Island Portrait: Visionary

For thirty years, Dr. Clyde Sakamoto has been moving Maui’s college forward—in many directions at once.


Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn | Portrait by Michael Gilbert

Dr. Clyde SakamotoWalking into Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto’s office at UH–Maui College is a little like walking into the Congressional Archives and Tomorrowland, merged. Burgeoning bookshelves, memorabilia and the desk of a very engaged administrator fill the small room. At a conference table too large for the space, but not nearly large enough for the piles of folders, stacks of books, models of buildings, and countless papers it holds, UH-Maui staff and stakeholders are still engaged in lively discussion as they gather their laptops and notes in closing (but not ending) their meeting.

As the congenial group departs, Dr. Sakamoto invites me in and offers me a seat. “This won’t take long, right?” Clyde Sakamoto is never at a loss for words—unless of course, the subject is Clyde Sakamoto.

This is my second attempt to interview Clyde, and already he is up to the same tricks—directing attention away from himself. “This part of the table is what we are working on now, but this part,” he gestures at the lion’s share of material, “is what’s important going forward.” His smile broadens. Going forward is what Clyde does best.

To understand just how far forward he has brought UH–Maui College, it helps to look back at what it was: a small community college in the middle of a rural neighbor island with few educational resources. Beyond its physical campus in Kahului, Maui Community College also served students in Hana, at the end of a long and serpentine highway, and on Molokai and Lanai, separated by ocean channels. There was no Internet. And to add to that challenge, Maui County residents who wanted to pursue a higher degree had to fly off to Oahu or the Big Island, often leaving jobs, spouses and children behind.


What the college did have as early as 1983 was a cable-television station. Clyde saw the far-reaching potential—and by 1987 he had launched Skybridge, the state’s first interactive distance-learning project. “Back then,” says U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, “‘distance learning’ was just a concept, an idea for the future. Clyde researched the options and fit the different pieces together.” Through live TV broadcasts, Skybridge enabled students on Molokai and Lanai, in remote Hana and even Lahaina, to “attend” classes being held on campus in Kahului.

Back then, “Community” was literally Maui College’s middle name. The word may have disappeared from its new appellation within the University of Hawaii, but not from Clyde’s vision. As he takes me through the many projects the campus is engaged in, it’s clear that his goals have not changed: to prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs, and provide Maui County with the skilled individuals a changing community will need.

Clyde places his hand on a huge pile of folders. “This stack is all about how we can better prepare our students for the visitor industry. We have more competition every year. And more opportunity. China is going to be a huge market. We are very active in discussions and relationships with China,” he tells me. And before I can ask a question, he has moved on.

“And there,” he gestures across the table, “is our study on the aging process and longevity. The science of aging is going to be more and more important as Baby Boomers get older. The research we are doing into the needs of our seniors, and where they are most at risk—nutrition, social interaction, mental health, economics—will tell us what kind of workforce we should be educating, what degrees will provide the complex skills needed for this population.”

The chancellor’s deep interest in these subjects is matched only by his enthusiasm for a dozen others—no, make that two dozen. “Getting to the needs of the community and involving students in finding solutions through education—that’s what a learning institution should be doing.”

Building on Community

Dr. Clyde SakamotoA $26 million cutting-edge science building, a state-of-the-art, $16 million Maui Culinary Academy, a $20 million information-and-technology building . . . the sheer number of educational facilities and training centers built on campus during Sakamoto’s administration can make your head spin. Far more important, however, are the programs he has been able to bring to the campus. It would take a book to describe the full contours of this achievement, but let’s start by saying that during Sakamoto’s tenure the college has attracted more than $104 million in building grants and $120 million for educational programs.

Nancy Johnson, chair of UH–Maui’s nationally accredited nursing division, remembers that when Sakamoto arrived, her program was in danger of disappearing. She had a four-bed hospital lab and thirty-five students. “We prayed before every site visit, because when it rained, the beds in the lab got wet.”

Clear-eyed, thoughtful, but relentlessly focused, Sakamoto tackled the nursing division’s problems not just by seeking money, but by teaching Johnson how to seek it. “He taught me everything I know about management and finance,” says Johnson, “He was always asking me questions of how to meet the needs of underserved people, and taught me how to use grants as an available resource.”

Sakamoto urged Johnson to draft ideas, and brought in the state’s public-health director, who shared with her that the greatest problem for Hawaii’s population was, surprisingly, not diabetes or heart disease, but oral health.

“We found federal, state and county resources to help more than 20,000 people without access to dental care,” Johnson recalls. “Clyde absolutely believed in us and inspired us.”

The division is now UH–Maui College’s Department of Allied Health, and Johnson chairs a nurse-managed clinic, a nursing laboratory with a high-fidelity Sim-Man and Sim-Baby for hands-on nursing training, and an oral-health center that serves uninsured and Medicaid-eligible patients, as well as training desperately needed dental assistants. The UH–Maui Nursing Program is today one of the most respected in the state.

Jim Coon, captain and owner of Trilogy Excursions, recalls how, twenty years ago, Clyde turned a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway into a multimillion-dollar workforce-development project. “At that time, the Lanai community was in transition from agriculture to tourism,” Coon says. “People were really displaced. Our company had initiated a program giving away a turkey and a bag of rice to every family. When Clyde heard what we were doing, he saw an opportunity to personally reach residents. He drafted a survey that I’d say three-quarters of the families filled out.” Then Sakamoto got that survey to his old boss, Senator Inouye.

His efforts helped launch the 1997 Rural Development Project that eventually brought the state more than $44 million in U.S. Department of Labor grants for workforce retraining throughout the university.

“About a third of those funds went to infrastructure investment at community colleges across the state,” says Dan Regan, statewide director for the Rural Development Project, which is headquartered at UH-Maui College. “Another third went to workforce retraining,” enhancing and upgrading workers’ skills. The last third developed courses in emerging job sectors.

From the beginning, Sakamoto has served as the university’s principal investigator for the Rural Development Project, shepherding some 300 projects statewide from application to completion—and making sure they could sustain themselves after federal money ended.

Visions of Opportunity

Perhaps the signal achievements of Sakamoto’s chancellorship are the four-year baccalaureates the campus now offers. Vice Chancellor John McKee calls these degrees “visions of opportunity.” Sakamoto studied educational programs like the applied baccalaureate of the European polytechnic system, then worked persistently to get four-year curricula developed and accredited by the UH Board of Regents.

His efforts resulted in degrees in applied science in engineering technology; applied business and information technology; and sustainable science management. They also impressed the UH Board of Regents, which changed MCC’s name to University of Hawaii–Maui College in 2011.

Last August, UH–Maui College threw a party to celebrate its new name and status. Senator Inouye, a proud guest of honor, announced a $20 million grant under the auspices of the National Science Foundation to benefit Native Hawaiian students at UH–Maui College. The grant will distribute $2 million a year for ten years for programs and scholarships as part of the funding proposal for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope scheduled to be constructed at the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory, better known as “Science City.”

Once complete, the ATS Telescope will be the largest on Earth. The NSF program, “Akeakamai I Ka La Hiki Ola (AIK): Scientific Exploration beneath the Life-Bringing Sun,” will prepare the descendants of the Islands’ first people for tomorrow’s high-tech careers, with courses in science, technology, engineering and math offered in the Hawaiian language. UH–Maui’s new science building, slated for completion in July 2012, is designed to further collaborative studies with Science City. The building will include classrooms, offices, laboratories, an auditorium—and energy: a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic and 16-kilowatt wind-turbine system providing power for the campus.

The August event also introduced new programs like the Hawaiian Music Institute. Led by Emmy Award-winner George Kahumoku Jr., the institute will support the visitor industry and the careers of individual musicians, while preserving Hawaiian tradition and culture.

These degrees and programs (and we’re only naming a few) make it possible for students to complete a full college education without leaving Maui—an option that could change the financial and cultural paradigm of our island.


Clyde Sakamoto could rest quite comfortably on these laurels, but shows no sign of doing so. “The dynamics of information available are incredible,” Clyde tells me. “How we learn to use those tools is critical to our future. And, although we don’t talk about it a lot, finding empathetic members of the community who are willing and able to help financially is just as crucial. We would not be where we are today without our federal, state, county and private supporters.”

One of these partners is the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance, through which the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $300,000 to develop infrastructure for mass adoption of electric vehicles on Maui. Byron Washom, director of Strategic Energy Initiatives for the University of California at San Diego (one of the MEVA partners) was angling towards Oahu as the natural site for such a partnership. But as he said at the November 1 MEVA kickoff, “Oahu has committees; Maui has Clyde. When Clyde asks, people respond.”

“What is important,” Clyde says, summing up, “ is to teach our students to look at problems as opportunities to learn. From aging to invasive species, solar research to culinary arts, it’s the same formula: add value, reduce waste, anticipate needs. A university campus is an expression of what can happen, if you pay attention.

“Today we have opportunities unlike any other time in history. If we can harness the momentum already in place, get our small population organized, define geography and ecosystems, manage what we have been given—Maui will be a very interesting place to be. When the infrastructure of community and university come together, a lot more can happen.”

The Chancellor’s Award

For the past twenty years, community leaders have volunteered their expertise to Maui’s college as members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council. These days, they are also developing an endowment to fund a $10,000 annual Chancellor’s Award honoring Clyde Sakamoto.

Because Dr. Sakamoto sees education and entrepreneurship as mutually beneficial, the council decided to choose recipients with entrepreneurial ideas. “Recipients may be college students or others from the community,” says Susan Wyche, director of Special Projects at UH–Maui. “The goal is to stimulate entrepreneurial ideals into viable businesses.”

For information about how you can participate or contribute, contact Ray Tsuchiyama at (808) 984-3471. Or write “UH Foundation,” UH–Maui College, 310 Kaahumanu Ave., Kahului, HI 96732.


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