HONOLULU — Retired Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski's decades-long military career was top of mind for students who protested a forum where he made his first public appearance Tuesday night as one of two finalists vying to be the next president of the University of Hawaii.
Students shouted 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.
A few dozen people in the audience held signs and posters that read, "Demilitarize Our Education," "Universities Shall Serve the Community Not Promote Militarization" and "Hawaiian Values?"
Some booed and hissed as he talked about his leadership style, areas where he thinks UH can improve, and why he's interested in the job before a standing-room-only auditorium on the UH-Manoa campus.
Wiercinski, who retired in June after 34 years of service in the Army, including eight years of commanding in the Pacific, said his background makes him a strong candidate to lead the 10-campus system.
"I make no excuse that I served in the United States military. … I've stood and protected villages, I've built schools, I've gathered governors together … and I've buried 163 of my friends," he said. "But what I've learned in the last eight years … my daily job was building consensus with leaders, it was working the budget, a declining budget — oh, by the way, catapulted by sequestration and trying to make everything fit. …
"You're not asking me to be a professor or a dean or a chancellor. You're asking someone to be the president of a system, to get people their resources that they need to do their job. It's the same," he said.
Wiercinski, 57, said he was raised to value education, having graduated from a private high school in his home state of Pennsylvania before going on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he earned a bachelor's degree in engineering. He and his wife, Jeannine, have lived in Hawaii 34 years.
He talked about five leadership traits that he values — integrity, character, passion, courage and selflessness — as well as his vision for UH to perform more research in such fields as agriculture, medicine and health, and become the state's main economic driver.
Several students said afterward that they're uncomfortable with the possibility of Wiercinski leading the university.
Manoa political science graduate student Tina Grandinetti said she helped organize students to protest the forum.
"When we found out that one of the candidates for UH president has spent his entire career in the military, it kind of just brought to light the university's ongoing, maybe deepening connection with the U.S. military industrial complex, and that's really what we wanted to protest," Grandinetti said.
"We didn't want to target him necessarily as an individual, but we wanted to send a really strong message to the Board of Regents and to the university as a whole about what our vision for UH is and how this is at odds with their commitment to make this university a Hawaiian place of learning," she said.
Ilima Long, a Hawaiian-studies graduate student, added, "I think he made it very clear he intends to cater to the Asia-Pacific military buildup at the forefront of the Obama administration's military strategy. We're seeing it nationally, as the military infiltrates universities to be its research institutions. We're trying to send a message, not just to him, that we will not stand for that."
Wiercinski said afterward that he appreciated the questions and called the dialogue energizing.
"I got an opportunity to show people who I was, talk a little bit about my philosophy and, the most important part, take the questions,"?he said. "It's so great that people are energized and people are concerned and people want to know how things are happening. That makes me feel like people are really into this, and that's a good thing."
The other candidate for the job is David Lassner, who has worked at UH since 1977 and was tapped to serve as interim president last summer after former President M.R.C. Greenwood announced she was retiring to spend more time with family and deal with health problems, leaving with nearly two years still on her contract.
Lassner has been vice president for information technology and chief information officer since 2007. He will host his first public forum as a candidate Wednesday afternoon at Leeward Community College.