The two leading Democrats in the governor's race weighed in on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents' search for a new UH president Thursday, after questions were raised about the search process and its outcome.
Just two candidates are still in the running for the UH presidency, interim President David Lassner and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski. The regents' search committee was originally tasked with coming up with five to six finalists, but three finalists dropped out and at least one qualified candidate was ignored.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the regents should review the process one more time.
"The question for the regents is can they assure the public that the process has been conducted fairly, and if that's an issue, then the perhaps the process should be reopened," Abercrombie told Hawaii News Now. "The regents need to examine what they have done at this point and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the public confidence is sufficiently established."
State Sen. David Ige, who's challenging Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for governor, said the search process must be reopened using a professional search firm.
"The question for the regents is, 'Has this process resulted in the candidate pool that we think the University of Hawaii and the people of Hawaii deserves?' And I think not," Ige said.
In a statement Tuesday, the UH Board of Regents said, "The board believes that to open the selection process at the 11th hour would do significant damage to the university." The statement did not detail what type of "damage" would occur, and UH spokespeople did not return an email Wednesday asking the regents to explain that claim in further detail.
Asked once again for comment Thursday on remarks by Abercrombie and Ige, the regents' spokeswoman repeated the prior statement, suggesting the regents are comfortable with their process and the two choices before them.
Hawaii News Now's repeated requests to interview Lassner have been refused. Thursday, HNN submitted a question through a spokesperson about whether he was concerned that if he were selected, his appointment would be tainted by public criticism of the process. The spokeswoman said Lassner had no comment.
State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim was the first to call on UH to re-open the presidential search Tuesday, and she set up an online petition at the web site Change.org that had collected nearly 350 signatures by late Thursday afternoon.
"I don't think that we should be so focused on a timeline. We should take the time required to find the best candidates that we can," Ige, the chairman of the Senate's Ways and Means committee, said Thursday. "I would urge the regents to reevaluate where they are and ask the question can we do better? I believe we ought to reopen the search."
Ige said UH needed a "good cross section of candidates and didn't get it."
One presidential finalist dropped out because Lassner, the interim president, is in the running for the permanent job and is considered by many to have the inside track as the incumbent. Two other finalists also withdrew for undisclosed reasons.
Even though the regents at first said the interim president could not apply for the permanent job, the regents allowed Lassner to be considered for the post on a technicality, because he was nominated by 13 UH deans and two directors to the post and didn't officially "apply."
Jeanette Takamura, who was raised in Hawaii, earned two degrees from UH and who's now a dean at an Ivy League university, was not considered for the UH presidency, even though former Gov. Ben Cayetano nominated her last summer. The regents said that's because Cayetano nominated her in July of 2013, and he failed to re-nominate her and she didn't apply when UH began formally accepting names in February of this year.
Lassner has been a university employee since 1977. Before being appointed the interim president in September, he was the UH's first vice president of information technology. Lassner earned an undergraduate degree in economics and a master's degree in computer science from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He got his Ph.D. in communication and information sciences from UH in 1998.
Wiercinski retired last summer after 34 years in the Army. A West Point graduate with no advanced degrees, he started and ended his Army career in Hawaii, where he retired as commander of the Army in the Pacific, overseeing 80,000 soldiers and thousands more civilian employees throughout Asia and the Pacific.
John Holzman, the chairman of the Board of Regents, has praised both of the remaining finalists as "qualified to lead the university."
"They're really capable individual and each in their own careers have accomplished and enormous amount," Holzman said after a May 1 regents meeting.
But critics, such as Kapaa resident Harry Cramer, who signed the online petition to reopen the search, feel otherwise.
"Surely the committee with a mandate to produce no less than five candidates could do a better job," Cramer, a UH graduate from Kauai wrote. "To offer just two, one an insider with an inside track, and the other a military man with no academic background, is better suited to a Saturday Night Live sketch than a serious proposal for the presidency of the university."
(Special Projects Producer Daryl Huff contributed to this report)