John S.K. Kauwe III, first native Hawaiian to lead BYU–Hawaii, officially inaugurated as president by Elder Holland

John Sai Keong Kauwe III was officially installed as the 11th president of Brigham Young University–Hawaii, the first native Hawaiian to take the helm of the university.

Although he has been answering to the title of “president” for more than a year, COVID-19 restrictions delayed the official inaugural ceremonies. BYU–Hawaii switched to online-only instruction just two months before Elder Jeffrey R. Holland announced President Kauwe’s appointment as the new president of the Church-owned school in May 2020. At that time, he was 39 years old, the youngest president in the school’s history.

This fall 2021 semester marked the return of students to campus and the first opportunity to welcome and celebrate the university’s new leader.

With temperatures in the low 80s and a slight ocean breeze, members of the BYU–Hawaii campus community and other Church and community leaders gathered in the Cannon Activities Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, as Elder Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the executive committee of the board of trustees, conferred upon President Kauwe the rights, responsibilities and authority to act as the university’s chief executive officer, spokesman and overseer, as well as the school’s chief moral and spiritual officer. 

“The eternal welfare of these sons and daughters of God is and ever will be a principal concern for you in this singular, sacred trust being placed in you,” Elder Holland told the new president.

BYU–Hawaii students hold up signs and wave to the university’s new president and first lady as part of the Inauguration Parade for President John S.K. Kauwe III in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
BYU–Hawaii students hold up signs and wave to the university’s new president and first lady as part of the Inauguration Parade for President John S.K. Kauwe III in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

In accepting that apostolic charge, President Kauwe expressed gratitude on behalf of himself and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, for the past 15 months at the university. “Monica and I are grateful for every minute that we have been given to serve in this capacity. We would happily spend the rest of our days serving the students of BYU–Hawaii. We love Laie, we love BYU–Hawaii, and we love our students.”

In his remarks, Elder Holland commented that every now and then school should just be fun. “This is one of those days.”

A native son

Elder Holland noted several reasons the inauguration day was special. The most tender for him, he said, was the fact that for the first time in BYU–Hawaii’s history, a native son was being installed as president.

The school has had a remarkable series of presidents, a competent and creative list of administrators, Elder Holland said. However, all of them have been “haole” or “non-natives.” 

“But, today — today we install a son of Hawaii, and for me that may be the most significant indicator of the growth and maturity of this university of all the indicators that we are celebrating today,” Elder Holland said.

Get to know BYU–Hawaii’s new president — a native son of the islands

President Kauwe is a descendent of Kaleohano, one of the first converts to be baptized by Elder George Q. Cannon on the island of Maui. Elder Holland called President Kauwe “something of an island wonder boy,” who graduated from his high school on Molokai’i at age 16 and completed his bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from BYU at age 19 before his mission to Japan. 

President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, pose for a photo with students dressed in traditional attire as part of the Inauguration Parade in honor of his official installation as the 11th president of BYU–Hawaii on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, pose for a photo with students dressed in traditional attire as part of the Inauguration Parade in honor of his official installation as the 11th president of BYU–Hawaii on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

After earning master’s and doctorate degrees, President Kauwe worked as a genetic researcher before his career included stints as the chairman of the department of biology and dean of graduate studies at BYU. 

In his brief remarks, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, commissioner of the Church Educational System and a General Authority Seventy, observed that President Kauwe grabbed hold of education and used it to acquire further opportunities but did it in a way that involved the Lord.  

“Today, we inaugurate a bright, educated and administratively capable president. But above all, we inaugurate a president who wants to do what the Lord directs him to do,” Elder Gilbert said.

A special day

In his remarks, Elder Holland offered two other reasons the day’s events were historic. First, because they mark a fresh, new, ever-higher level of contribution by Brigham Young University–Hawaii to the world of higher education and the Church Educational System.

“Today, with the charge that has already been given to President Kauwe, we are hoping — indeed, expecting — that BYU–Hawaii will work in ever more harmony with her sister institutions to use our generous resources ever more effectively,” he said.

The principal target area for BYU–Hawaii will continue to be Pacific- and Asia-oriented areas of the Church. “We are in hopes that an ever-larger population of students and future leaders will come from these lands,” Elder Holland said.

On of the defining characteristics of BYU-Hawaii has always been its diversity. In the 2019-2020 school year, 48% of the student body were international students from 63 countries, including China, French Polynesia, Japan, Korea, Philippines, New Zealand, Republic of Samoa and Tonga.

BYU–Hawaii students hold up flags representing the diversity of the student body as part of the Inauguration Parade for President John S.K. Kauwe III in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
BYU–Hawaii students hold up flags representing the diversity of the student body as part of the Inauguration Parade for President John S.K. Kauwe III in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

Elder Holland said as leaders and administrators work to extend the resources of BYU–Hawaii to even more students, the assistance of the entire system will come into play with different kinds of help coming to campus from sister schools as BYU–Hawaii makes contributions to them in return. “The idea of a true emerging system in the Church is one reason today is not only special, but it is historic.”

Another reason the day was special, Elder Holland continued, is because it is one more step in the fulfillment of prophecy that is inextricably linked with the Laie campus. 

Presiding at a ceremony in Laie, Hawaii, in 1955, President David O. McKay broke ground Church College of Hawaii at this site.
Presiding at a ceremony in Laie, Hawaii, in 1955, President David O. McKay broke ground Church College of Hawaii at this site. Credit: Photo by Lee Cantwell, provided by BYU–Hawaii

From the famous flag-raising ceremony with then-Elder David O. McKay in 1921, “there have been prophecies and promises, projections and pioneering efforts to make this school something very special under the hand of the Lord and the guidance of His prophets,” Elder Holland said. “He blessed the school at that early time of its development to be an influence not for ‘thousands, not tens of thousands, but [for] millions of people’ who would come here.”

Twenty years later in 1973, President Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency said, “This college is [to be] a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of the Master Teacher have an opportunity to develop appreciation, tolerance and esteem for one another. For what can be done here interculturally in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth.”

What was true in 1973 is even more needed in the world today, which is riddled with divisiveness, conflict, animosity and politicization of almost everything, Elder Holland said. “Today is historic because we are making yet another step toward the fulfillment of prophecy on this campus.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during the inaugural ceremony for new BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III held in the Cannon Activities Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during the inaugural ceremony for new BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III held in the Cannon Activities Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

Prophetic direction

In his first address as an inaugurated president, President Kauwe cited many of the prophecies made about BYU–Hawaii that describe the mission for the school that is “well beyond worldly standards of education.”

Those associated with the university in the past, present and future all carry the sacred responsibility to bring these prophetic statements to pass, he said. “We are blessed to be called to this work — to gather the children of Israel, unify them as covenant people of the Lord here in Laie, and to prepare them to build and lead the kingdom of God in the Pacific Islands and Asia.”

Together, they will need to continue the work of serving the students from the Pacific Islands and Asia, of providing programs and experiences specifically developed for them and to find ways to serve more students and magnify their influence in the world.

President Kauwe said, like his predecessor, President John H. Tanner, he has seen the image of Zion in this school. 

President John S.K. Kauwe III accepts the charge given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as part of his inaugural ceremony as the 11th president of BYU–Hawaii in the Cannon Activities Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
President John S.K. Kauwe III accepts the charge given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as part of his inaugural ceremony as the 11th president of BYU–Hawaii in the Cannon Activities Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

“The highest aspirations of our prophetic founders, the very will of God, is that this university will be a true place of Zion, a refuge for our students, a defense for this community, and a missionary factor to influence millions of people; and thereby support the salvation of the children of men,” President Kauwe said.

He testified that service at Brigham Young University-Hawaii is part of the Savior’s work. “Together, we must continue His work.”

Elder Holland concluded the day’s events by noting the day was historic as well as fun, but the great work of BYU–Hawaii is still ahead. 

“We have looked far and wide to find the best to lead out in this next chapter of the quest. … We have asked him to step forward with that nobility of character for which Kaleohano was known and to build to maturity in a corner of the kingdom of heaven right here in Laie, the two tasks which the prophets have given us to do. We wish him God speed and every blessing necessary for success,” Elder Holland declared.

Tuesday’s festivities gathered many Church leaders and their spouses to campus, including Elder Holland’s wife, Sister Patricia Holland; Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson; Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Jill Johnson; Relief General President Jean B. Bingham and her husband, Brother Bruce Bingham, and Sister Christine Gilber, the wife of Elder Gilbert, who conducted the services.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland waves to the audience while on the podium with other general Church leaders for the inauguration ceremony of BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland waves to the audience while on the podium with other general Church leaders for the inauguration ceremony of BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: Mark Gatus, BYU–Hawaii

The program also included a greeting by Cy M. Bridges, who represented the Kupuna community, as well as greetings by Tēvita Ka′ili, dean of the faculty of culture, language and performing arts; Savaira Veikoso, student manager of clubs; and Justina Tavana, a 2003 BYU–Hawaii alum. The BYU-Hawaii Concert Choir provided music for the inaugural event, including the performance of a song titled “From This Place,” composed by Erica Glenn in honor of the ceremony, based on text from President McKay’s dedication of what was then known as the Church College of Hawaii.

The invocation was offered by BYU-Idaho President Henry J. Eyring, while Ensign College President Bruce C. Kusch offered the benediction.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the BYU–Hawaii events center. It is the Cannon Activities Center.