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HPU bids aloha and mahalo to founding communication dean

by Kalamalama staff with Sophia Blum


For many Hawai‘i Pacific University students, especially those majoring in communication, suite 504 at 1132 Bishop St. is familiar territory. Most of the time, just walking in, students find the door to the dean’s office, behind the receptionist’s desk, is open. A woman sits at a desk clicking on a computer mouse with one hand and rummaging through a stack of papers with the other. She is usually wearing red, and she usually says, when she glances up, “Can I help you? Come on in.”


Dr. Helen D. Varner, dean of the College of Communication at HPU, oversees faculty and curriculum for both the graduate and seven undergraduate programs. Varner has been at HPU for 15 years, during which time her teaching duties have included courses in advertising, corporate communication, crisis management, pedagogy, and the communication practica program. She is the founding dean for communication, and has overseen the division, now college, for seven years. During those years, which included time dedicated to public relations duties as HPU’s vice president for University Relations, Varner guided the faculty through the creation of four separate degree programs—advertising, corporate communication, journalism, and public relations—two concentrations—visual communication and speech—and the MA COM program. Based on the recently completed WASC accreditation program review, she has helped faculty supervise those programs and create two new ones, rolling visual communication over into multimedia and developing a B.A. Speech degree.

Also during that time she has actively worked with students as an advisor to several organizations: Akamai Advertising, Fantasy Gamers, and the International Association of Business Communicators. She also helped students in these clubs and PRSSA develop the ongoing and ever well-reviewed Communication Career Day networking event and win 11 first-place awards in regional American Advertising Federation student competitions.

In 2004, Varner’s service to student and professional communication was recognized with the presentation of two very prestigious awards, the first being the Gregg W. Perry Award from the Hawai‘i chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. The second was the IABC Lifetime Achievement Award, only the second such award given in 34 years by the state chapter.

Many people consider Varner a hero because she built the communication program from scratch. Varner said, “I am not sure hero is a good word. It is very rewarding to be able to build something. I was just at the right place at the right time.” Varner described her job as a dean as “a dream job” and said that Hawai‘i was in great need of communication.She was fortunate, she said, “to find a place where my individual strength would make a difference.”

When Varner was asked if she could describe the communication department and the students within it in only one word, Varner replied with a laugh: “Supercalafragalistic-expealadosious.
“ There is no one word that would describe the students in the communication department. They exist, if I had to pick one word. We have students in all types of media,” said Varner.

In describing the communication faculty, Varner said, “The people that I work with are brilliant, dedicated, enthusiastic, collegial, and very diverse. Like a family,” Varner added, continuing: “ Just like a family, we don’t always agree, but we all work through our differences,” she said laughing.

This year has been Varner’s last academic year as dean of communication at HPU. On May 31, she will retire to a 30-foot motor home in which she plans to travel from one family of grandchildren to another. Her husband, Foy, who is also retiring from his position with the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa Medical School, has not been heard to disagree with this plan. However, his insistence that they are not giving away his golf clubs suggests he has plans of his own for their coming years of cross-country travel.

Despite looking forward to retiring, Varner has said she wants to stay in touch with friends and former students in Hawai‘i. “HPU has been a great part of my life,” she said. “It has been my entertainment and my mental challenge. There are many I will miss. Anyone who wants to keep in touch can e-mail me at,” she added. “ I plan to play a little, work a little, and spend time with my six grandchildren. It’s time for a new adventure,” Varner said.

Varner will be replaced as dean by the present College of Communication undergraduate academic coordinator, Dr.James Whitfield (see “Whitfield” this page). Varner was asked if the new dean was anything like her, and if she had any advice for him.

“ Like me? Thank goodness no!” Varner replied. “He is much more of a scholar than I am. He’s going to do great things. My advice to him is that we have built an extraordinary program that needs to mature. We have had growing pains for 15 years. It is time for this program to consolidate. To debug,” she added, giggling. Varner describes Whitfield as “ the right leader.”

As the phone messages started piling up and people started walking through the door, it became clear that Varner’s work as dean was not quite over, yet. But as she went back to the tons of work and students problems that remained to be addressed, Varner took time to say: “I will not forget Hawai‘i Pacific University. I will not forget, and I hope people stay in touch.”

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