The University of Hawaii Board of Regents voted Monday to hire its longtime information technology chief to lead the university as its 15th president, saying David Lassner will be able to hit the ground running and help mend the university’s bruised reputation while working toward strategic goals to improve UH’s delivery of higher education.
In an 11-2 vote with two abstentions, the 15-member board chose Lassner, who has been serving as interim president since September, over retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski.
Regents Tom Shigemoto and Coralie Chun Matayoshi voted for Wiercinski, while Jeffrey Portnoy and Benjamin Kudo abstained. Portnoy and Kudo criticized the fairness of the search process and said they could not support either candidate.
Regents Chairman John Holzman said Lassner’s appointment, effective July 1, will be "continuous" and come with a $375,000 annual salary.
"That means he continues to serve, and every year there will be an annual evaluation, and if he performs well, there will continue to be annual evaluations," Holzman told reporters after the meeting.
Holzman said a so-called president’s agenda approved by the board during the search process will likely take about five years to accomplish. It lays out such goals as improving the state’s educational capital through expanded student access and improved graduation rates and expanding university research activities into a stand-alone, multibillion-dollar innovation sector.
"We all have confidence and a great expectation that President Lassner will do those things, and it’s going to take time," Holzman said of the agenda.
He said the shift to an at-will term versus a locked contract "probably is as much to do with the past and not as much to do with the future." (UH has paid out at least $5 million over the past decade to buy past presidents and athletic administrators out of their contracts.)
A regents subcommittee will negotiate other terms of the appointment.
A UH spokeswoman said Lassner was not available for interviews, but in a university-issued statement he said, "I pledge to listen, learn and collaborate to achieve excellence at UH as we execute on our shared vision to serve all the people of Hawaii in a manner that exemplifies superb stewardship of public resources."
Lassner, 59, started his career at UH in 1977, serving in various technical and management roles that culminated with his creating and leading the university’s first systemwide IT support organization.
He had been vice president for information technology and chief information officer since 2007 before being tapped last summer to serve as interim president after M.R.C. Greenwood announced she was retiring with two years still left on her contract to spend more time with family and address health problems.
Greenwood’s departure came about a year after UH became embroiled in the so-called Wonder Blunder fiasco in which the university was bilked out of $200,000 by promoters of a bogus Stevie Wonder concert. A state Senate inquiry into the missteps of the bungled concert led to wider concerns over university governance, operations and accountability.
Following a nearly yearlong search, Lassner and Wiercinski emerged last month as the most qualified candidates by a regents presidential selection committee. But the regents quickly came under fire for the choices and the search process, which was handled internally without the help of an outside search firm.
Some objected to Wiercinski’s decades-long military career; others found it troubling that Lassner was named a finalist when initially the board said any interim president would not be eligible for the permanent job. Other critics have pointed out the committee failed to meet its goal of producing "no less than five and no more than six" top candidates.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, the regents discussed at length the criticisms over whether the board’s search process truly produced the most qualified candidates. The back-and-forth between regents revealed obvious tension over how the search was carried out.
Regent Kudo attempted to stave off a decision on the finalists so that the board, he said, could instead take time to consider its options, including reopening the search. He said the issues deserved an open and public discussion.
"These issues have raised questions as to the propriety, fairness of the selection process … (and) trouble me personally," Kudo said.
But the idea of reopening the search was rebuffed by Holzman, who emphasized that UH is in dire need of permanent leadership. The board voted 12-3 to move ahead with a vote.
Several regents who voiced support for Lassner before the vote said that Wiercinski would have too steep a learning curve if he were hired and that a vocal minority of faculty and students opposed to his military background would be a time-consuming distraction.
"This is not a vote about a person or who is a better leader. We need a decision about what our university needs at this point in our history," regent Jan Sullivan said. "I believe that we need a leader that will rebuild relationships, that will build a unified community, that can move us forward into the future, and I believe David Lassner can best (achieve) these goals."
Regent John Dean added that while he believed both men were qualified, "My decision really came down to who is best today to take us forward."
Lassner was seen by some faculty as the preferred choice because of his familiarity and longevity with the UH system. At the same time, critics have speculated he’ll maintain the status quo at a time when UH needs to re-establish public trust and accountability.
In a public interview last week with the regents, Lassner assured the board that he wouldn’t back down from change. He shared goals of serving more students, diversifying UH’s revenue streams and improving aging facilities.
In the nine months he served as interim, Lassner is credited with helping smooth over relations with lawmakers and securing big-ticket items in UH’s budget request at the Legislature this year, including controversial construction projects.
Wiercinski issued a statement congratulating Lassner and thanking the regents and UH community for their consideration. He wished Lassner and the university "great success and aloha."