Before he officially takes the helm of Hawaii Pacific University in July, Geoffrey Bannister will travel to Boston to welcome his daughter’s second child. Then he’s Honolulu-bound to take custody of another child of sorts: the masters-level university that for 40 years has been the province of its founding president, Chatt Wright.
Bannister, 65, feels he can do this with some ease. For starters, it’s a homecoming. He was born in Manchester, England, but at age 10 the family put down roots in New Zealand. Ultimately he came to North America — Toronto — to earn his doctorate in geography, finally becoming a U.S. citizen in 1989.
His resume chronicles his globetrotting history and his experience in administration of various international education institutions, most recently as a head of his own firm to raise capital for distance-education programs internationally and, two years ago, as president of Schiller International University in Florida.
But now he’s transplanted his household — wife Jerri and their dog — to Hawaii, just in time for the long-promised "Pacific century." Ahead lie some lofty growth plans for HPU, including the expansion of its Windward campus, and some earthbound goals — namely, finding a house, houseguests to follow.
"We’ve declared for our friends that Hawaii is a no-flyover zone," he said with a smile. "They have to come and stay for a while."
QUESTION: HPU has weathered the economic downturn without too much loss of enrollment. How was that accomplished?
ANSWER: Over the years they’ve managed to put away a modest endowment that rode out the storm well. So, because of the tuition levels, which for a private university in the U.S. are very low, and aggressive recruiting, we’ve actually grown through it.
Q: Was your previous experience in international programs your chief asset in winning this job?
A: I think from the perspective of the search committee, that was one thing that they stressed, that the international side sets HPU apart from the University of Hawaii. We both have a service function for this community, but we also have, because of the "Pacific" in our name, more of an international focus, and that’s something that Chatt Wright put in place strategically a long time ago. So I think the board’s interest in that is so we can begin building up the number of students we can attract from other countries. And that can bring talent to Hawaii. I talked the other day to the governor for quite a while about that. He was keen to see that happen, because we know we have to keep building our talent base.
Q: Is the draw primarily from Asia, or does it include Europe?
A: We get a lot of students from the Scandinavian countries. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more from the U.K. because they just this year changed their tuition from the equivalent of about $2,000 a year to $14,500. So I think we’ll be seeing a lot more students, because that’s pretty close to our tuition level. And there’s going to be about 180,000 students in Britain who can’t get into the universities, because the universities are cutting the number of places because they’re not having as much money.
Q: Has that happened in other countries as well?
A: Gradually, but nowhere more dramatically than in Britain. They’re all having to do that. There’s a global trend going on in this, because the World Bank, for example, is forcing this on Brazil. What they’re doing is saying, "We will give you these development loans on one condition: You take all the money you’re spending on education and spend it all on K-12, and then privatize higher education."
So it’s not just shortage of funds within the system; it’s that the world financial system is pushing countries to do this.
Q: Educationally, is it a challenge to adapt curriculum to international needs?
A: Yes. One of the things is that our business culture is very different from, say, a Japanese or Chinese or even a European business culture. So we have to be sensitive when we’re teaching students from those countries that most of them will be going back into that culture. … And that’s why we like to have student and faculty exchanges as part of the internationalization of the campus, so we stay current with them. … I think we have over 100 agreements with international universities. Some of them are not operating at the level they need to be at, so our challenge is to increase the flow of numbers through those agreements that we have in place …
Q: Is business primarily the curriculum with this gap that needs bridging?
A: It’s in the intersection between business and science. In many ways, it’s the gap between those two that most needs to be bridged.
The fastest growth area in graduate education in the U.S. at the moment is something called professional masters of science, or professional science masters, PSM. … This has been developed over the past 10 years by U.S. graduate schools because corporations say, "We’re tired of having MBAs (masters of business administration) who can’t run a technology company because they don’t know enough science. And don’t send me another Ph.D. who can’t manage anything." So industry and academia got together and developed a professional science masters, where you admit a student who already has an undergraduate degree in science. Then you take them further in the particular subspecialty in the science area, and give them the core courses of the MBA. That’s the kind of need that meets both the educational driver and the corporate needs.
Q: What is it that gives you that flexibility?
A: One thing is we don’t have Ph.D. programs. So our faculty value a masters degree more than the typical research university faculty would, because they want to teach Ph.D.s. So it’s more a natural fit for us, because we’re what’s called a masters-degree-level university. And the second thing is, as a private institution, we don’t have a lot of state regulation. So it’s just largely a matter of a small number of people being able to come together to make the decision.
Q: What are some other growth areas?
A: The biggest is nursing. Hawaii Pacific has the largest nursing program in Hawaii, and we will be looking at some further graduate programs in nursing. And we know there’s a huge demand there, both locally and globally … it’s very full-range. I think there are about 1,200 students in nursing.
Q: About the plans to develop the Windward campus: To what extent will that be the primary HPU presence? Or will it still be the downtown campus?
A: I think what we’ll see is the lower (Windward) campus being where the students start their education and receive their introduction and their residential environment, where we have the chance to cover the core curriculum, the great books, the humanities, the basic science courses, and then for the last two years, transfer to the downtown campus, join the real world and get their professional training here … But we’ll have a strategic plan unveiled by Christmas time so … the faculty may hit me over the head if I get it wrong (laughs) … The urban presence is wonderful, and that’s really vital to us, so you can expect us to be on multiple campuses, where we’re needed. And the downtown is very much a part of our structure.
Q: This university has always been Chatt Wright’s baby. How do you see yourself adding your own stamp to HPU?
A: I think we just need to get used to the fact that college presidents change; there are natural transitions. He’s done a great job; I bring a different set of skills. Five, 10 years from now, it’ll be time for me to hand it to somebody else, they’ll come with a new set of skills, and Chatt and I will both be flyfishing together.
I think there’s a natural transition, because what he’s been doing is developing it more and more as an international university. And so my phase will take it another step further in the same direction before somebody else joins it.
Q: What is that next step?
A: I think the next step is really more research, more graduate-level work, more global connectedness, both in terms of recruiting students and developing partnerships. And there’s a lot to do just in that; that’s almost a significant cultural change itself. Much stronger community connections, I think, than we’ve been able to develop.
Our connections in the past have largely been through students, so I would expect more and stronger connections between us and local industry.
Q: What have been those student connections?
A: To give you an example: In the Oceanic Institute we’ve got some very good research going on shrimp breeding. We will probably look to commercialize some technology out of that.
We will be looking at strengthening our masters in marine science to do that, and we’ll be looking for other businesses that are in similar areas that want to recruit some of the students that want to get involved with the shrimp breeding operations.
I can see us having 10 or a dozen of these points of focus, targeted research areas where we partner with business and bring our academic skills and match that with some training programs.