In a split vote, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents selected Interim UH President David Lassner as the permanent UH president Monday, while two regents abstained from the vote saying they wanted the university to re-open the presidential search.
After two hours of discussion and debate, 11 regents voted for Lassner, the interim president since last September, two voted for retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski and two regents abstained because they wanted UH to restart the search process.
Two of the newest regents called on their colleagues to delay a vote on the UH president, because of what they called a flawed selection process that's been the subject of criticism from lawmakers, the UH Graduate Student Organization and others. While the regents' search committee was charged with finding five or six finalists, only two remained after three dropped out.
"The university's 'damaged goods' image gives rise for us to pause and perhaps consider for waiting for the right moment or time in the future to look for a permanent president," said regent Ben Kudo, who unsuccessfully introduced a proposal to delay the vote.
Jeff Portnoy, another regent who also asked for the vote to be put off, told fellow regents, "I cannot support the process."
But the regents' vice chair and chair, whose terms end at the end of this month, said the regents needed to vote immediately for the good of the university.
"It has been destabilized by outside forces," said regents Vice Chair James Lee. "The university needs to re-stabilize itself and move forward. Deferring a decision will only lead to further destabilization."
John Holzman, the chairman of the Board of Regents, said, "If we made such a decision at this moment, what kind of credibility would they have? What kind of legitimacy would this university have to have gone so far and then say, 'Oops, we've changed our mind.'"
Regents Coralie Matayoshi and Tom Sugimoto were the two regents who cast votes in favor of Wiercinski.
"While Frank Wiercinski has some detractors," Matayoshi said, "I believe that he is the type of transformational leader who can inspire people to cast aside their differences and come together for the common good."
Lassner's supporters said it comes down to who is best for the UH right now.
"We need a leader that will rebuild relationships, that will build a unified community, that will move us forward into the future, and I believe David Lassner can best serve these goals," said regent Jan Sullivan.
Gene Bal, another regent who voted for Lasser, said, "I have the highest confidence in David Lassner and most strongly believe that he's the best choice to be the president of the university. Not only amongst the finalists, but as compared to an entire applicant pool."
A UH spokeswoman said Lassner was not available to speak to reporters after the decision late Monday afternoon. After the vote, Lassner, UH regents, top university officials and some politicians attended a reception held at College Hill, the UH president's traditional residence near its flagship Manoa campus.
Lassner waved from his car at a Hawaii News Now crew as he left the event but did not grant them an interview.
The regents gave preliminary approval to paying Lassner $375,000 a year, less than previous president MRC Greenwood and a lower salary that four other top UH officials, including UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, whose salary is $439,008 and UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone, who is paid $412,008. UH medical school Dean Jerris Hedges is the highest paid UH employee at $505,008 a year.
A regents subcommittee will work out details of his contract, which will be a "continuous appointment" for no defined time period, Holzman said.
"Other boards can decide what they want to do in the future," Holzman told reporters after an executive session to discuss Lassner's contract, "but right now we have a continuous term, that means he continues to serve, and every year there will be an annual evaluation. And if he continues to perform well, there will continue to be annual evaluations."
"The salary of the president is less than a number of people in this university and it's a great example for everybody," Holtzman said. "That figure was based on our confidence that both candidates are dedicated to this state, are dedicated to higher education in this state, and are doing this as a public service."
The regents' sub-committee to negotiate terms of Lassner's contract will be made up of regents James Lee, John Dean, Jan Sullivan, Jeff Portnoy and Gene Bal.
"We're not contemplating a housing allowance," said Holzman.
Greenwood, the previous president, was paid an annual housing allowance of $60,000 because she didn't want to live in the College Hill mansion. The home was not fully accessible to the disabled and Greenwood's partner was physically disabled. Greenwood's annual salary was about $475,000 when she stepped down with two years remaining on her contract on Aug. 31, 2013.
"The president's agenda is about a five-year deal. There's a lot to do. And I don't think anyone doubts that. And we all have confidence and a great expectation that President Lassner will do those things. And it's going to take time," Holzman told reporters.
Asked for his reaction about fellow regents' calls to re-open the search, Holzman said,"Perhaps there were some flaws, but we ended up with two great candidates, and we made a choice and now the university will have a leader that will take us into the future."
Wiercinski, the retired commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, released a statement that thanked the UH community for making him a finalist in the search.
"I will always recall their passion and dedication, and their dignity and respect during our conversations," Wiercinski said. "I would like to particularly thank those who nominated me for this position, asked me to serve, and further acknowledge their support and confidence in my leadership abilities. I am in awe of their courage and efforts to move the University forward, and so very grateful for their unyielding support."
"Jeannine and I wish to congratulate David Lassner as he assumes the permanent President's position. We wish him and the University of Hawaii great success and Aloha," Wiercinski said.
Lassner, an information technology who's been at UH for 37 years, was seen as the inside candidate in a presidential search process that has lasted for most of the past year. When the regents appointed him interim president in September, Lassner was the UH's vice president for information technology.
The regents chose Lassner over a more unconventional candidate Wiercinski, who served as commander of Army forces in the Pacific until he retired last July.
Critics have blasted the regents' search process, saying it should be re-opened because of the regents' failure to find five or six finalists, which was their original goal. State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and the UH Graduate Student Organization called on the regents to re-open the search late last month.
UH President David Lassner will make an appearence on Hawaii News Now Sunrise at 6 a.m. Wednesday.