Lone candidate for UW President's job withdraws application

By Benjamin Yount | The Center Square 

(The Center Square) – The University of Wisconsin will have to restart its search for a new president.

The only person to reach the interview stage, University of Alaska System President Dr. Jim Johnsen, withdrew his name from consideration Friday.

“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 in a statement. “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.”

Johnsen's announcement came just hours before UW Regents were to meet and possibly offer him the job.

Regent President Andrew S. Petersen didn't take the news well.

“It’s disappointing, a dark day for the UW System," Petersen said in a statement. “Dr. Johnsen is a fine person who conducted himself with professionalism and honor throughout the process, during which he was unanimously identified by the search committee as the best candidate for our system."

Johnsen was the only candidate to make it this far because a number of other candidates dropped out of the process, saying they didn't want to be seen as applying for the job during the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnsen was also met with fierce opposition from UW faculty members and some UW students.

More than 2,000 students, faculty members, and university workers signed a petition asking that the UW System to start its search again. They complained that the search committee was too small and not inclusive enough, that faculty did not have enough say in the process, and that Johnsen was from outside of the UW System.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, echoed those complaints on Friday.

“From day one, I have been vocal about my serious concerns with the search and screen committee process for UW System President," Shankland said. "The committee broke with decades of precedent by deliberately excluding the voices of faculty, academic staff, university staff, and students and ignoring calls to course correct. Recently, they broke with precedent yet again by announcing only one finalist for the position. Now, the finalist has withdrawn, citing concerns about the committee’s process."

Shankland represents a university town, UW Stevens Point is the UW System's seventh largest campus.

As for what is next, Petersen said they will regroup.

“We will work to identify and get through our immediate financial and operational challenges with the pandemic, then deliberate on the next steps to conduct a new search when there is a better opportunity," Petersen said.