Francis “Frank” Wiercinski has traveled the world, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Panama and Japan. The retired Army general has overseen thousands of soldiers and developed military strategy, assimilated countless cultures across the Asia-Pacific region and used that insight to help develop foreign policy and mediate crises.

But it was Hawaii that, 34 years ago, stole his heart. And Wiercinski, a 57-year-old Pennsylvania native, says he doesn’t plan on ever leaving — whether or not he becomes president of the University of Hawaii.

Wiercinski is one of two finalists contending for the position, which was vacated last fall after former UH President M.R.C. Greenwood abruptly announced in May that she would be resigning ahead of schedule. Wiercinski, who now runs his own international consulting firm, was nominated for the job rather than applying for it.

“I see where the potential is,” he said at one of his forums, speaking of the university’s future and why he wants to be a part of it. “I just can’t stand on the sidelines and cheer — it’s just not in my nature.”

Lt. General Francis Wiercinski and his wife Jeannine during a reception after his public presentation at the UH Architecture Auditorium.  5.6.14
Wiercinski and wife Jeannine at his forum at UH Manoa on May 6, 2014 PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Wiercinski’s candidacy, however, has been controversial — at least more than it has been for the other contender, a generally well-liked veteran UH administrator.

While university regents and supporters have touted Wiercinski’s military record, highlighting his ability to lead complex organizations, others say that training is antithetical to public education. Many students and faculty have denounced his military ties, arguing that “the general,” as they refer to him, has no place leading a university — particularly one in Hawaii. (Wiercinski tells everyone to call him “Frank.”)

Meanwhile, others point to his lack of extensive higher education qualifications, questioning whether someone without a master’s degree — let alone a doctorate — should be at the helm of a university system that includes 10 campuses, serves more than 54,000 undergraduate and graduate students and employs about 4,000 faculty members. Wiercinski got his bachelor’s degree in engineering from West Point — the country’s prestigious military academy — but never went into engineering.

The other finalist is David Lassner, UH’s longtime information technology executive who’s been serving as the university’s interim president since September 2013. Lassner has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois, where he graduated summa cum laude. He also has a master’s degree in computer science and a doctorate in communication and information sciences, the latter of which he got from UH.

Lassner, too, was nominated for the position and admits he never anticipated being the university’s CEO.

Lassner says he accepted the nomination “not because I wanted to be president,” but because “this is a really important job for the state, and this is something I need to do.”

He promises to make UH an indigenous-serving university, a model for sustainability and 21st-century technology, a place that Hawaii’s students choose rather than resort to. Lassner is candid in his criticism of how UH has handled certain difficulties and controversies — affordability, sexual assaults and the Mauna Kea telescope, to name a few — and pledges to increase outside research revenue while investing in the state’s community college students.

Neither Wiercinski nor Lassner responded to requests for interviews via the university’s media relations team, but Civil Beat attended three of their four public presentations on Oahu, which took place the second week of May. Civil Beat is profiling Wiercinski because of how little most people who follow the university know about him.

Carl Carlson, the UH Board of Regents member who’s chairing its Presidential Selection Committee, dismissed the criticism of Wiercinski, stressing that committee members hosted some 60 community meetings to get feedback on qualities the president should embody.

“There’s something to be said about that ‘school of hard knocks’ that he went to,” Carlson told Civil Beat, referencing Wiercinski’s impoverished upbringing and the sacrifices his family had to make to get him a quality education. “We asked for a terminal degree or the equivalent, and he certainly has the equivalent.”

What Wiercinski Brings to the Table

Some onlookers reckon that Lassner is a shoo-in. After all, the 59-year-old economist-turned-computer scientist has been at UH in some capacity since 1977, working his way up through the ranks until becoming its IT director in 1989. His eight-month tenure as interim president has gone relatively smoothly, and his knack for spewing out statistics about the university and the names and goals of UH initiatives on the spot is an indication of how well he knows the system.

But Wiercinski, along with many faculty and community members, says he’s the right person for the job precisely because he comes from the outside and can bring to the university a fresh pair of eyes.

“For me, this is a breath of fresh air,” said Janet Six, an archaeologist who lectures at UH Maui College. “We need to tap those good things and quit picking at the scabs.”

The university’s reputation has deteriorated over the years, thanks in part to UH Manoa’s notorious $487 million repair and maintenance backlog and, of course, the “Wonder Blunder,” in which the university was scammed out of $200,000 by a fraudulent concert promoter.

“There is a lack of confidence and a fear that UH may be slipping into an ever-diminishing importance in the state,” said James Shon, who directs the Hawaii Educational Policy Center and works closely with the university.

Wiercinski says he’ll turn the negative headlines into positive ones, building a stronger relationship with the community. The university stimulates the state’s economy, providing about 4 percent of its gross domestic product; it needs a leader who can straddle the divide between academia and the real world, he says.

“Negativity breeds on itself; it just continues to rotate,” he said. “And it takes leadership to just say ‘stop’ and … turn that cycle into positivity.”

One of Wiercinski’s biggest promises — and the one that seems to resonate most with his supporters — is to make UH “the shining jewel of the Pacific.” The pledge had become his de facto slogan by the end of the series of UH presidential public forums.

That promise got lots of kudos at his presentation at Leeward Community College, where his optimism and unconventional resume garnered positive feedback from faculty members and business people.

But that wasn’t the case at his first public appearance at UH Manoa, where many of his promises where met with jeers and boos from the crowd.

‘You Have to Have Values’

Wiercinski describes his leadership style with a list of rules:

  1. Treat all people with dignity and respect
  2. Always do “what’s pono
  3. Have integrity
  4. Be selfless

“To be a great leader, first and foremost, you have to be a man or woman of character,” he said, highlighting his “collegial” attitude and ability to make tough decisions. “You have to have values.”

Contrary to what his critics say, Wiercinski says he leads from the bottom up.

That impressed at least one community member — businessman and UH alumnus Larry Ordonez — who said he wants someone who can “lead from the top all the way down to the janitor.”’

A protestor stands behind UH President candidate Lt. General Francis Wiercinski while being interviewed by the media at a reception after his presentation at the UH Architecture Auditorium.  5.6.14

Wiercinski wants to make education more accessible, expanding online-learning opportunities and instilling in Hawaii’s children a passion for education and a loyalty to UH, ultimately increasing graduation rates. He is the grandson of Polish immigrants who came to Eastern Pennsylvania as miners; his father was the first in his family to graduate from college. That upbringing, he says, has taught him the value of an education and the importance of making sure everyone has a shot at it.

“I did not have the opportunities that many of you had,” he said at his first appearance. “Things never worked for me in that direction. I was always pushing people toward it but it never came my way. Maybe that’s why I have such a passion for it now.”

“Education is like health care. It’s everybody’s right, and everybody should have it.”

Some critics, including UH law professor Williamson Chang, point out that Wiercinski wouldn’t even be able to achieve tenure at the university as a faculty member. But others say the UH presidency has little to do with academia.

“I’m always a big fan of something who functions in the real world, has real-world experience as opposed to someone who is in this ingrained, academic disgruntled … bastion of malcontent,” Six said.

Military Ties Criticized

Wiercinski’s discussion of values didn’t appease many of the audience members at his first public appearance at UH Manoa, where as many as 50 activists arrived up in arms, vigorously — and to some, disrespectfully — protesting his candidacy on the grounds that a retired military general has no place leading a public university.

They brought signs bearing tags such as “Demilitarize” and “Hawaiian values?” and raised them whenever Wiercinski said something they disagreed with. Most of the protesters were silent, though a few regularly interrupted Wiercinski during his speech, calling on him to explain how a retired general could possibly lead a university that’s formally established itself as a “Hawaiian place of learning.”

The military, the activists say, has a history of exploiting Hawaii and today occupies about a fifth of the state’s land. It utilizes the university to conduct its research, they say, but doesn’t contribute to kamaaina students’ educational advancement. They fear Wiercinski, who’s spent nearly all of his career in the military, would perpetuate that cycle.

Protestors stand in back of the UH Architecture Auditorium while UH President candidate Lt. General Francis Wiercinski did his public presentation on stage.

“Ultimately, I think it’s an insult to us all,” said Tina Grandinetti, a graduate student studying political science. “He’s been conditioned by that background. That patriarchal, hierarchical structure isn’t conducive to any institution of higher learning, thinking — but particularly one in Hawaii.”

His familiarity with the Hawaiian culture and people, they say, leaves a lot to be desired.

The activists roared when Wiercinski at his first event accidentally noted that 85 percent of the university’s students are Hawaiian, confusing the difference between Native Hawaiian and Hawaii residents. About 15 percent of the students at UH Manoa, for example, identify as Native Hawaiian, while the ratio is 28 percent at the community colleges, according to UH data.

Still, the dissent didn’t seem to faze Wiercinski — at least not much.

When one protester yelled, “Once a military man always a military man!” Wiercinski responded, “I hope so.”

Carlson, of the Board of Regents, said the opposition was expected and that “it could’ve been worse.”

A protestor at the UH Architecture Auditorium during UH President candidate Lt. General Francis Wiercinski's public presentation on stage.  5.6.14
A protester at the May 6, 2014 forum. PF Bentley/Civil

“If you look at his general rank, you know he did very well in a very difficult leadership position,” Carlson said. “He’s a man who’s very well-prepared, very thoughtful and (has) a very powerful personality. Put that all together, and when you’re looking at a system leader, those are some of the characteristics.”

Six, the archaeologist, said she thinks Wiercinski’s background makes him particularly fit to lead the university.

“The military is a giant, byzantine organization like academia, so he’s coming into something very similar, where you’re dealing with many levels and lots of concerns,” she said.

Wiercinski emphasized his commitment to preserving “the aina” and bringing more Hawaiians to UH.

Wiercinski spoke confidently at his appearances, despite a few beads of sweat dribbling down his face. He paced, holding his hands at his chest as he spoke about his values and touted his leadership style. He cracked a few jokes, though not as often as Lassner.

Asked how he would distinguish the two “distinct cultures” of the military and academia, Wiercinski said the question was premised on a misconception.

“My daily job was not internal — it was external,” he said. “It’s the same business as the UH president. I’m not asking to be a professor … You’re asking me to direct a system.”

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