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Straney to depart UH-Hilo

University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Don Straney is leaving Aug. 1 for a higher-level leadership position within the UH system.

The university confirmed Straney’s new appointment Wednesday, which was first reported to the Tribune-Herald last month by a source close to the university on condition of anonymity. Straney will become UH’s new vice president of academic planning and policy, one of seven vice presidents who serve under UH President David Lassner. Straney is replacing Risa Dickson.

A national search for Straney’s replacement will begin immediately, the university said Wednesday. During the transition, Marcia Sakai, UH-Hilo’s vice chancellor for administration, will serve as interim.

“My seven years in Hilo have been a tremendous learning experience that has touched me deeply,” Straney, 65, said in an email to the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday. “I am grateful for the support of the community as we worked together to improve the quality of life through higher education. The lessons I have learned will last me the rest of my life. And although I will be leaving Hilo, Hilo will never leave me.”

Straney came to UH-Hilo in 2010 from a dean position in California. He’s leaving behind a campus currently working to reverse declining enrollment, bolster low occupancy in its newest Hale ‘Alahonua dormitory and reorganize its largest academic college on campus.

UH-Hilo also is about a year shy of opening its long-awaited pharmacy school building, which currently is under construction. The pharmacy college has operated out of five temporary sites since opening in 2007.

The university said Wednesday that Straney has increased the number of Native Hawaiian students, transfer students and science, technology, engineering and math students. He also is credited with helping start last year an on-campus LGBTQ+ Center, which is a place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and/or questioning individuals to convene, access resources and get help.

UH-Hilo also experienced improving graduation rates under Straney’s leadership: The campus reported 18.7 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen who enrolled in fall 2012 had graduated by spring 2016, its highest four-year graduation in several years. That graduation rate dipped as low as 8.2 percent among fall 2007 freshmen.

“Don has done an outstanding job at UH Hilo and I know he will excel as our vice president of academic planning and policy,” Lassner said Wednesday in a statement.

Straney also garnered some criticism during his tenure.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, who chaired the Senate’s higher education committee last year, called UH-Hilo’s plan to increase enrollment during the next five years “disappointing.”

The campus has reported a decline in enrollment every year since 2012. In April, it released a plan to add about 300 students by the 2020-21 school year. Kahele told the Tribune-Herald he didn’t think that target was high enough.

“I’ve always been an advocate that we need a change of leadership at the UH-Hilo,” Kahele said Wednesday, adding he thinks enrollment targets could change once new permanent leadership takes office. “I believe the (student) decline at UH-Hilo, as well as the issues we’ve dealt with at Hale ‘Alahonua, and just kind of the stagnant development of programs and new things for students at UH-Hilo require a new leadership and vision.

“I think Chancellor Straney has done the best job he can but in my personal opinion I feel like we need a change in leadership.”

Straney is among the school’s longest-serving chancellors. His predecessor, Rose Tseng, served longest, from 1998-2010.

Straney and Sakai’s appointments are subject to approval by the UH Board of Regents at its July 20 meeting.

Email Kirsten Johnson at


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