American Association of University Professors creates petition to recall UW-System president search


Photo retrieved from AAUP petition.

Maija Sikora, Managing Editor

In October 2019, the University of Wisconsin System President, Ray Cross announced his intention to retire. With this announcement began the search for a new UW System President. In December 2019, the Wisconsin Board of Regents tasked a search committee with the candidate search, headed by Regent Vice President Michael Grebe, and assisted by Storbeck Search & Associates, a screening company. 

On June 2, the committee advanced one finalist to the public eye, Jim Johnsen, current president of the University of Alaska System. Johnsen has been president of the Alaska System since 2015, has served in multiple roles in the UA system, and multiple roles in the field of higher education, since 1992. 

Johnsen’s finalist interview was hosted via an online forum on June 9. Members of the search committee and the interviewing team included senior associate at Storbeck Search & Associates Kenna Boyd, as well as Grebe and colleagues.

The committee included no traditional UW System students, no faculty and staff, and only one person of color. Any willing participants outside of the committee were required to pre-register for the forum. Questions were required to be submitted prior to the event. According to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s announcement page, the most frequently-requested questions were utilized in the interview. 

Throughout the interview, Johnsen mentioned his connections to the business world and included his desire to incorporate his background in industry into his position in the Wisconsin System. One of Johnsen’s goals would be to update the universities’ spending plans. No specific methodology for doing so was given. 

There were those, such as professor at the UW-Milwaukee Kathleen Dolan, who felt that the interview, which was the sole of many promised, was dissatisfying.  ‘”I was unimpressed. I was underwhelmed,” Dolan said. “I thought that from a process perspective, there wasn’t a lot of time to ask important questions, and I think from a substantive perspective, he didn’t offer much that gave us a sense of what kind of president he would be.”‘

Johnsen’s responses to questions about fostering diversity and equity in the system were, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Devi Shastri, distressing. Johnsen, a white man, referred to himself as a minority while speaking about his time working in Doyon, Limited, an Alaskan Native Cooperation, due to his close proximity to Alaskan indigenous peoples. Johnsen also included that his proposed plan of providing scholarships to graduating high school students in the top 10 percent of their classes would act as a “de facto affirmative action plan.”

The video of the interview became available for all UW members on June 10. Comments from the community were allowed until the end of the business day on June 11, at which point the footage was taken down. 

According to American Association of University Professors UW-Madison Chapter President Timothy Yu, the search for the new UW system president was unethical in its lack of consideration for AAUP guidelines that dictate a level of community involvement and decision making transparency.

In response, the AAUP released a statement on June 2, on the nature of the candidacy search, with the call to reorganize the process according to fair guidelines:

“The announcement today of a single finalist, Jim Johnsen, in the search for the next University of Wisconsin System President is the failed result of a flawed search process that excluded faculty, staff, and student representatives from the beginning.

Johnsen’s record as president of the University of Alaska, which includes massive program-cutting proposals and votes of no confidence from faculty and students, is deeply concerning. Moreover, the process by which he has been selected has excluded shared governance in violation of AAUP guidelines.

No faculty, traditional student, or staff representatives were appointed to the search committee, and the process has not allowed UW System faculty, staff, and students to provide meaningful input. The only announced opportunity for the UW community to respond to Johnsen’s candidacy will be a recorded video presentation on June 10, with just a single day allowed for public comment, which is an inadequate and insulting substitute for a public question-and-answer session.

We call on the Board of Regents to withdraw Johnsen’s candidacy and begin a new search process that includes faculty, staff, and student representatives. This is the only way to find a candidate who will be able to lead the System effectively and gain the confidence of the UW community.”

The AAUP members released the aforementioned statement in tandem with a petition for change, in which members of the UW System and Wisconsin community were able to voice their concerns for the situation. 

Yu, in an interview with the Racquet Press, said that he feels having responsible representation would have fostered stronger confidence in system members, and strengthened the relationship between system members and administration, as well as given a sense of authority to community members.

On June 12, Johnsen withdrew his candidacy, hours before the search committee was to discuss offering the Alaska System president the position.

“After deep reflection as to where I am called to lead a university system through these challenging times, it is clear to me and my family that it is in Alaska,” said Johnsen. “I appreciate the strong support from the search committee at Wisconsin, and for all those who supported my candidacy, but it’s clear they have important process issues to work out.”

UW System Regent President Andrew Petersen commented on Johnsen’s decision; “It’s disappointing, a dark day for the UW System,” he said.

The money spent on the search that resulted in Johnsen’s candidacy was significant, “Further, the board paid a national search firm, Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, $201,250 plus any money for travel, background checks, and various other reimbursable expenses. Now, they have nothing to show for it,” said Shastri.

Peterson says the UW system will continue its search after handling the fiscal and logistical problems of the pandemic. Something that other university systems in the process of hiring a new president – such as the University of California and University of Texas systems – chose to do at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“What I hope happens now is that the Regents do the search the way it should have been done from the beginning, with faculty, staff, and student representatives on the committee,” said Yu on the outcome of the petition. “The current leadership of the Regents insisted on a process that excluded faculty, staff, and students, so I think the current Regent leadership has to own the result. If they can’t learn from this and do things the right way, they should step aside and let other Regents take the lead.”

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