Hawai‘i Pacific University Thrives Under the Leadership of President Gotanda

Gregg Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The Aloha Tower was built nearly a century ago and for four decades it was the tallest building in Honolulu. Like New York’s Statute of Liberty, it greeted thousands of immigrants and later, soldiers returning from the war.

Today, the former lighthouse now marks the home of Hawai‘i’s largest private post-secondary institution of higher education —  Hawai‘i Pacific University — where John Yukio Gotanda, an attorney turned educator, will mark his fifth year as president.

Gotanda, 59, is one of a few island Japanese American educators to reach the top level of academia in Hawai‘i, including the late Fujio Matsuda, University of Hawai‘i’s president from 1974-1984; and Joyce Tsunoda, UH Community College Chancellor from 1983-2003.

As the fifth president of Hawai‘i’s 55-year-old educational institution, Gotanda took the helm during an expensive expansion of HPU’s waterfront campus at the Aloha Tower Marketplace. It is located at the base of the 10-story lighthouse at the makai end of downtown Honolulu.

John Yukio Gotanda, president of Hawai‘i Pacific University at the downtown Honolulu campus near the Aloha Tower. (Photo by Gregg Kakesako)

John Gotanda Pre-HPU

John is a sansei born to Masae Gotanda, née Kashiwamaru, now 94, and to the late Yukio Gotanda – whose parents were issei from Hiroshima. Kaua‘i-born Yukio volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service and served in Burma during World War II. Maui-born Masae who lives in Mänoa is a retired library-science educator, who received her doctorate degree from the University of Southern California. She was a deputy state librarian and head of the Hawaii State Library in downtown Honolulu.

John describes himself as a proud product of the island’s public school system. Born in Mänoa Valley, he attended Manoa Elementary and Stevenson Intermediate (now Middle) School and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1979.

While attending Roosevelt, Gotanda was a professional musician who played keyboard for various bands on weekends. He even wrote songs and produced records; one was nominated for a Nä Hökü Hanohano Award – “Song of Love” performed by Nohelani Cypriano and Danny Couch.

He stayed in Mänoa to attend the University of Hawai‘i, earning his undergraduate degree in business in 1984. Influenced by his father who was administrative appeals judge with the state Department of Social Services and Housing, Gontanda enrolled into the UHM William S. Richardson School of Law where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review, receiving his law degree in 1987.

While attending classes at the UH Mänoa campus, Gotanda began working as a baker at Dunkin’ Donuts and eventually managed its Ala Moana Center store. He transferred to become manager of the shopping center’s premier food establishment at the time, Lyn’s Delicatessen, where he worked while simultaneously earning his undergraduate degree in business. “We (Lyn’s) were a food court (serving pizza and hot pastrami sandwiches) before there was a food court,” said Gotanda, who at 18, was the youngest store manager at Ala Moana Center.

“In [my] final year of law school, I had the chance to take a job in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,” says Gotanda.

He was interviewed by then federal Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg who later swore him into the Hawai‘i Bar, and they remained friends.

He worked as an attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for two years and in 1989 joined Covington & Burling law firm in D.C., practicing international law.

“I practiced international law there and literally traveled around the world suing foreign governments for American clients. It was a terrific job,” Gotanda said.

He later was an associate with the law firm of Goodwin, Procter & Hoar in Boston from 1993-1994, specializing in corporate law and securities. Gotanda chose the Boston law firm because it was recognized as a training ground for lawyers who wanted to be law professors.

In 1994, Gotanda joined the faculty of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law in Pennsylvania where he worked for 16 years as professor of law, rising to director of the JD/MBA Program 1999; associate dean for research in 2003 and associate dean for academic affairs in 2009. From 2011-2016, he served as the dean of the law school.

He assumed the job of dean of Villanova’s troubled law school in the aftermath of the resignation of Mark Sargent after the latter was connected to a prostitution ring in 2009, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

In reviewing Gotanda’s two decades at Villanova, Hawai‘i’s State House, in 2017, adopted a resolution noting that under his leadership “the Villanova Law School developed and implemented a strategic plan that radically changed the school’s curriculum, reducing the time and cost of the program, eliminating barriers to entry, and establishing increased international opportunities for its students.”

When he accepted the job as HPU president Gotanda moved together with his wife, Brenda, now a partner in the environmental law firm of Manko Gold Katcher Fox, and with their teen children. Daughter Kayla is a senior at Punahou School and son William, who graduated from Punahou this past June, will join the inaugural engineering program at Boston College in the fall. He is one of 25 students selected for an innovative, interdisciplinary Human Centered Engineering Program that prepares students to design solutions to real-world problems.

HPU Thrives Through a Pandemic

When classes resume in August, HPU expects more than 4,000 students, including 850 freshmen and new students, 200 transfers and 200 postgraduate students. Besides the mainland, HPU incoming students come from 65 countries, with 70 from Denmark. Classes will be offered in person or online. Undergraduate tuition is $26,000 with room and meals costing another $10,000.

In May, HPU announced that its fall enrollment jumped 71% over last year – a large leap when compared to the spring enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Chronicle of Higher Learning in April said undergraduate attendance fell 5.9% compared to the same time last year because of the pandemic.

With the 370 dorm rooms at the Aloha Tower Market Place and 190 rooms at the Hawaii Loa campus in Käne‘ohe booked to capacity, the university has partnered with the six-story Waikiki Parc hotel, to find additional dorm space. It will fill the hotel’s 125 rooms with students as well as increase the staff assigned to the hotel for security. Shuttles will take students to the main downtown campus for classes and meals.

The university is not requiring that either its students or its 650 faculty members be vaccinated. However, according to Gotanda, 90% of faculty, staff and students who were recently surveyed were either vaccinated or will be vaccinated when classes resume in August.

Gotanda said vaccinations will be required for certain limited activities, like university-sponsored travel and certain close-contact activities such as work at sea on its ocean-research vessel and in some laboratories.

He described HPU’s protocols as “nuanced sort of approach,” adding when the vaccines are fully authorized, “then we will expand it slightly, for particularly close-contacts type of situations such as dorm rooms and activities like choir.”

During the 2020-‘21 pandemic year, HPU maintained in-person, online and hybrid class schedules. Masks, social distancing and temperature checks were required on all its campuses. Additionally, extra cleaning and sanitation procedures were practiced on campus. Incoming students were quarantined upon arrival at a hotel and were required to be swabbed and tested weekly.

“We didn’t have any major outbreak and those cases that we did have, we were able to contain them very quickly,” Gotanda said. “Less than 2% of our population throughout the whole year came down with COVID.”

“And we haven’t had any on-campus cases since January. We had no transmission from a student to a faculty member or a student to student in a classroom setting.”

HPU’s Background

“The three major areas of our campus form a triangle,” Gotanda said, “with the Aloha Tower being centerpiece of student life. The other colleges are in Pioneer Plaza, which has our business school right in the downtown business district; and Waterfront Plaza which contains the library, College of Liberal Arts and College of Health and Society.”

Hawaii Pacific University is a product of a merger of two small liberal arts colleges – Hawaii Pacific College and Hawaii Loa College.

Hawai‘i Pacific College was founded in 1965 by philanthropist Paul C.T. Loo, former State Sen. Eureka Forbes (R), Elizabeth W. Kellerman and the Rev. Edmond Walker. It merged with Hawai‘i Loa College, located in Käne‘ohe near the Pali Golf Course, in 1992.

Another merger occurred in 2014 when HPU acquired the Oceanic Institute, a 56-acre research and development organization in Makapu‘u dedicated to aquaculture, biotechnology and coastal resource management. HPU also holds classes on all of O‘ahu’s major military installations.

In that same year Gov. Neil Abercrombie authorized a special revenue bond to help HPU raise $120 million to revitalize its three campuses. The Aloha Tower Market Place completed a $50 million revitalization project in August 2015, opening the campus with its oceanfront dorms to students and the community.

In 2016, the university sold the 135-acre Hawai‘i Loa Campus to Castle Medical Center for $8.4 million and now leases classrooms and dorm rooms for its marine science students. Within a few years, HPU hopes to move out of the Käne‘ohe campus and consolidate its classes at Waterfront Plaza.

Among its notable graduates are former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; former New York Mets and Boston Red Sox baseball player and ‘Iolani coach Benny Agbayani; Radasha Ho‘ohuli, Miss Hawaii USA 2006; Carolyn Sapp, Miss America 1992; and actress Vivian Wu (“The Last Emperor” and “The Joy Luck Club”), according to HPU officials.

Former Alaska Gov. and GOP vice presidential candidate  Sarah Palin attended one semester at Hawai‘i Pacific College in 1982.

The Future of HPU

HPU continues to expand by developing doctorate programs in physical therapy, nurse practitioner and clinical psychology, as well as providing advance degrees in physician assistants and occupational therapy to meet the demands of the community.

It also is turning the space once occupied by Gordon Biersch restaurant into a student center. Gotanda says it’s the perfect place “to put a student center where you’re fronting the water and have a premier space for students to come together and gather and really form a community.”

University officials maintain that with belt tightening and growing enrollment, HPU has managed to meet its financial commitments and even provide raises for its staff and faculty.

Gotanda said HPU has even been able to meet its remaining $70 million commitment that Aloha Tower Market Place held when he assumed the presidency. “Even with the pandemic we are breaking even.”

It would appear HPU continues to provide an international city environment where students even have the chance “to take books to the beach to study,” Gotanda adds.

It’s all part of what Gotanda sees as HPU’s mission – to bring together students from different regions to educate them to be leaders in the world.

Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.


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