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Inaugural Dean Brings Vision to Campus

By: Abigail Trenhaile
Publication: The Ka Leo
Published: June 30, 2008

“Be open to the miracles that life throws at you.”

This is the philosophy that Dr. Maenette Ah Nee-Benham has managed to follow since she was a doctoral student, when the first pieces of her life began to come together.

By accident, she became interested in educational administration.

“I was teaching in California and somehow I fell into administration. It seemed quite natural,” said Benham, who then returned to Hawai‘i and received her doctorate.

After graduating from UH Manoa, Benham made what seemed to be an unbefitting decision: She moved 4,000 miles away to become a professor at Michigan State University.

It was here that Benham developed a name for herself in the indigenous community by working with Native Americans. She authored several books and became a leader with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, allowing her to work with Tribal Colleges and Universities.

Now, Benham has received another miracle, albeit challenging: She is the new dean for Hawai‘inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.

“I took a deep breath when I was offered this position,” said Benham.
The breath was warranted-Hawai‘inuiakea is the product of the Hawaiian Studies and Hawaiian Language departments. Thus, Benham must start at the beginning, building a workable infrastructure, but not only in terms of organization. One of her first tasks is to find a facility for Hawai‘ianuiakea on an shrinking campus.

Along the way, Benham hopes to use her knowledge of other indigenous cultures to make Hawai‘inuiakea an internationally recognized school, where students and faculty alike can take part in Benham’s global vision.

“I would love Hawai‘ianuiakea to be seen not only in Hawai‘i but internationally as a leader in indigenous knowledge, a leader in creating healthy, strong and vibrant communities, and a leader in language and culture,” Benham said.

She also hopes to help create a strong foundation locally by working with young people to make sure they are educated in Hawaiian language and culture. She calls this approach “going to the source,” a theme from her recent work “Indigenous Educational Models for Contemporary Practices.”

“For Hawaiians, we go back to maoli, our stories that can tell us where we came from and what we value. If you can go back to that source collectively, then the answers and direction become clear,” Benham said of her educational approach.

Although her goals might seem overwhelming, Benham is no stranger to challenges.

“When I moved to Michigan State University, I was the only female of color and the only junior professor. I sat around the table with white men who were all full professors with long careers,” Benham said. “I was brought in as someone different.”

These differences worked in her favor.

“I had to learn how to approach each of them from who I am. I am a kanaka maoli woman, a scholar, a wife. They had to learn that,” Benham said. “The same is true for when I come back home. I need to take time to tell people who I am and what I believe in.”

Her ability to adapt is one of the reasons she was chosen to spearhead UH’s new school of Hawaiian knowledge.

“I believe she will be able to bring all that she has learned from those experiences and enrich our school,” said Robert Green, a Hawaiian Studies graduate who was on the Search Advisory Committee for the new dean.

Nalani Minton, who was also a part of the search committee, agrees.

“She is very balanced in both cultural and spiritual matters as well as in academics and administration,” said Minton, assistant specialist/director with the ‘Ike Ao Pono Native Hawaiian Initiative.

Indeed, it is her connection to her spiritual side, her obligation to her kupuna, that has driven her.

“I always think that you stand on the shoulders of those who have come before you, and you better hope like hell that you do well because they are watching you,” Benham said.

“So many wonderful people such as Haunani Kay Trask, Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, and Jon Osorio have really shaped our school,” Green said. “They are pioneers in Hawaiian Studies…they have created an environment in which we can not only learn about our Hawaiian culture, but we can see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it and live it.

“With Maenette becoming the Dean and bringing her unique and caring style of leadership and guidance, our school will only grow and prosper and really become the center of the university.”

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