Naka Nathaniel: Hawaii Needs A Nonprofit Private Research University - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

It’s time to reverse the brain drain by creating a more diverse and dynamic higher education system here in the islands.

Today, it is supposed to be 103 degrees in Austin, Texas. I am so glad not to be in that hair dryer of a town right now. 

Besides avoiding the heat, a pair of Supreme Court rulings about affirmative action and student loan forgiveness from earlier this summer reminded me to be grateful for having entered Austin at the perfect time and, more importantly, exited Austin at the perfect time.

As a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, I’ve been a follower of the attempts of Edward Blum to undo the college admissions system. Before his success suing Harvard and North Carolina over affirmative action, his first target was the University of Texas.

When Blum first set his sights on UT, the school was a public university that worked for many the way a state school is supposed to work: A great education at a low price. 

The stated mission of the school back then was quintessential Texan: Be the biggest and the best state school in the universe. 

However, Blum and his allies have worked to deprive everyone of the biggest and the best. It is a head-scratching phenomena that Heather McGee wrote about so well in the “Sum of Us,” saying once a public good becomes available to all citizens, regardless of race, class and influence, those that once exclusively enjoyed those benefits will work to undermine and destroy that public good so no one gets to benefit.  

Not only did I get a degree and then immediately a job alongside Ivy Leaguers, but the costs were so low that I ended up with the reverse of student loans — I took the unused money my parents set aside for college and started a retirement account. 

It’s hard to imagine that happening in Texas these days and not just because it’s too hot to think about anything besides the heat. 

Here in Hawaii, though, the two Supreme Court rulings are not at the top of our troubles when it comes to higher education. 

Besides the better weather here, one of the (innumerable) reasons I like not being in Texas is that the problems outside of Texas aren’t Texas-sized and are therefore manageable. 

Bishop Estate Kamehameha Schools Kapalama Campus.
Kamehameha Schools doesn’t have plans to set up an institution for higher education at this time, but perhaps there are others who could answer the call. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Years ago, I taught at the much smaller Emory University in Atlanta. It’s one of the top private universities in the country and the price tag for the school is exorbitant, exponentially greater than the cost of my UT-Austin education. 

Texas and Georgia have very robust higher education environments. Hawaii simply doesn’t, and that is why the leading off-ramp for so many of our residents is their freshman year of college.

The UH system is essentially a higher education monopoly here in Hawaii. This has allowed state legislators to repeatedly meddle in the school’s affairs and distract from its mission.

As Rep. Amy Perruso wrote this week, “UH has had such difficulty at the Legislature in the past five years or so that its internal governance system is starting to fray and system leadership is less able to fund its new strategic plan and vision. The reality is, we, as legislators, are doing so much more harm than good, and it is time we change our ways.”

Watching the fights in the state government over stupid things like college football stadiums makes me wish for what I saw teaching students at Emory.

Emory kept Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia on their toes, just as Rice does to UT-Austin. It gives students more options for higher education and puts pressure on state institutions to keep up with their neighboring schools. That’s missing here.

Hawaii needs a top-flight nonprofit private research university. 

It’s time to encourage a big player in Hawaii’s educational environment to come off the sidelines and help Hawaii.

Kamehameha Schools has done a good job with starting the pipeline to a meaningful education with their preschool and early childhood education programs. It is time for the pipeline to be extended at the other end.

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of a private research university as I read “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World.” Given what he wrote about his hometown, the author Malcolm Harris would probably wave his hands and say no, the takeaway from his book should not be to build a school in Stanford’s image. 

Hopefully, a school in Hawaii could be created with an ethos dedicated not to capitalism, like Stanford, but instead to meeting the challenges of the rest of this century and those of the 22nd.

We need a school to reverse the exporting of talent from Hawaii. A private research school that would give Hawaii’s top high school grads another option in their homeland would be a remarkable investment in making sure our islands are prepared for the challenges here and elsewhere in the world.

When I asked Kamehameha Schools if there had been any recent discussions (or restrictions) about getting involved in higher education, Kamehameha Schools said in a statement that Hawaii “already offers excellent higher education opportunities” and that its E Ola! framework fosters in students “a deep connection to their cultural heritage” that will eventually call them back to the islands.

“At this time, Kamehameha Schools has no plans to set up an institution for higher education,” the statement said. “We remain focused on delivering world-class educational opportunities though our preschools, K-12 campuses and community partnerships.”

If now is not the time for Kamehameha Schools to answer the call, perhaps there are others who will help create a more diverse and dynamic higher education system here in Hawaii.

Read this next:

Court Rules In Favor Of Hawaii Charter School In 'Strip Search' Lawsuit

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Born and raised in Honolulu, a product of the public school system and Community College system now living in Silicon Valley. The university Nathaniel refers to is Stanford University, home of the Stanford Linear Accelerator (Google it), Stanford Medical School one of the top 10 Business Schools in the country (across the Bay, CAL-Berkeley is 11th), economics, engineering, biology and the list goes on. Up the road is Sand Hill Drive where venture capitalist hold court. Palo Alto (tall tree) was where Hewlitt Packard got started. Granted, Stanford's been at it for a long time.UH tried similar paths. Marine biology is a natural but budding marine biologist go to Scripps in San Diego. Seems we had a top notch astronomy dept, stole they professor from UMichigan. Years later he left and went back. Gov John Burns wanted a top notch medical school for Hawaii kids. 16th for primary care but 81st overall. 30 Meter Telescope-there's got to be a compromise. Politicos & UH have big dreams only to see them dashed in what else, politics.Last. Where are you going to put this school? Need space? Suggestion: Kona at the NELHA Technology Park. Keep politics out of it. Find the whales.

808Refugee · 2 months ago

Thanks Civil Beat for giving voice to this op. ed. and thanks to Naka Nathaniel for writing thought-provoking mana'o. Over the years some of the most significant, practical research I've read has come from UH, Mano'a, Chaminade University, and UH Hilo College of Pharmacy. A recent Chaminade paper focused on one of the Hawaiian canoe plants. This paper, ingeniously combined indigenous knowledge and high-tech, newly discovered information. Further, just yesterday I received some new research from the FDA which used UH, Mano'a research in it's list of references.

Kahua · 2 months ago

Naka, UH Manoa’s SOEST, Astronomy and Tropical Agriculture departments are producing world class research. Oahu doesn’t need another "nonprofit research (private) university." What Oahu needs is for our legislators and politicians to grow a backbone and support the research profs at UH Manoa and not allow extremist voices to stop important project such as the TMT. Oahu already has private university (HPU, Chaminade) but they are small and focus more on teaching, just like our community colleges. If anything, ask Kamehameha Schools to give research grants to UHManoa. If you want to stop the brain drain, UH needs to partner with local businesses to offer full scholarships that include a small salary while going to college and a good job after graduation. Job contract can be for 2 to 4 years. If you leave the job early, pay back the funds invested. The Feds already offer similar scholarships. This might entice our best and brightest kids to stay in Hawaii for college and beyond.

kbaybaby · 2 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.