The only finalist for the UW System's top job is a white man, and critics say his credentials and vision for the future are lackluster

Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal SentinelPublished 4:36 p.m. CT June 11, 2020 | Updated 2:09 p.m. CT June 12, 2020

Both the process and result of searching for a new president of the University of Wisconsin System continue to be shrouded in concern, even as it becomes evident that the president of the University of Alaska System is all but a lock for the job.

Regent Michael Grebe, chair of the search committee, had promised "a series of extensive public interviews, Q-and-A sessions and meetings" with lone finalist Jim Johnsen. However, a 90-minute session earlier this week appears to be all that will be offered.

"I don't think anybody is particularly hopeful about this," said Kathleen Dolan, a UW-Milwaukee professor who represented faculty leaders across the state in posing questions to Johnsen. "I think everybody has understood that it's probably a done deal and the question is whether or not the candidate accepts the offer. We've never been given any signals that there was true openness to input on whether or not he's the right leader for the system."

The interview started with a series of questions based on "themes" curated by the search firm hired by the UW System. A representative of campus administrators then got about 30 minutes to pose questions. Representatives of the colleges’ tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff had the remaining time. Questioners asked Johnsen how he’d handle funding challenges, foster diversity and inclusion, expand college access and respect employee and student input in decision-making.

Johnsen spoke in general terms during his public session. He said UW's strengths include its commitment to serving every corner of the state, the support of its taxpayers and the state's diverse economy — the last two of which are a stark difference from Alaska, where colleges are heavily reliant on the volatile oil market.

He also broadly outlined the challenges he thought Wisconsin faced: financial constraints, enrollment woes and the lack of a clear vision for the long-term future. The biggest challenge, he added, would be rebuilding relationships: with faculty leaders who feel unheard, lawmakers who question the system's value, and under-represented Wisconsinites who distrust a system that has historically left them out.

"My first step over the first 90 or 100 days would be to get out and learn and listen and to really meet you and build relationships," Johnsen said.

Dolan found the conversation lacking.

"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."

Further, Johnsen's responses to questions about fostering diversity, inclusion and equity across the system — subjects that could not possibly be more in the public eye  — seemed to fall flat.

Johnsen highlighted two programs he thought would be of interest: the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, which helps students earn college credit as early as seventh grade; and the UA Scholars program, which provides scholarships to every state high schooler who graduates in the top 10% of his or her class. Johnsen said the scholars program increased the number of in-state students at the system.

Some UW faculty said they were disturbed that Johnsen called it "a de facto affirmative action plan."

Asked how he would promote diversity and inclusion in the system, Johnsen, who is white, seemed to grow emotional sharing the story of being cared for like a son by his African American neighbor while his father was deployed in Vietnam. Shortly after, he called himself a "minority" when describing his time at Doyon, Limited, one of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations established by Congress.

Jon Shelton, a professor at UW-Green Bay who also sits on the UW systemwide faculty representatives group, said he and others found the "affirmative action" and "minority" comments "very tone deaf."

"I think when that question was asked about diversity, equity and inclusion, that was something where people were looking for a really strong signal that this would be a person who could speak competently about what needs to happen going forward to deal with the inequities that exist in the UW System," Shelton said. "And that evidence just was not there."

Maria Williams, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the Alaska system did make significant inroads in efforts to acknowledge and respect the diverse groups under Johnsen's leadership, including requiring students to take one Alaska Native course in order to graduate. Williams is Alaska Native.

"He does like to get to know his local demographic, that's important to him," Williams said. "He doesn't come in with, 'Hey, I'm a white guy, this is my vision.' "

Host of issues await

The search process overall has faced months of criticism and scrutiny, as a historically small team of regents and administrators continued through a largely closed-door process that Grebe said ended in every potential finalist except Johnsen dropping out before they could be interviewed. 

Grebe has stressed that Johnsen was the committee's unanimous top pick, so it would have been "disingenuous" to ask other potential finalists to come back. Even though the coronavirus pandemic posed challenges in the search, Grebe said, they "do not, however, change our very firm belief that as a committee we have identified an outstanding candidate who represents the attributes that our community values."

Johnsen also interviewed Tuesday with the UW System Board of Regents, the Regent-appointed search and screen committee, UW System administrators and university chancellors, all in separate, closed meetings.

Publicly, Johnsen acknowledged, the big task ahead will be rebuilding trust after a chaotic search process that state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called "dishearteningly predictable." The process has sparked a 2,000-signature-strong petition calling for the regents to declare a failed search.

He also will face staggering budget decisions as the system deals with tens of millions of dollars in losses from the coronavirus, an uncertain upcoming year — both in terms of revenue and structure — and a brutal economic climate in which it will be seeking help at a time when little can be given.

He provided few specific thoughts on financial challenges faced by the UW System, such as the ongoing in-state tuition freeze, which has hobbled revenue for campuses but enjoyed bipartisan backing from the governor and state lawmakers in the last state budget.

In describing how he'd approach the crucial presidential role of advocating for the system with state lawmakers, Johnsen again came back to relationships.

"My goal is to meet (legislators) on their turf way before I need them in Madison because my ability to communicate with them and to help them meet their interests is going to be a function of listening to those interests, understanding those interests and then figuring out how the university can address their interests," he said.

Some of Johnsen's suggestions appeared to track with his would-be predecessor's "blueprint" for the system's survival beyond the pandemic. If implemented, the plan put forth by Ray Cross could involve broad program cuts, layoffs, heavy investment in online courses, and the re-imagining of most UW universities' missions.

Asked how he’d maintain the autonomy of campuses if hired — a notion that is written into statute and local leaders say is crucial to meeting the needs of their local students and economies — Johnsen said it is easy to do until crises in which "relationships can be stressed."

Rocky road in Alaska

That last reference to stressed relationships likely reflects that controversy that has shadowed Johnsen's five-year tenure in Alaska.

Two days after he was named UW's finalist, the Alaska System's board of regents voted to ax nearly 40 academic programs because of a budget crisis.

It's the latest turn in a decline in state funding that began in 2015 and reached a crescendo last year when the state's Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, said he’d slash the system's budget by 41% in a single year.

Williams, who was president of Alaska's systemwide Faculty Alliance governance group during the crisis, recalled Johnsen traveling across the state to attend every rally in support of the system. Ultimately, he and the system reached a deal with the governor to reduce the cut by half, and spread it out over three years.

"I don't view President Johnsen as somebody that is a destructive person that just wants to destroy education — although I do think that there are some faculty that feel that way," Williams said. "He is somebody that does believe in education. He is hardworking. He does have a vision."

Nevertheless, before the compromise with the governor was reached, he infuriated educators when, in 2019, he went along with a request by the Alaska board of regentsto investigate consolidating the campuses into one university. The board declared financial exigency in the face of the 41% cut. Students questioned if they should continue their degrees.

That summer, Johnsen put what some have called a "gag order" on his chancellors, writing in one email that if they were unable to "unequivocally" support the board's decision or commit to the system's expectations, they should let him know immediately and in writing "so that we may arrange for a smooth transition."

The system's regional accreditation agency — which vouches for the quality of a university's degrees — issued a letter in September 2019 expressing concern with how the system's three main campuses were governed.

Seven former University of Alaska chancellors wrote an op-ed in the Alaska Journal calling out what they considered a top-down approach. Faculty passed a vote of "no confidence" in Johnsen's leadership and asked the board to suspend him.

"Students, prospective students, faculty, staff, and alumni entrust its University of Alaska chancellors with the accreditation of its universities," the former chancellors wrote in the Journal. "Any actions that prevent the chancellors from fulfilling their responsibilities as CEOs of their respective institutions put the entire UA system at risk."

Johnsen's staff told the Journal Sentinel he was not available for an interview this week. In an email statement, Johnsen acknowledged sending the letter and said "normal communications and decision making processes" returned after the 41% cut was walked back. He said the system addressed the accreditation agency's concerns. The board is working to clarify leadership roles of system leaders and chancellors.

"I think where he alienates faculty is he has very short time frames," Williams said. "He does understand shared governance, but sometimes the follow-through on that is he takes an action and then gets called out by the governance groups and then he'll try to rectify it."

Today, the Alaska system's board is again studying a merger, this time to turn its three campuses into two. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Caulfield, the soon-to-retire chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast, called the plan to merge it with another university "shortsighted and ill advised."

"There will never be enough data nor enough time to satisfy the people who may lose their careers," Johnsen told the Chronicle. “It breaks my heart to bring these options to the board.”

'He may surprise people'

Williams said there are "damaged relationships that are irreparable," in Alaska and she sees why Johnsen would want a fresh start.

"President Johnsen became the president when the state had horrible budget issues and last year was a complete nightmare and I don't know if anyone could have walked through this one without scathing results," she said. "I just don't. It's an impossible situation."

In a more stable situation, she said, she thought Johnsen "could actually be a good president."

But there are major differences in the two systems, notably of scale and size. In total student enrollment, the Alaska system is about one-sixth the size of UW. UA does not have a law school nor an academic medical center.

"It is a different system, the way both systems are run, since I've been at both," said Cathy Sandeen, who spent four years as the chancellor of UW Extension and UW Colleges before taking the helm at UA Anchorage.

She told the Journal Sentinel that Johnsen's selection as a finalist indicates the search committee believes he "can learn what he needs to learn."

Without the experience of beating out other candidates in the open, Johnsen's real competition may only be beginning.

"He may surprise people if he comes," Dolan said, "but I don't think people would view his accepting the position with enthusiasm and excitement."

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or