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Get to know provost Dr. Matthew Liao-Troth

    By Pavel Stankov. August 26, 2013 - 11:22 am

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Kalamalama is trying to create a portrait of  provost Dr. Matthew Liao-Troth for our readers, and gain perspective on the direction the school is going.

K: Maybe you’d like to start with your experience in higher education.

I took my undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in American Studies. I was very passionate about Colonial American History, 18th century American History, and the point of contact with the Native Americans.

After college I had two job offers: a small computer company that I wasn’t sure it was going to go anywhere called Apple, and the Boy Scouts of America. I went to work for the Boy Scouts; ran summer camps, did fundraising, trained people. I wanted to have a better understanding of the book-keeping, accounting, and managing of people aspect of that job so I went back to school to get my MBA (at San Diego State University). There wasn’t a lot of formal education in nonprofit management. Around that time (1990) Peter Drucker had a book – Managing the Nonprofit Organization – it inspired me to go on and get my PhD (in Management and Policy at University of Arizona) and teach and do research in nonprofit management.

My first faculty job was at DePaul University in Chicago in the Master’s in Public Service program. It’s the oldest Master’s degree for nonprofit management in the country – it was founded in the 1970s.

I started getting offers from schools – a couple in Singapore, and a couple in the U.S. I decided to go to Western Washington University. I got more involved in university issues: We had a faculty senate instead of a faculty assembly and I ended up its president. We had some significant leadership change – the provost left and the university president retired, and we had the faculty unionized. I became a department chair (of management) and got more and more interested in the big picture of how to run a university. Part of it was my background in the nonprofit sector, specifically managing volunteers. Faculty don’t generally do things for the money, but for the passion, so it’s very similar. Leading a university is leading a very complex organization that has a transformative impact on students’ lives.

I was recruited as a dean of the (J. Whitney Bunting) College of Business at Georgia College. I spent a lot of time working on the organizational culture of the college – how people felt about things and the reasons why they were doing them. Again, because of transition of leadership I had to step in as a provost on an interim basis. It was an interesting time and I enjoyed being a provost and I found it stimulating and fitting my academic background.

Then the opportunity came up here and it was a very good fit for my passions, my interests, and my family. And here I am.

K: When was the fist time you started talking to the HPU administration?

I was interviewed for the position last spring. A search firm was involved, so I met with them and we talked quite a bit about it. Then I applied towards the end of the application cycle and had a Skype interview with the search committee. After the interview I came to campus for three days, and it seemed to work out well. I had an offer and I accepted it.

K: Was that your first time on our campus?

I had been to Honolulu before and I was aware of Hawaii Pacific University from a long time ago when they used to advertise at the United Airlines magazine. But with the interview I went through all the HPU buildings on Fort Street, I went to Aloha Tower, Hawaii Loa, and the Oceanic Institute. Coming to Oahu I had been to Sea Life Park and driven by the Oceanic Institute, going to North Shore I had passed by Hawaii Loa, so I knew it was here, but I never looked deeply at the facilities.

K: What was your first impression of HPU?

It’s a pretty cool place. My first faculty job was at DePaul, which is a downtown Chicago urban university. It has Arts and Social Sciences up in Lincoln Park and then Business, Law and Computer Science downtown. They time the classes so you can take the subway between the campuses. Well it’s not exactly the same, but it seems fairly typical for an urban university. At Georgia College we had a residential daytime student campus – a small historic campus – and then we had a location in downtown Macon for primarily night classes and also had several graduate programs at Robins Air Force Base. Three different campuses, night students, military students, traditional students – it seems very familiar, even though I haven’t been affiliated with the university for long.

K: It seems like not too complicated of a transition.

So far, so good.

K: There has been deficit recently at HPU. Do we expect another one for the upcoming financial year?

I hope not. I wasn’t working for the university for the past several years, so I don’t know who made what decision when. But it’s unethical to have this year’s students pay for last year’s classes. It’s just wrong. As a steward of the tuition dollars for the students we have to live within our means and we have to do things intelligently. Sometimes things are convenient for the individual staff or faculty member, but they are not necessarily the best for a student and the university as a whole.

The challenge for a provost is to operationalize the mission. While the president works with the Board of Trustees on our vision and mission statement, our strategic goals and objectives, I have to translate that into a day-to-day operation. One of my biggest challenges right now is just getting to know all the people who work at Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Enrollment Management, understand their skill sets and the things they need to do and how we can best deliver an outstanding transformative educational experience.

K: Did you have a chance to meet everybody?

Not yet. Some of the faculty were not here during the summer, and I have a lot of ongoing meetings. As soon as I arrived the president was more than happy to share as much as he could with me. And then I get a lot of my work done in the evenings, though I already have a backlog of emails I have to follow back up. Somebody could ask me a very simple question but I have to find the whole history of the issue before we could figure it out.

K: Do you think a deficit for a second year in a row might be an accreditation issue?

Maybe, but that’s like saying “running back and forth across the street might get you a ticket.” Yes, you might get a ticket, but the big issue is that the cars are driving around and they are going to hit you. WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) is concerned with any school that has financial difficulties but I am much more concerned with living within our means. That’s what we have to do as a university. Just like nonprofits – otherwise they stop existing. Faculty and staff may be dedicated to the mission but they’re not going to volunteer their time and go without pay. If we can’t make payroll, that’s a problem.

K: One of the biggest concerns from a student’s perspective is the cancelled classes. We understand it’s a balancing act and many variables need to be accounted but for students, because of the cancelled classes, it takes longer to graduate, which means they would be spending more money.

That shouldn’t happen. We did cancel some classes but the advisors were looking at their students’ schedules to make sure they get into a similar class or the same class – because a lot of the classes we cancelled were just extra sections of the same class. We need to plan out ahead of time a better schedule so we never cancel classes. We have advisors, we have software for scheduling and we can make things a lot simpler and better when we plan ahead. That’s a big focus right now – coordinating all these different parts of the university to make this successful, as opposed to “Let’s just schedule 10,000 classes and we’ll cancel 9,000 of them.” That doesn’t work.

K: Talking about the vision of the university, a lot of the buzz is around Aloha Tower and the expansion and development there. Our place in Honolulu seems to be changing. In general, how do you see the university’s role in downtown?

Right now we are the biggest venture downtown. With (the acquisition of) Aloha Tower we become one of the bigger lease-holders downtown. It allows us by having a more visible presence to better impact downtown for the benefit of our students. You look at the businesses around us and they are happy that Fort Street exists, but they wouldn’t be able to make it as successful if the university was not here. It’s a partnership between many organizations and we’re one of the major players.

Having Aloha Tower allows us to have a much higher profile, but it also allows us to be a part of the conversation of what goes on downtown: how we synchronize lights, crosswalks. We can go up to the city and say, “We’ve got 3,500 students walking up and down Fort Street every day where they have to cross six lights. We need to do a better job. It needs to be safer.” It (HPU’s pronounced presence) helps in terms of looking at the bus system. We have a big impact on how The Bus operates in downtown Honolulu.

My vision is that people would see our relationship with downtown Honolulu as people see NYU’s relationship with downtown New York. It’s “the university of downtown.” It’s the type of urban university I want to go to because it makes the urban experience exciting and fun. It doesn’t just happen to be in downtown but it makes the urban experience come alive in an academic way. It’s the downtown real life experience where you can see the greater picture of what happens in society.

K: Our strategic plan is to be the great nonprofit private university in Hawaii.

We’re definitely the best private independent university in Hawaii. The issue now is that we want to be looked at the same way that other premier private universities are looked at. We don’t want people to be deciding between West Oahu and HPU; we want them to be deciding between Trinity University in Texas and HPU, or New York University and HPU.

Last year we pulled from 42 of the 50 states and 60 odd countries around the world. We are a worldwide university, but we do need to do a better job at explaining to the world who we are. We need to have better facilities for faculty and students – better classrooms and offices.

K: How is the experience of attending HPU going to be different in observable future?

It’s going to have a greater student life experience especially as we add the housing space at Aloha Tower. So between the dormitories at Hawaii Loa and the sophomore and junior apartments at Aloha Tower we’ll be able to develop a better sense of community. If you leave Fort Street or Hawaii Loa it’s hard to feel like you’re at HPU. We don’t really have a strong intramural program so that’s something we need to be developing. We’re still going to be scattered about in different locations but you can still have a sense of place. The Pali Highway at Hawaii Loa straight on down to Fort Street – that is our space. And even if you cross it you’ll have the sense of crossing through HPU, and even if it’s one street wide and 8 miles long, that’s our campus.

K: What about the development of the athletics?

Athletics is not a part of the provost office so I don’t know much about it yet. I do know we are adding Acrobatics and Tumbling this spring – kind of a conversion of the cheer squad, which is not competitive into an NCAA sanctioned sport. So we’re using the same skills, but now there will be an athletic scholarship for that.

K: What about the discussion about a larger facility for the varsity teams over at Aloha Tower?

They’re still doing the master plan, but I don’t think there is enough space. I think it would be wonderful if we had our own facilities for all athletic teams. It comes again to finances – what is more important: offering a class so you can graduate, building a nice office for the student newspaper, or building an athletic field? It always comes down to making sure that the classes are the first priority because we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for students.

This interview was conducted prior to the FY 2014 budget was balanced.

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Photo courtesy of HPU