A 'dark day' for UW System: Jim Johnsen, sole finalist to lead the UW System, withdraws from consideration

By Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal SentinelPublished 10:23 a.m. CT June 12, 2020 | Updated 3:41 p.m. CT June 12, 2020

Jim Johnsen, the president of the University of Alaska System and sole finalist for the position of University of Wisconsin System president, withdrew from consideration for the job Friday.

The decision came mere hours before the nine-member search committee chaired by UW Regent Vice President Michael Grebe was set to meet in closed session to consider recommending the full board make Johnsen a formal offer.

"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,” Johnsen said. “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.”

A spokeswoman for Johnsen said Friday he does not plan to make any further comments about his decision.

The decision leaves the search process in a shambles. There is effectively no timetable to replace Ray Cross, who announced last October that he was retiring from the UW System presidency. Cross, who works without a contract and serves at the pleasure of the Board of Regents, had planned on staying until his replacement was in place. There was no word Friday about whether Cross would stay on, or if the board would appoint an interim president. 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.

When he named Johnsen and acknowledged that other candidates had dropped out, Grebe said reopening the search would set the process back by at least six months. On Friday, Regents President Andrew Petersen issued a statement saying the system would shift its focus to getting through the immediate financial and operational challenges brought on by the pandemic while deliberating next steps for a new search.

“It’s disappointing, a dark day for the UW System," Petersen said.

Johnsen's withdrawal came days after he participated in his first and only public question-and-answer session, after which some UW-System faculty found his comments underwhelming. Many also questioned his track record in Alaska, where he was caught between a governor and board of regents trying to slash budgets and merge schools, and chancellors and faculty accusing him of top-down management. At one point, faculty passed a "no confidence" vote and asked that he be suspended.

Perhaps the key phrase in Johnsen's statement Friday, however, was his reference to the search committee "having important process issues to work out."

From the start, faculty, students and staff, alongside several state legislators, have questioned the makeup of the historically small search committee appointed by Regent President Andrew Petersen. Not only did the committee only have one member of color, it had no faculty or staff represented.

At the time, Petersen defended the committee makeup, saying, "In a competitive environment where multiple state systems are actively searching for new presidential leadership, we need a small, nimble and dedicated committee comprised of board and academic leadership that represents diverse interests."

At least two other major university systems decided to postpone their searches for new presidents because of the COVID-19 pandemic: the California State University System and the University of Texas System. Wisconsin's continued on.

The process was conducted almost entirely behind closed doors.

Last week, Grebe officially announced Johnsen as the lone finalist, and told the Board of Regents that every other person the committee was considering ultimately dropped out. He explained that the committee decided to continue with Johnsen because he was the top choice, and it would be "disingenuous" to call others back.

Grebe then promised "a series of extensive public interviews, Q-and-A sessions and meetings" to discuss Johnsen's candidacy. That never materialized.

In just one short public interview session, Johnsen spoke in generalities, and made several comments on diversity that struck some participants as awkward, or "tone deaf" as Jon Shelton, a UW-Green Bay professor on the UW faculty representatives group, described them.

'As diverse a pool as possible'

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, called the situation "a nightmare." She said it was a lesson in the importance of transparency and the need to have all voices heard, especially in times of uncertainty.

"You know, if you are a contested candidate from the start and there are reports that you have this job because you were the last man standing, in this case, its certainly understandable that he wouldn't want to start a job under those circumstances,"  Pasquerella said.

She said it's not unheard of for a search to end the way Wisconsin's did, especially given the high-profile nature of presidential jobs at state university systems. But she said that going forward, one big issue that must be addressed is the lack of diverse voices weighing in on the process.

"Especially with what's going on in the national landscape, when we're talking about not only the legacies of racism and white supremacy but anti-blackness, it's important to have as diverse a pool as possible," she said. "And so if you don't know who the other candidates are, if you don't know why the other candidates have been removed from the pool ... those decisions need to be made transparent."

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, who has called for the expansion of the search committee since its membership was announced late last year, said Johnsen's decision was understandable.

"No one can say the committee wasn’t warned that their exclusion of the people most affected by this decision would backfire," Shankland said in a statement Friday. "While this entire process and outcome was dishearteningly predictable, this is a critical opportunity for the Board of Regents to learn from their mistakes."

In a joint statement after Johnsen's withdrawal Friday, the UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison and statewide chapters of the American Association of University Professors called on Petersen and Grebe to step down from the Board of Regents. They asked the body to work with stakeholder groups to appoint an interim president while a new search gets underway.

The American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin union applauded Johnsen for pushing back on the search process and called for a more inclusive process.

Despite Johnsen's comment on "process issues," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a statement blaming the outcome on partisan politics.

"This is a disappointment. If leftist liberals on campus can't decide on the UW System President, they become critics and drive out a qualified leader. We can’t let intimidation become the way we choose our campus leaders,” Vos wrote.

Pasquerella alluded to politics as well, saying constant divisiveness — such as Wisconsin's recent fight over Gov. Tony Evers' safer-at-home order — can spill over into a search like this. "There's a lot going on politically that could influence candidates," she said.

Having said that, she stressed that the system's national and international reputation is strong.

This story will be updated.

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or DAShastri@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri.