HONOLULU — An online petition imploring the University of Hawaii Board of Regents to reject a retired Army officer in the running to be the next UH president had garnered more than 350 signatures by Monday evening.
Organizers behind the petition and an accompanying letter being circulated among faculty argue that retired Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski is not qualified to lead the 10-campus UH system given his exclusively military background. They plan to deliver the petition and letter at Thursday's monthly meeting of the board.
"This letter is directed at the Board of Regents. I don't appreciate having a candidate like this put forward as if he is viable," said English professor Cynthia Franklin, who has worked at UH-Manoa for the last 20 years and helped craft the letter.
In addition to his decades-long military career, Franklin said she was "even more concerned that he had absolutely no background in public education. … His lack of qualifications was compounded by the fact that he didn't seem capable of thinking outside the military box."
She said graduate students and faculty across a number of departments at the flagship Manoa campus collaborated on the petition, which went live Saturday, and the letter, which outlines four lengthy arguments against Wiercinski's hiring.
Wiercinski is one of two finalists a regents selection committee named earlier this month following a nearly yearlong search. The other is UH's longtime chief information technology executive, David Lassner.
Wiercinski, 57, retired last year at the rank of lieutenant general after 34 years of service in the Army, including eight years of commanding in the Pacific. He holds a bachelor's degree in engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"I'm in general against the trend of militarizing universities. I think the problems with that are especially glaring considering that this university has made a commitment to make UH a Hawaiian place of learning," Franklin said. "I can't see someone with a military orientation in any way being helpful to realizing that goal; in fact, the opposite — a military candidate directly contradicts this commitment. And nothing he said gave me any reason to think he was an exception."
The opposition comes on the heels of five public campus appearances each candidate made statewide over three days last week. Students protested at least one of Wiercinski's forums, holding signs and shouting concerns about what they called an over-militarization of the islands and the potential for UH to become a military research institution under his leadership.
"Having heard both candidates speak and examining their backgrounds, we write to you to strenuously object to Lt. Gen. Wiercinski's candidacy," the letter to the regents says. "He is clearly unqualified to lead the University of Hawaii in a way that is consistent with the university's core mission, including its commitments to developing first rate research, to enabling high-quality teaching, and to operating as an educational community that foregrounds Hawaiian values."
The letter goes on to list four objections: his lack of experience in higher-education leadership; a lack of social, cultural and historical knowledge of doing business in Hawaii; the potential for him to "contribute to the militarization of the university" through classified military research; and his inability to cite specific goals or approaches to support the university's strategic plan.
Wiercinski said in his first public forum that his background makes him a strong candidate, drawing comparisons between the UH system and the $1 billion military operation he ran as commander of the U.S. Army Pacific.
He said Monday that he's still up for the job despite the opposition.
"I spent a lifetime defending our right to freedom of speech and to express our opinion. I will not be a hypocrite of that oath now just because it may be directed at me," he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "I would only hope that I may be judged based on who I am as a person, my ability to lead and my willingness to serve."
Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, an associate professor of political science at Manoa who collaborated on the letter, said Wiercinski doesn't have the needed skill set.
"His military experience doesn't qualify him to lead an institution of higher learning. It's not an equivalent experience," she said.
Jeffrey Carroll, a professor and chairman of the English Department, said the abbreviated time frame for faculty, students and the public to evaluate the two candidates only adds to the controversy.
"The whole thing has been so rushed. The finalists were determined and announced in the past two weeks," said Carroll, who signed the petition. "When I do learn, for example, that one candidate has no experience running an academic institution, I think it does disqualify him. This is a complex system. I just can't imagine that someone without that experience can just walk in to this job as he'd need to."
Some faculty union officials, including University of Hawaii Professional Assembly Executive Director JN Musto, support Wiercinski.
"He's not looking to be an academic," Musto said last week following Wiercinski's public talk at UH-Manoa. "I think the leadership skills, the background he has with logistics, with management, the kinds of things that we need for the system to run, are important. We have all of the academic resources that we need. What we have lacked, though, I believe, is a really effective way to organize and carry out the functional aspect of the institution."