Getting Community Relations Down to a Science

Updated Nov 18, 2015

For Dr. Rose Tseng, bringing scientific advancement to the University of Hawaii at Hilo is a delicate balancing act.

As chancellor since 1998, Tseng has responded sensitively to native Hawaiians who often worry they are being overlooked amid such advancement.

One of the higher-profile examples lies in the recent selection of the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea as the site for the world’s most advanced telescope. The university manages Mauna Kea’s summit, which is where the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will be located. Once completed, it will allow astronomers to study the universe with nine times the collecting area of today’s largest optical telescopes.

The $1.2 billion project is a partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and a consortium of Canadian universities.

“As prestigious as TMT is, local people must be able to participate in order for TMT to become a true success,” Tseng says. “You cannot simply hire the locals as janitors. Locals must be encouraged to work in astronomy and engineering. Our students must be encouraged to participate, too.”

Tseng plans to step down as chancellor in June. She expects her successor to face challenges in marrying science and research to Hawaiian cultural practices and traditions. Mauna Kea, for instance, is considered sacred by some indigenous people. Among other things, it’s a religious site that houses burial grounds.

During her tenure, Tseng has increased Hilo’s federal research funding from $3 million to $20 million annually and  has overseen expansion of its science and technology park, an entity that features a $28 million publicly accessible astronomy center.

Tseng has presided over academic growth that includes dramatic expansion of indigenous language and culture education, an effort that makes the university the only one nationally offering a doctorate in indigenous language studies.

At least 41 percent of Hilo’s 3,773 students are Pacific Islander or Asian-American. More than half are first-generation college students and one-third receive federal Pell Grants. About two-thirds come from families on the four islands of Hawaii.

Tseng credits a summer spent in Ethiopia in the 1960s with teaching her empathy for indigenous populations. At the time, her father was a surgeon working for the World Health Organization.

“I saw how unfair the world could be,” recalls Tseng, who holds a doctorate in nutritional sciences. “Many people were hungry, had hardly any clothes.”

Dr. Leslie Wong, University of Northern Michigan president, says, although he is pleased Tseng will step down with a strong portfolio of accomplishments, her departure marks a substantial loss. “She represents about 15 percent of Asian-American presidents at four-year public schools.”

In 2006, Asians made up only 0.9 percent of all college presidents nationally, according to the American Council on Education, which recently hosted Tseng, Wong and their counterparts in Washington, D.C., for the first in a series of meetings aimed at building a bigger pipeline of Asian-Americans into college presidencies.

Tseng was chancellor of the West Valley-Mission Community College District in California for five years before taking the top job in Hilo. A longtime professor at San Jose State University, she also was dean of its College of Applied Sciences and Arts.

She plans to take a one-year sabbatical once she departs the chancellorship. Her future plans remain undetermined.