LAIE, Hawaii The journey of newly inaugurated BYU-Hawaii President Steven C. Wheelwright, fresh from the nation's premier graduate School of Business at Harvard University of Boston, Mass., has taken him five time zones west to a different world.
He's gone from the bracing northeast seaboard to the embracing South Pacific; from academia to macadamia, and from the Halls of Ivy to Aloha, Ivy that's Ivy Kahalepuna, his gracious Polynesian secretary.
This 60-year-old emeritus educator, a Baker Foundation Professor, a former senior associate dean and author of half a dozen books on business strategy, is now president of a 2,400-student body of some 70-plus nationalities ranging from developing island kingdoms to major Asian economic powers.
Where he worked with graduate students striving for the top, now he is helping some students lift themselves up from local economies many the first generation in their families to gain an education. Their wills are bent not toward winning the top jobs in the U.S.A., but toward returning to their homelands and making a difference to their Church and communities. He and his wife, Margaret, have also found time to teach a missionary preparation class.
And the new president couldn't be happier. "I obviously believe in the mission," he said.
Upon arriving on campus the first time, "the spirit is what strikes you," he said. "The spirit the students have," and the sense of commitment of the priesthood leaders, the faculty and staff. The students, he continued, are "very diverse, very active, very engaged."
And "this is the prettiest campus here it all looks fabulous."
The contrast between the two worlds isn't really different, he hastens to add. "I've spent all my life with academics, all my life with young people," noting that he has worked with undergraduates at both Harvard and Stanford, and has served as mission president and bishop of a singles ward. "I know what the world looks like to these young people. Students are students. There are plenty of challenges here, but there have been plenty of challenges everywhere I have been."
His approach in this rural, north shore campus on the island of Oahu is a personable one. He's had groups of students at his home. "Any good teacher becomes a model to his students," he said, something he practiced at Harvard. A year and a half ago, when his father, Max Wheelwright, died, he announced to his students that he would be away for the funeral. They asked how he was feeling. "I said, 'I feel terrific. My mom died four years ago and (ever since) my dad has been wanting to meet her on the other side."'
His MBA students responded with notes about their own faith, and even organized a contribution to the LDS Humanitarian fund in honor of his father.
"In the Church, we always hear that the Lord has reserved the best for the latter days," he said. "But the best aren't just the ones in the Church. The best are the best; there are incredible individuals out there."
Known for his ability to strategize complex problems, he's taken a personable approach to helping lower the price of education while at the same time making more room at the university for students.
He recently traveled to Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand where he met with priesthood leaders, local employment specialists and alumni. He wanted to understand their feelings. Their discussion led to an idea for the youth being pre-accepted at BYU-Hawaii, but first getting a year's college credits locally while preparing for missions and leaving for missions from home. After their missions, they would immediately enter BYU-Hawaii for a three-year stay until graduation.
Like the missionary program, the school is raising the bar for its students. This bar, he said, is more for spirituality than academics, with the goal of graduating well-educated students with integrity and character who will return to their homelands as leaders in the Church and community.
"We want students who are converted and follow the prophet, because those are the ones who are far more likely to return home," he said. "We are a Church school and we look and feel like a Church school, and we want to make sure it gets embedded in all that we do."
This approach of integrating spirituality with academics is a charge from the Church Educational System, that of "Helping build their testimonies as well as their ability to learn, with these two things being complementary, not separate."
He said that the gospel not only gives a common perspective to students, but it also gives a way of learning.
"I hope all our young men and young women are praying for help in their studies," he said. "I hope they are taking advantage about what they have learned in finding truth. The difference between this campus and some other campuses is that here we encourage debate and thinking to test ideas...but remember, in the end, God knows what is true so it does matter where they end up on answers. It matters to the Lord....All these things make a tremendous difference."
He paid tribute to his predecessor, Eric B. Shumway, now president of the Nuku'alofa Tonga Temple, for progress in unifying one of the United States' most multicultural campuses, where rivalries between cultures are centuries old.
"He's done a tremendous job."
He said that this challenge is not evident to many on the Mainland because there "we have both the culture and the gospel and we tend to lose sight of how strong the gospel culture can be in bringing people together and helping them to understand each other and giving them compassion for those around them."
E-mail to: [email protected]