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After a nearly year-long search, David Lassner was chosen as the new president of the University of Hawaii by the school’s Board of Regents on Monday.
Lassner, UH’s longtime information technology executive, has been serving as the university’s interim president since September 2013.
One of two finalists, he was selected over retired Army Gen. Francis Wiercinski after a tense, two-hour discussion during which regents debated the integrity of the selection process and the two candidates’ qualifications.
Lassner received 11 votes, Wiercinski two, and there were two abstentions from regents who said the selection process was too flawed for them to make a decision.
“I think David (Lassner) understands the new normal,” said Regent Chuck Gee, another longtime UH administrator who served under five university presidents and three acting presidents during his tenure. “The new normal means three times more challenges, three times less resources to get the job done.”
In explaining their votes for Lassner, most regents cited his intimate familiarity with the university, his experience in academia and his ability to bring about change at UH while maintaining stability.
During a public appearance last month, Lassner promised to make UH an indigenous-serving university, a model for sustainability and 21st-century technology, and a place that Hawaii’s students choose rather than resort to.
He was 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 pledged to increase outside research revenue while investing in the state’s community college students.
He said that despite his longtime association with UH that he should not be viewed as a status quo candidate.
“I am humbled and honored by the trust being placed in me by the Board of Regents,” Lassner said in a statement issued after his selection. “I pledge to listen, learn and collaborate to achieve excellence at UH as we execute on our shared vision to serve all the people of Hawaii in a manner that exemplifies superb stewardship of public resources.”
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’s selection “sends a strong message” to students — “that we are good enough to stay here and serve the state of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii,” said Regent Jeffrey Acido, who grew up in Kalihi and is the only student serving on the board.
Wiercinski’s candidacy was controversial. While university regents and supporters touted his military background and highlighted his ability to lead complex organizations, others said that training was antithetical to public education.
Many students and faculty have denounced his military ties, saying he had no place leading a university — particularly one in Hawaii.
“I see where the potential is,” Wiercinski said at a public forum last month, 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.”
On Monday, most regents praised Wiercinski and his vision for making UH the “shining jewel of the Pacific,” pointing to his track record of fostering diplomacy overseas.
Wiercinski also garnered the backing of former mayor Peter Carlisle, who testified on Monday in strong support of his presidency.
But overall, regents said they couldn’t reconcile Wiercinski’s leadership capabilities with his limited experience in academia and lack of extensive higher education qualifications. Wiercinski got his bachelor’s degree in engineering but never went into that field.
“Knowing (academia) intellectually and really understanding it are two very different things,” Gee said.
Some also questioned whether the retired general maintains a strong enough connection to the university.
Wiercinski released a statement Monday in response to the regents’ vote thanking the university community for considering him and wishing Lassner luck in his presidency.
There had been growing criticism of both finalists in recent days, with Senate President Donna Mercado and the UH Manoa Graduate Student Organization calling on the regents to reopen their search.
The board responded with a statement that doing so would cause “significant damage” to the university, but at least three regents said Monday that they agreed with the criticisms about the search process.
Those concerns dominated much of the discussion Monday, with two regents — Benjamin Kudo and Jeffrey Portnoy — abstaining from voting precisely because they were dissatisfied with the search process.
Kudo even moved to reopen the search, but the motion was quickly dismissed, with most regents arguing that delaying the selection would hurt the university more than it would help it.
Some regents vehemently defended the selection process and pointed to the diversity of the search committee’s members, which included seven regents and five other university stakeholders.
“The university needs a leader, and we need one now,” said board Chairman John Holzman.
Critics have questioned why the board’s selection committee had narrowed the finalists down to just two candidates. The original plan was to finalize a list of five or six candidates that would then be made public, but several finalists dropped out at the last minute largely because they wanted their candidacies to be confidential.
Michael Lilly, who once served as the state’s attorney general and now serves on the Honolulu Ethics Commission, testified on Monday that the selection procedures were fundamentally flawed.
“Any decision (made today) by the Board of Regents will erode credibility,” Lilly said.
Others, including Portnoy, stressed that regents originally indicated that any interim president wouldn’t be eligible for the permanent position, meaning Lassner shouldn’t have been up for consideration in the first place.
Regents reasoned that Lassner was nominated to, and didn’t apply for, the position; the rule was that the interim president couldn’t apply.
Regents approved an annual salary for Lassner of $375,000, $100,000 less than his predecessor made. Unlike former presidents, Lassner won’t serve on a long-term contract.
The presidency was vacated last fall after former UH President M.R.C. Greenwood abruptly announced in May 2013 that she would be resigning ahead of schedule.
The Board of Regents announced the names of the two finalists in early May.