A Towering Vision At HPU
A string of fortuitous opportunities has seen John Gotanda through a prosperous career. Starting off as a musician in high school, he eventually went to business school before going into law and finally joining the world of academia. As Hawaii Pacific University’s incoming president, the man with a storied career is now guiding HPU toward the next phase of the university’s own evolution. With a new, waterfront campus, and plans to soon bid farewell to its campus at the foothills of the Ko‘olau mountains, Gotanda arrives at the school during a time of major change. He finds this period of transformation particularly promising.
It’s been 30 years since Gotanda left Hawaii to pursue a lively career on the Mainland. Born and raised in Manoa, he attended Manoa Elementary, Stevenson Middle School and Roosevelt High School. Perfectly content at home in the Islands, and playing keyboard for various bands professionally, Gotanda had no plan to ever leave Hawaii.
“By the time I got to the end of high school I realized, to the relief of my parents, that I wasn’t very good,” he laughs.
With his musical dreams over, he began working as a baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. Nevertheless Gotanda did go on to produce records and write songs, and one was even nominated for a Na Hoku (Song of Love, performed by Nohelani Cypriano and Danny Couch).
Ever-industrious, Gotanda was soon the manager at Dunkin’ Donuts before transferring to become manager of a prominent Ala Moana food establishment of the time, Lyn’s Delicatessen, where he worked while simultaneously earning his undergrad degree in business at University of Hawaii. Then he enrolled in law school at UH.
“In the final year of law school, I had the chance to take a job in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,” says Gotanda. “I thought I’d do that for two years and then come right back and start my career practicing law in Hawaii.”
Fate intervened and found Gotanda signing on with a job at Covington & Burling law firm in D.C., practicing international law.
“A lot of my work was helping American clients resolve disputes with foreign governments — fascinating cases that had me fly all over the world,” he says.
After 10 years of law, an opportunity to go into academia materialized. After 20 years in academia, moving up from professor to dean at Villanova University law school in Philadelphia, “The opportunity to come home and join the HPU community came up, and it was too terrific to pass up,” says Gotanda, who at the opening of the month officially replaced five-year president Geoffrey Bannister. “The mission of the university is one that fit in line with my vision of what an educational institution, particularly in Hawaii, should be doing — bringing students from all over the world to educate them and train them to be leaders in a global society. And HPU does it in a way that is different from many other institutions.”
The three things that most drew him to take up the university’s helm are its innovative academic programming, the student body and the overall HPU community. The academic programs provide personalized attention to each student both inside and outside of the classroom, including through hands-on training, internships and online courses.
“One professor told me that she customizes her class to fit the students who are in that class. The professors work on providing an individualized, academic experience, which promotes an active-learning environment.”
HPU boasts a student body that is an even mix of international, Mainland and local students.
“They come together in this unique setting to learn. It really is a student body and mix that you won’t find anywhere else.”
As for the community aspect, says Gotanda, students, faculty and alumni all focus on personally making a visible difference in society.
His own goal for the college is to highlight programs that are, as he says, “market-aligned and student-centered,” offering programs that give students the tools and experiences that employers and graduate schools are looking for.
“We want to provide the knowledge, skills and values for our students to be successful,” he says. “We offer varied degree programs with particular strengths in business and nursing — real growth areas.”
Ocean sciences is another specialty area particularly suited to Hawaii, and HPU’s Oceanic Institute (adjacent to Sea Life Park) tackles issues that affect the community at large. Gotanda describes sustainability-centered research out of the Waimanalo facility to grow disease-resistant shrimp. And successfully breeding yellow tang in captivity, which is something no one else has been able to do, meaning that all those sunshine-bright fish in aquariums have been depleting the ocean’s harvest … until now.
What’s most kept HPU, a 50-year-old institution, in headlines lately is its acquisition of Aloha Tower Marketplace and the release of its Kaneohe campus to Castle Medical Center. The Aloha Tower campus, the school’s “crown jewel,” as Gotanda refers to it, is comprised of classrooms, a student learning center, student commons, retail spaces and waterfront lofts that function at 100 percent occupancy, with a wait list.
“Aloha Tower has evolved from a traditional marketplace that welcomes people to Hawaii from all over the world, to a marketplace of ideas. Students come from all over the world to live and learn here.”
The waterfront space is only in its earliest stages of development, with plans in the coming years to transition HPU’s Kaneohe presence to a consolidated downtown campus.
Speaking of transitions, Gotanda has been visiting his native home over the years, with wife Brenda and their middle school children William and Kayla. Now the family has actually moved here. He notes that leaving their life on the East Coast had its expected challenges, but they’ve come to be enthusiastic about their new home. HPU’s new president looks forward to fishing with his son, catching up on the latest with Hawaii’s music scene, and revisiting a pastime he enjoyed while growing up: surfing. He’s planning to introduce his kids to the sport as well.
Meanwhile, Gotanda is making plans for HPU to expand its community presence.
“HPU has evolved over the years in a way that has made it an integrative part of the community,” he says. “I envision HPU playing an even bigger role in the downtown community, and in the overall local community too. I envision HPU partnering with the local community to find win-win situations to move all of us forward. I’ll be reaching out to the community to find and develop those partnerships.
“It’s an exciting time to be at HPU,” adds Gotanda. “HPU is a terrific institution, providing unique opportunities for students. And it’s an institution on the move. You will see exciting things from us in the future.”