Three of the five finalists being considered to head the University of Hawaii‘s research efforts, including the UH initiative to create a $1 billion-per-year research industry in the state by 2022, have close ties to the military.

The powerful high-paying position — called the vice president for research and innovation — has significant discretion over the university’s research priorities, and some UH professors and students worry public education could take a back seat to lucrative classified defense-related projects.

University officials won’t discuss the candidates, citing personnel rules. But the five — who were interviewed and selected by a search committee — have already made the rounds of UH Manoa in public presentations that were filmed and posted online.

A UH spokeswoman said the search committee and university president are still reviewing input on the candidates and don’t yet have a timetable for when they’ll hire the new executive.

The candidates’ resumes are posted online. Some highlights:

  • George Kailiwai III has extensive experience in the defense industry, including several classified research projects, a national defense fellowship at Ohio State University’s Mershon Center and a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy. He currently serves as the director of resources and assessment at the United States Pacific Command.
  • Russell Kruzelock helped form a government think tank that recommends investment strategies to the Department of Defense, a job in which he reviewed thousands of technologies for the Navy. He currently serves as president of a biomedical and renewable resource research company in Texas.
  • Vassilis Syrmos, an electrical engineering professor who also serves as the associate vice chancellor for research at UH Manoa, has conducted research for a range of defense agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Naval Air Systems Command and the Army Research Labs. He also was a key player in setting up the U.S. Navy research lab at UH — a highly controversial military-sponsored center whose contract was quietly extended last month.
  • Parag Chitnis directs the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. His areas of expertise include biochemistry and molecular biology.
  • Alan Nelson is a bioengineering and physics professor at Arizona State University. He also oversees several biotech and biomedical imaging companies.

A number of UH professors have circulated emails highlighting their concerns about the candidates who have strong ties to the defense industry. Citing the resumes, the professors suggest that those finalists’ track records are an indication of the university’s ongoing effort to conduct more classified, military-funded research at the expense of students and faculty who they say have an inherent right to any new advances or knowledge produced at UH.

“Many of us who teach at or who retired from the University of Hawaii have become greatly concerned over the years at the prospects for our sole Tier I institution of higher learning becoming an adjunct to the US military and engaging in work that cannot be shared either with colleagues or, importantly, students, those to whom we have a fiduciary relationship in which we are ethically obliged to provide such knowledge as we possess in the name of ‘education,’” Professor Steve O’Harrow wrote in a June email to colleagues.

O’Harrow’s email focused on Kailiwai, the candidate who currently works at the USPACOM.

“If he is chosen, it would appear that classified research will get a new lease on life at the UH,” O’Harrow wrote.

Neither Kailiwai, Kruzelock or Syrmos could be reached by Civil Beat for comment.

UH graduate student and Hawaii Peace and Justice Board Member Kyle Kajihiro says it’s clear the UH is looking to forge stronger partnerships with the military, which he believes would likely involve classified research and infringe on the university’s core mission as a public higher education institution where research should be peer-reviewed and accessible to everyone in the community.

“(Military research) is not knowledge that’s intended to be widely available, usable to anyone,” Kajihiro said. “It’s embargoed and controlled by that institution … there’s no way for us to hold any institution accountable.”

UH professor Cynthia Franklin said the final candidates for this position show that UH is becoming more and more of an extension of the “military industrial complex” — a trend that’s taking hold across the country.

“We are seeing, at UH and across the continental U.S., the corporatization and militarization of institutions of higher learning at the expense of students,” she said.

Board of Regents policy allows professors to conduct classified research as long as it’s not on campus.

University of Hawaii Professional Assembly President David Duffy, who serves on the committee in charge of selecting the research vice president, said he couldn’t elaborate on details behind why the committee selected the five candidates.

He did, however, briefly respond to some of critics’ concerns in a recent comment on local blog, writing, “There is probably no perfect candidate for vice president of research, as there are several very different perspectives as to what the job should be. These different perspectives may be reflected in those we chose.”

UH spokeswoman Jodi Leong told Civil Beat the finalists reflect the university’s efforts to bolster the state’s research industry.

“The 5 candidates represent diverse backgrounds and have different experiences,” she said in an email. “The university is interested in both broadening and deepening its research portfolio to address Hawaii’s challenges and help diversify the economy.”

Still, the selection process comes at a time when UH is drawing fire for its relationship with another military research facility.

The university recently extended a contract for a controversial Navy research lab within UH facilities despite concerns that the university didn’t seek public input on the first five-year contract. The lab’s new director, Mike Vitale, has told Civil Beat that he intends to up the ante on military-sponsored projects, including those that entail classified research.

When UH officials first broached the idea of the lab in the early 2000s, they touted its revenue-earning potential and the boon it would be to the university at large. But records show the lab brought in just $8 million under the first contract.

“There’s a contradiction between that type of research and UH as a Hawaiian place of learning,” Kajihiro said. “(UH) is trying to get into bed with the military realizing that the military has the biggest funding sources for research as time and other resources for academic research are dwindling.”

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