Punahou’s new president, Michael Latham, can see from his wood-paneled office the spot where his naval- officer father dropped him off as a 12-year-old for his first day of school.
“I can remember very clearly what it was like to be a brand-new Punahou student,” said Latham, who entered seventh grade in 1980. “It’s really quite moving, actually, for me to look and see that spot. … I was definitely nervous but also really excited and eager to dive in.”
As Punahou’s 3,750 students start school Wednesday, Latham will be at the helm, replacing Jim Scott, who retired after 25 years on the job. At 51, Latham left his post as vice president for academic affairs and dean of Grinnell College in Iowa to come home.
“I feel a really strong sense of gratitude to Punahou, and a big part of what drew me back was the sense that I have the opportunity to serve a school that made such a big difference for me,” said Latham, still lean like the long-distance runner he was in high school.
His talented teachers could have pursued remarkable careers in a range of fields, he said, but chose to work with students and became his role models. His mother’s commitment to her faculty and students as a counselor and principal in local public schools also inspired him.
“It was at Punahou that I came to understand that the really important question for me was not just what I was good at, but really what I cared about, what mattered to me, what am I able to commit myself to,” said Latham, who graduated in 1986.
“I think for many students at a really competitive and high-performing school such as this one, there’s a lot of ‘How can I distinguish myself, where can I excel?’” he said. “I came to understand that wasn’t the really important question. The important question was really what were my values.”
One teacher who left a lasting impact on Latham was Jay Seidenstein, who taught Advanced Placement U.S. history with questions that centered on ethical issues and required reflection. Now retired, Seidenstein remembers those classroom discussions vividly.
“I taught at Punahou for 37 years, and in that time I’ve had many brilliant and talented students, but when asked to name my best student, I’ve never hesitated to name Mike,” Seidenstein told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser. “I was especially impressed with his almost unbelievably intelligent contributions to class discussions — he seemed to speak in carefully constructed and proofread paragraphs.”
“These were a bunch of really smart kids, and they were awed,” he recalled. “But not intimidated, because that was not Mike’s way. He had a genuine modesty, and he wanted to hear what the others in the class had to say.”
Latham earned his undergraduate degree at Pomona College and a doctorate in history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., as a history professor, making a name as a history scholar and publishing two books, before shifting to college administration.
Listening to diverse points of view is something Latham sees as crucial in his new job as well as for any well-rounded education.
“It’s really engaging with multiple perspectives that allows us to solve problems more effectively,” he said in an interview. “This is really what the future market wants: people who work in teams with people of diverse backgrounds and experiences.”
Core academic goals
He highlights three core academic goals for Punahou students:
>> Instilling essential habits and skills for lifelong learning and adaptation.
>> Applying knowledge to concrete, real-world problems.
>> Helping students become resilient and able to navigate uncertainty.
The importance of that third component became evident to him in recent years at Grinnell College. Like Punahou, the liberal arts school selects top-notch students and covers their demonstrated financial need, so cost and academic rigor tend not to be big problems.
More often, if students ran into trouble or didn’t complete their degree, it had to do with “the area of social and emotional learning,” Latham said.
“Did the student feel like he or she belonged there?” he asked. “Did the student have the ability to manage the stress and anxiety of college life? Did the student have the ability to establish relationships and engage in activities that give them a sense of purpose? Oftentimes those variables are ones which I think many schools haven’t given enough attention to.”
Latham is a new Punahou parent himself, along with his wife, Jennifer, who will soon be ordained as an Episcopal priest after completing divinity school. His younger daughter is entering ninth grade at Punahou while his older daughter chose stay in Iowa for her last year of high school, much as he wanted her to try his alma mater.
He defines Punahou broadly as a “knowledge community” and sees it thriving when it casts its net broadly, forging external partnerships and even educating parents — including himself.
“The learning that takes place shouldn’t stop with our students,” he said. “Our faculty are learning; our administrators, I hope, are learning. So too should our parents and the wider community that we’re part of.”
Touching on parenting issues, he recalled a recent New York Times article that described “snowplow parents,” who cleared all possible obstacles from their children’s paths in an effort to help them succeed. As it turns out, that approach can handicap them instead.
One line that stuck with Latham was a quote from author Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford: “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”