the next level. I made a three point plan—improve the image of UH Hilo through creating excellence in every aspect of the university, especially academic programs; increase enrollment, with special focus on recruiting and retaining state residents; and expand resources, infrastructure, research and community partnerships.
What were your priorities?
Developing educational programs that answer regional needs for workforce development and cultural enrichment, and finding and encouraging grant funding for research and educational projects for the betterment of the region. East Hawaiʻi has continued to struggle economically. The second largest public university in the state should be the economic engine to help build the community back up.
The potential of our natural learning laboratories in astronomy; tropical biology; and energy from earth, ocean and sun provides an educational and research heaven for teaching sustainability and locating workforce training sites. Securing funding and resources and balancing budgets seems to be my forte; I’ve spent the bulk of my time at UH Hilo finding resources to get this done.
A unique blend of science and culture has become UH Hilo’s trademark.
UH Hilo’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) research and education programs integrate culture and build the region’s professional workforce. Given our unique location, with its remarkable geographic features, what we call a living laboratory, coupled with our diverse population, including our foundational host culture of Native Hawaiians, I think it is a logical direction to go.
You can see the value in the way we’ve attracted grant funds. Federally funded projects focus on working with the community in the areas of health; environmental biology; Native Hawaiian and other cultural issues; the tourism, agriculture and aquaculture industries; and more.
These unique programs benefit the island, state and Pacific region. We’ve boosted under-represented groups in the sciences, built science infrastructure, created culturally sensitive learning environments for Native Hawaiians and others, increased science internships and provided research opportunities for undergraduates.
National Science Foundation Chair Steven Beering said of UH Hilo: “We can benefit and learn from the Hawaiian model for proactively broadening participation of under-represented minorities is fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
How do these programs benefit students?
One of the most innovative of the educational programs is Keaholoa, a National Science Foundation STEM initiative that addresses the needs of both students and faculty to create a culturally sensitive learning environment for Native Hawaiians who show promise in STEM fields.
Keaholoa addresses “gatekeeper” courses—those typically perceived as preventing students from advancing in a particular area of study. It includes research internships for undergraduates, giving students a valuable boost for employment and graduate opportunities. It also includes faculty development activities to enculturate STEM curriculum so that courses are more relevant to Native Hawaiian students.
You’ve expressed pride in the in the way people work together to support UH Hilo, thanking faculty, administrators, regents, donors, lawmakers, business groups and citizens.
These champions of the university realize the critical role that UH Hilo plays in the development of the island, state and Pacific region. The College of Hawaiian Language, College of Pharmacy and the planned Thirty Meter Telescope are all the result of immense community dedication and collaboration.
Creating the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi was a labor of love. It took the collaboration of UH Hilo, the community, county, state and U.S. government. ʻImiloa inspires children from all over the state and world to celebrate Hawaiian culture and Mauna Kea astronomy; it’s an inspiring example of science and culture united to advance knowledge.
A consortium led by UH Hilo’s College of Pharmacy recently received a $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a result, Hawaiʻi County is one of only 15 communities across the nation chosen to develop pilot programs for wide-scale use of electronic medical records, using information technology to lower the cost and enhance the quality of health care for our island.
What do you see in UH Hilo’s future?
I believe UH Hilo will be a true residential campus and Hilo a true college town. Academic programs and research will continue integrating science and technology with cultural perspectives to enable students to be successful global citizens.
UH Hilo will continue to strengthen its role as an economic engine, providing workforce training in answer to regional needs. The campus will serve our state as a true second university, emphasizing professional education, agriculture, pharmacy, nursing, teacher education, accounting, business, science and technology, as well as maintaining its high quality liberal arts programs.
The university will continue to take advantage of this unique locale by emphasizing programs that support the rural component of the state. It will further develop its role as a cultural leader through programs in music, dance, theater, studio arts and Hawaiian studies, strengthening and sustaining the cultural base of the island through its graduates.
UH Hilo will continue to provide learning opportunities that give students a broad worldview so they can be competitive in an increasingly global workforce. Exchange and study abroad programs will continue growing, and UH Hilo’s Center for Global Education and Exchange will increase its exchange agreements with the current 65 international universities. We have worked hard to obtain scholarship opportunities for UH Hilo students to go on exchange–we received a two-year grant from the Study Abroad Foundation, and the Institute for Shipboard Education will provide 10 scholarships per year for the next five years in their Semester at Sea program.
UH Hilo’s momentum is strong in education and research programs funded through federal agencies. Our researchers and educators will continue promoting and conducting exciting, innovative research projects of benefit to our island, state and region. Our new chancellor, Donald Straney, has very strong credentials and experience in this area.
What’s next for you?
I will continue to encourage collaborative projects in Hawaiʻi, Asia-Pacific countries and Silicon Valley. I’ll explore creative projects that combine my interest in international education with collaboration in business, science and technology. For example, I’ll seek ways to help advance green energy, science and health profession education.
I will continue to be a matchmaker of win-win collaborative education and research for UH with universities throughout the Pacific region. I’ll continue to create business partnerships for workforce development for the island and state.
I remain committed to diversity in educational leadership through the promotion and mentoring of women and minority leaders, continuing my work with the Millennium Leadership Initiative at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, with the Office of Women in Higher Education at the American Council on Education, and with the World Women University Presidents.