HILO is an acquired taste. It is a slow-paced, tropical, small city that has seen better days.
puts UH-Hilo on the map
Longtime residents and boosters say social service agencies are one of the economic mainstays.
Its days as a sugar and political capital are gone.
It also rains a lot.
Out of all that, however, a gem is rising.
While the University of Hawaii-Manoa is mired in bickering and the faculty union has had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to beg people to support UH, in Hilo things are just the opposite.
It is the University of Hawaii-Hilo, the stepchild of the huge UH system, but now one of the glamour spots in education in Hawaii. Last year U.S. News and World Report ranked it third among public liberal arts colleges in the Western United States.
What happened is that Hilo, long threatened by volcanic eruptions, lashed by tidal waves and swamped with monsoon-like rains, was hit by another force of nature: Rose Y. Tseng, senior vice president for the UH system and chancellor of UH-Hilo.
Before she arrived, students and faculty would shrug off UH-Hilo, saying , "What do you expect? It's just Hilo."
Today faculty members are giving speeches, saying, "UH-Hilo is a goldmine. It is ready to explode."
Tseng was born in China, grew up on Taiwan and is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Kansas State University and a master's and doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley.
She is the former chancellor of two California junior colleges with a combined enrollment of 10,000.
Her work with the UH-Hilo campus has been impressive. Enrollment has grown by 50 percent in the past 10 years, with large increases coming during her two years.
She is constantly praising the staff and faculty.
"We don't have teaching assistants. Our faculty responsibility is to teach," she said.
In just two years she has become one of the two or three most important people on the Big Island, says real estate agent John Tolmie.
Big Island Democratic state Sen. David Matsuura calls her "the best thing that happened to Hilo."
FOR everyone who says that Hawaii is a difficult place to work, that it doesn't accept strangers or that you have to spend years learning your place, Tseng proves the exception.
Her great attraction now, however, is that her former community colleges were in Silicon Valley in California and she is personal friends with some of the high-tech leaders there.
"She is going to bring high tech to Hawaii. She is going to bring the money in," Matsuura says.
Tseng is at the Legislature now, looking for money to fund improvements to the Hilo campus. She wants an extra $5 million, and within moments of saying that, she has the charts and lists to show what she can do with it, who is backing her and if you can't afford that much, here is what she can do for $2.5 million or even less.
Sen. Dan Inouye has always said that if he were to push one thing for Hawaii's economic success early in statehood, it would have been to have four-year colleges on all the neighbor islands. If that had happened and Hawaii had more like Rose Tseng pushing and praising, Hawaii would today be the education magnet of the Pacific.
Hawaii Revised Statutes
Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org