MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There were protestors and pointed questions at the first of several "talk story" public forums with the finalists for the President of the University of Hawai'i system.
Two men in the running for UH's top position, Interim President David Lassner and Lt. General Francis Wiercinski.
Tuesday night, the retired U.S. Army Pacific Commanding General faced the public for the first time and his appearance on campus was marked by not-so silent demonstration.
With raised signs reading, "Demilitarize!" "Decolonize!" and "Hawaiian values?" dozens of students, faculty and concerned community members filled the University of Hawai'i at Manoa Architecture School auditorium.
Tensions flared, but remained in check during Lt. General Francis Wiercinski's first public meeting.
"I think it's fantastic that we have an open forum the community can participate in and I thought the General did incredibly well and maintained great poise. I did think there were times when our audience wasn't exactly showing the aloha spirit, but I'm very proud of how well the General did," said UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple.
General Wiercinski recently retired from the US Army, after 34 years of service.
"My background has taught me how to be a leader. I have walked and made mistakes, and I have learned from those mistakes, but it has come from 34 years of experience -- and if that experience should help or could help focus, get us all together and move in a certain direction for the next decade, I'm willing to serve. It's going to be hard, but nothing good comes easy. I'm just honored that I may have the chance to serve Hawai'i again," said Lt. General Wiercinski.
Some find the General's military background an asset to the University system.
"He has gone up through the ranks and he has been a general officer and he has lead thousands and thousands of people in, not only a military community, but also as he said, in budgets and administration and he has that sort of a background, which I think is key to running an organization like the University of Hawai'i," said Pam Harms, a former Staff Judge Advocate who retired from service in the U.S. Army after 25 years.
A majority of the audience gathered to question whether Wiercinski's military career makes him an appropriate candidate to lead the University.
"That background is inherently at odds with the kind of institution of higher learning we want to be a part of and that we're proud to be a part of," said Tina Grandinetti, a UH Manoa student who helped organize the protest. "I was really proud and moved by how many people showed up in solidarity to each other to show -- send a message to the Board of Regents -- that their decision making process so far has not been in line with our vision for our University."
Grandinetti says the university has made a commitment to being a Hawaiian place of learning, but that promise is contradicted by selecting someone with such an extensive military background given Hawai'i's complicated history as an occupied nation.
"It was kind of tough to field the opposition and the tension in the room but I think it was really necessary to call into question and to challenge UH's ongoing connections with the U.S. military industrial complex," Grandinetti said.
Ilima Ho-Lastimosa agrees.
"He talks about malama 'aina and taking care of the natural resources but they never cleaned Kanaloa, they didn't clean Kaho'olawe," Ho-Lastimosa, a Master student at the School of Social Work. "He keeps on talking about malama 'aina, aloha and whatever, but in his previous position with the job that he had -- it was the total opposite."
Others questioned his lack of experience in academia.
"He has no knowledge of what we need to do and the sorts of solutions we need and the strategies we need to come through this time of crisis and that really bothers me. None of the answers, nothing he said in there today, assured any of us. He really is ignorant of the fundamental problems that we have," said Noel Kent, a UH Manoa professor of Ethics Studies, who has been at the university for 40 years.
Supporters of General Wiercinski say he's an excellent candidate to lead the University of Hawai'i system.
"I think that there are some misperceptions, but I do have the good fortune of knowing who he is and believe and know that he's very collegial, a great leader and would be a consensus builder and passionate about bringing UH to the next level, and that's really what I'm excited about and what I would like to see," said Crissy Gayagas, a community volunteer and consultant. "People were able to get to know who he is and I was very impressed with his comments, his leadership principles and his philosophy and where he'd like to take the university."
General Wiercinski says he took an oath more than three decades ago that gives people the freedom to express their views and he looks forward to engaging with them. He says he considers the public forums a critical part of the selection process.
"People have their freedoms and I'm glad that they do and their opinions count. Hawaiian values is all our values. My wife and I are so proud to be living here now and I've learned so many things from my Hawaiian brethren. We consider that so vitally important and it's part of us now -- a great reason why we have stayed here," said Lt. General Wiercinski.
Wiercinski and Lassner will be speaking at several public forums on O'ahu, Kaua'i, Maui and Hawai'i Island.