HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
— A CONVERSATION WITH KRISHNA DHIR, DEAN OF UH-HILO’S COLLEGE OF BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS.
Krishna Dhir is an agent for change at UH-Hilo’s College of Business and Economics (COBE). In 2013, he was named its dean, and, as he sees it, “The college is a reservoir of intellectual capital that businesses will want to access. During the past few years, it was focused on acquiring international accreditation – which was, of course, vital to its standing and to attracting students. But now that we have accreditation, it’s time for us to focus on implementing the mission articulated by the college’s faculty members, and make progress toward achieving the goals defined by them.”
Dhir came to Hilo after running the business school at Berry College, in Rome, GA. But he is not your typical academic administrator. He does hold an MBA, which he earned in the late 1960s at UH-Manoa in Honolulu. But his initial preparation is in chemical engineering and PhD (from the University of Colorado at Boulder) is in operations research; and he worked for several years at a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. “It’s not uncommon for engineers to be involved in business schools,” he explained. “Engineers are typically obsessed with optimization, and there’s a whole aspect of the business school curriculum that focuses on that. In many areas of manufacturing, industrial engineers overlap with production managers: there is a commonality. The best engineers also have to be focused on finances, so there’s a good bit of overlap when it comes to operations research, management science, and methodologies.”
UH-Hilo’s COBE, he noted, is “an under-valued school. People here may not realize what an asset they have. It’s accredited internationally, which means that its alumni are considered fully qualified to go to graduate schools around the world.” And since COBE is fully accredited now, Dhir feels he can focus on bringing its certifiably high quality of education into the local business community.
“On the Big Island,” he said, “about half of the high school students go to college; and statewide, the percentage is only a little better. And when high school graduates go into the workforce, they soon discover they’re inadequately trained for mid-level management responsibilities. To take just one example: In hotel guest relations, resort operators here find their local entry-level employees don’t have the skills to move up the ladder. So they recruit talent from off-island, especially from the Mainland: and those people don’t usually stay here to run the operations – if they move up the ladder, it’s within the company’s faraway headquarters.”
The educational model that Dhir says he is “trying to sell,” is non-traditional. “Go to medical school, and you get an education with both an academic part and a clinical part. Business schools should have an equivalent curriculum: they shouldn’t just hand over degrees to people who have never run a business! We need to augment our faculty with practitioners, to draw people from the business community who will affiliate with the college: bank CEOs perhaps, or plant managers, people who are experts in their own areas – including retirees, looking for a way to ‘give back’ to this wonderful place in which they live. We can help enable them to develop curricula, along with our faculty, that draws on their expertise. Not everything in the COBE has to be about academic credit.
“It’s true that ‘learning’ has been traditionally measured in ‘credits.’ So the problem,” he admitted, “starts with the college. And business-school faculties have been focused mainly on academics, within the school, and mainly on courses taken for credit. The age of the college student is going up; education is becoming a commodity. Workers are staying at work longer, and living longer. So they may need to go back to the university for more education – but only for short periods of time, not for days or for semesters. And with cooperation between faculty and industry, the college can develop non-credit courses to augment their credit-based programs.”
“Business people,” he said, “are more interested in capacity – in the ability of someone to do something. This is not an earthshaking idea. I want local industry to benefit from this approach. We’ve done our homework; we’ve come up with these new ideas. I want to put our students into cooperative education. On the industry side, internships are only one part of that cooperation. When a company really cooperates with educators, the students gain skills. In cooperative education, students can work in the summer months, earning a decent paycheck which they can apply to tuition, while gaining and using skills they’ll be able to use long after. This requires everyone to consider fresh ideas, and frankly, the practical applications may require adjustments where the process touches on laws regarding, say, work-hours or benefits. ”
Who would he bring in to this process from the business community? The tourism industry, to start. “There aren’t too many large companies here in East Hawaii ,” he said, “but in West Hawaii there are excellent prospects, since tourism there is so much bigger than in East Hawaii. The challenge will be to show those industries how the COBE can work with their workers, in the context of their corporate needs. Interns from big name mainland universities who are subsidized by our industries won’t be staying on in Hawaii. The hotels need local students, from here. And they are people who will stay on afterward, and become full-time employees.”