The Search for Punahou’s Future President

A conversation with Presidential Search Committee Chair Mark Fukunaga ’74 and Vice Chair Debbie Berger ’82.

How is this presidential search different from the one that brought Jim Scott to Punahou 24 years ago?

Fukunaga: It’s the same in the sense that everyone involved is taking it very seriously and devoting a lot of time to it, but it’s different because the School is different. Punahou has a lot of impact – not just in Hawai‘i, which I think we all knew, but nationally in the field of education. It’s also different because the challenges before education are different and arguably more substantial.

What are those challenges?

Fukunaga: One challenge is preparing our students for a world that is more subject to disruption and more polarized in a variety of ways. It’s a world where you need to be flexible, resilient and always learning. Punahou has always been about educating the whole child, but I think today it’s more about things like social, emotional and ethical learning; collaborating in a multicultural global context; interdisciplinary and project-based learning; using technology and thinking in a more interconnected way. And it’s about being more flexible and resilient in order to deal with unexpected change. To teach these things well, we’ve got to be willing to rethink how we educate children – in terms of the physical space and how classrooms can encourage collaboration and creativity, and in terms of how we prepare teachers.

We need to find a leader who can design an educational experience to foster all those things. And who has the financial acumen to support them, because Punahou is the largest single-campus school in the U.S. and that takes a fair amount of administrative skill. So you need somebody who’s exceptional in a number of ways. Somebody who, with the support of two great principals, is able to focus on things like fundraising and external relationships with other schools and the greater Hawai‘i community – in addition to the educational agenda.

Berger: Those skills that Mark described have to be demonstrated in a leader because you have to lead by example. So that means having a really good communicator and collaborator, someone who can foster understanding and help make meaning in a world where information is everywhere.

How has our community listening process informed the search?

Berger: We conducted 50 listening sessions on campus and another 13 from the East Coast to the Far East. We also received over 3,000 responses to our digital survey. The process allowed us to understand what makes Punahou special to the many people who care so deeply about the School. As you’d expect, Punahou is a community of many independent thinkers and we heard a wide range of opinions, but there were a few common strands, like a really strong interest in strategic thinking within the office of the president.

Fukunaga: Strategic thinking was a quality that we heard consistently; I think that reflects people’s view that the world has changed in a big way and education needs to adapt to that change. It’s a complex time and you need somebody with the ability to navigate that, to figure out the most important things to do and – because resources aren’t infinite – what things you aren’t going to do. What’s fundamental versus fashionable. It’s a different recipe for success than in the past, and you need someone with a strong strategic sensibility to figure it out. I think the school community is very supportive of Punahou’s ability to continue to evolve and innovate. It’s also very clear about the things that should never change, like its traditions, its values and its sense of place.

How does that tension between tradition and innovation translate to the presidential search?

Fukunaga: We heard from the community that it’s not as important that the future president is necessarily from Punahou or Hawai‘i, but that he or she understand, appreciate and embrace our traditions and values – things like humility, a sense of service, sustainability in an island context and intercultural collaboration.

Berger: When people talked about traditions, it was almost always in the context of the fabric of relationships they had with the Punahou community. There’s a recognition that Hawai‘i is a very special place and you can’t imagine Punahou outside its Hawaiian context. But education and the world in general are undergoing major change, and people recognize that evolution and innovation must continue. So it’s a blend of tradition and innovation, and they don’t have to contradict one another. Since Punahou’s founding, which brought two cultures and two communities together into one learning environment, that has always been in the School’s DNA.

What did you learn from your national tour of other schools in January?

Fukunaga: To the extent that we face significant challenges in education, they are the same challenges everyone’s facing. All the innovations happening at Punahou – social, emotional and ethical learning, how to think about problem-solving, how to have a global educational experience, how to use technology in a constructive way, how to help teachers prepare students for today’s world – that’s what everyone else is thinking about as well.

Berger: A lot of the independent schools we visited were talking about how to make learning relevant. They were each finding their own way to do that, just as we are. But one thing that was so exciting to us was the opportunity that being in Hawai‘i provides. We didn’t see any other school benefiting from its sense of place or its sense of community the way Punahou does. The way that we’re steeped in Hawai‘i – its values, the island geography – all the things that make Hawai‘i special are found within the unique context of our school.

Fukunaga: It’s a huge locational advantage. A lot of schools just don’t have the benefit of a place that offers so many naturally teachable moments. You step outside in the Kosasa Community and you have a bioswale with taro where students can play and understand both tradition and sustainability. We can talk about how people live in a multicultural society because we are actually living it, as opposed to it being some abstract concept.

What would you say are the biggest challenges of this search?

Fukunaga: One is Punahou’s complexity, its scale. This means that you need somebody with significant administrative abilities and financial aptitude who can also sit on the floor and read a book to kindergartners – that’s a pretty unique skill set. Also, I imagine some candidates may wonder how in the world they can measure up to Jim Scott’s 25-year tenure – that’s a hard act to follow.

Is it not as common for heads of schools to have such long tenures?

Berger: Today, 10 or 15 years is a pretty long time in the independent school world. The field is evolving so quickly that it seems like the pace of change is faster – and perhaps more exhausting.

Fukunaga: The same is probably true in the corporate, nonprofit and political worlds – you see shorter tenures for leaders across many fields.

How does this experience make you feel about Punahou’s future and the future of education?

Fukunaga: We’ve been struck by how many people really admire and respect what Punahou is doing. Many other schools see Punahou as a leader that they are watching, to see what we will do. Our reputation and scale also allow us to innovate in ways that other schools can’t. We can prototype an idea, we can have a school within a school, we can reach out to other institutions and they’re delighted to collaborate with us. Seeing how every school out there is wrestling with how to prepare children for a very different world, it just impressed on us that, not only is it a good thing to innovate, but it’s also absolutely necessary now. On the one hand, it’s a confirmation that Punahou needs to keep pushing for the bigger ideas. On the other hand, it’s a challenge. It’s always exciting to lead, but you want to make sure that you’re doing so in a responsible and thoughtful way.

The Search for Punahou’s Future President

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