President Mike Latham ’86 – Triumphing Through Crisis

A message from Punahou President Mike Latham ’86

Punahou has just completed one of the most challenging years in our School’s history. Not since the Second World War has our campus community experienced disruption on the scale that we have just witnessed. While the threat arrived in the form of a virus instead of a global conflict, it still generated enormous strain and anxiety. As I reflect back on the start of the pandemic in the winter of 2020, I can so clearly recall the pressing questions that kept me up at night and jolted me out of bed well before dawn. How can we preserve safety and still deliver an education that will meet the developmental, social and emotional needs of our students? How can we manage the widely varied degrees of risk tolerance among our very large population? How will we help our community endure a major economic downturn, and provide the financial aid needed to retain all our students and families? In a season of innumerable judgment calls, there was no playbook and there were no easy answers.

Our response required a massive team effort across the entire campus. Everyone at our School rose to the occasion to bring out their very best. Our Pandemic Response Team built a system that enabled us to correlate our academic operations to pandemic conditions. Our faculty invested countless hours in professional development to learn how to teach through distance learning, then continually adapted their approaches as we returned to campus in October, sometimes teaching students in person and at home simultaneously. The Advancement team pivoted to put major events online, embarked on emergency financial aid fundraising and found ways for alumni to deepen their connections to the School and to each other, enabling them to weather a challenging period in their own lives.

Across the School, we met new and unprecedented demands. We delivered outstanding communications to keep students, employees, families and alumni up to speed on our approaches, and our Information Technology staff worked around the clock through last summer and into the fall to enable us to reach essential internal and external audiences. Custodians and engineers implemented new cleaning protocols, relocated classrooms and installed air handling equipment, while cafeteria workers developed new systems to deliver food directly to students and teachers. Admissions staff reinvented their recruitment and testing procedures. Our amazing PFA partnered with the Junior Class to deliver a Carnival that sustained our community and raised financial aid funds at a level that matched our very best years.

At the outset of the pandemic, I expressed my hope that we would emerge from this crisis as a stronger and better school. At the time, that felt a bit like whistling in the dark, repeating a phrase or song that might keep a swirling undercurrent of worry and strain at bay. But I believe that Punahou has in fact triumphed during this year. We delivered an outstanding educational experience for all our students, and we did so safely, with zero cases of on-campus transmission of the virus. We weathered the economic instability and managed our costs without having to lay off any of our employees. Supported by the great generosity of our dedicated Punahou alumni, parents and friends of the School, we met the financial need of our families and are setting the foundation for the future. We also went beyond our own walls through food drives, volunteer efforts and continued outreach to those in need.

Standing on the Commencement stage at Alexander Field, looking out at the Class of 2021 and their families arrayed in the shimmering twilight before me, I was struck once more by Punahou’s tremendous potential, and by what we had accomplished together. In their inspiring speeches, our graduates did not lament a year of loss and dislocation; they spoke instead of the opportunities they seized, the friendships they deepened and the futures that Punahou enabled them to pursue. They reminded us why we exist, and what we can achieve.

This is work that we should all be proud of. While our challenges are not yet over, I am confident that the best for Punahou is yet to come, and I am excited to welcome students, teachers, colleagues, family and alumni once more to our beautiful campus.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our fates are intimately entwined with those around us, and that our futures are fundamentally shared. We demonstrated this year that at Punahou, the largest independent school on a single campus in the United States, we could rise together to meet this challenge. In the process, we rediscovered and deepened our shared commitments to each other, and I believe that will serve us very well as we travel the road ahead.

Mahalo, from the bottom of my heart, for all that you have done to make Punahou the vibrant, caring and innovative community that we are. I am honored to have the chance to serve our mission alongside all of you.

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