'Failed result of a flawed search process': UW faculty, students critical of president finalist

By Yvonne Kim; Jun. 4, 2020

The University of Wisconsin System’s announcement of a potential new president Tuesday was met with strong criticism and frustration, as campus groups immediately demanded the Board of Regents switch course and restart the search.

In a statement Tuesday, the American Association of University Professors Wisconsin called on the System to declare a failed search and withdraw the candidacy of Jim Johnsen, current president of the University of Alaska System and the single, unanimously-chosen finalist in the search for a successor to Ray Cross. The group cited Johnsen’s history at the University of Alaska System, where faculty expressed their disapproval through votes of no confidence and calls for his removal from office as early as 2017.

“These are disqualifying attributes in any candidate,” the statement said. “Basic norms of decency and respect toward our colleagues in Alaska dictate that we oppose Johnsen’s candidacy in the strongest possible terms.”

But beyond Johnsen’s candidacy, the groups condemned the search process itself, repeating long-standing concerns about the committee’s makeup and a lack of opportunities to provide feedback. AAUP Madison called the announcement “the failed result of a flawed search process that excluded faculty, staff, and student representatives from the beginning.”

Though a state law requires the release of at least five finalists’ names for positions of public office, select System cases are exempt under a 2015 modification to the statute. Still, AAUP Madison president Timothy Yu said the choice to announce only one finalist is a break from tradition indicative of a concealed search.

Michael Grebe, chair of the search committee, responded to concerns by clarifying the search process at a Board of Regents meeting Thursday.

Following listening sessions held before the search, the committee started with a “large group of candidates,” which were recruited, nominated or self-nominated. The committee narrowed the group down into semifinalists — without a set number of people allowed to advance — who underwent multi-day interview sessions.

Though the committee was prepared to advance multiple finalists’ names for recommendation, Johnsen was the group’s unanimous favorite at the time, said Grebe, the Board of Regents vice president.

However, after the committee checked references for the finalists, every candidate but Johnsen chose to drop out of the search and not be publicly named. Grebe said the committee considered semifinalists to return to the search or even to restart the search altogether. It ultimately decided that the former would feel “disingenuous, intended only to create the perception that there were multiple finalists,” while the latter would delay the process for months at the risk of losing all the qualified candidates it had already amassed.

“This was a decision that we made with careful thought, discussion and consideration,” Grebe said. “Let me be very clear. While the search process has put Jim Johnsen forward as the sole finalist, this is not the end of the process.

In a letter to Cross and the Board of Regents, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, questioned the decision not to recommend additional candidates to be finalists. She added that the UW System should have released more finalists’ names even if it is not legally mandated to do so.

“While I understand that some of the finalists dropped out … there is also a level of transparency and accountability that is expected when selecting a position of public trust of this magnitude,” Shankland wrote.

She urged the System to either restart the search or reexamine the semifinalist applicant pool, as well as to pass policy requiring more diverse search committees to prevent similar concerns in the future.

The System will hold a public forum on June 9 and is currently accepting questions for a finalist interview, a video of which will be made publicly available for comment on June 10. System spokesman Mark Pitsch said in an email that campus constituencies are “encouraged to participate in the open session this Tuesday to learn more about the finalist first-hand.”

But Yu said that opportunities to provide input are not equivalent to a real seat at the table and called next week’s plans the “symptom of a rushed and truncated process.”

“Our biggest concerns are not about this individual candidate, but about the process,” Yu said.

‘Someone who respects the people on the ground’

UW-Madison’s AAUP chapter and faculty organization PROFS also released statements mentioning the votes of no confidence and Johnsen’s history of proposing program cuts. In July 2019, Johnsen issued furloughs and spending restrictions after Alaska Gov. MIke Dunleavy cut $130 million from the System’s budget.

Coupled with talks about merging the University of Alaska System and moving to a single accreditation system, Johnsen’s program cuts sparked harsh opposition from faculty. The majority of votes in a Faculty Senate poll showed no confidence in Johnsen’s leadership and strong support for his removal.

AAUP Wisconsin president Nick Fleisher called his history “a major red flag” that he and UW System colleagues understand well. In 2016, UW-Madison faculty also supported a no-confidence vote against Ray Cross and the UW System for its response to a $250 million cut in the 2015-17 state budget.

“When you vote no confidence in a leader, on one hand, you’re signaling your dissatisfaction with that person,” said Nick Fleisher, AAUP Wisconsin president. “But you’re also sending a signal to the rest of the higher ed world and to people outside your state … We would be remiss if we didn’t heed that message from our colleagues in Alaska.”

Addressing the votes of no confidence, a spokeswoman for Johnsen said Tuesday that the subject requires greater context, as the university had been “emerging from months of fighting for its very existence.” She added that Regents ultimately negotiated a smaller, $70 million cut over a period of three years, and that Johnsen remains dedicated to meeting with shared governance representatives.

“Had that (initial) cut gone into effect, we would be attending a memorial service here today rather than recommitting ourselves to serving the state’s need for a strong, resilient university system,” Johnsen said in March.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW System has already lost about $100 million, and Cross estimates continued financial setbacks and lower enrollment in the fall. On Wednesday, he requested a special legislative session to allow the System to borrow money.

Joel Berkowitz, president of AAUP’s UW-Milwaukee chapter, said the System should find a president who can take on these challenges as “a strong advocate.” He added that he would support an interim president serving while the Board continues the search, saying concerns about Johnsen’s track record could be better contextualized when compared to other candidates.

“It has to be someone with a significant backbone, with significant vision and the interest and ability to listen to the many constituencies in the System,” Berkowitz said. “Someone who respects the people who are on the ground doing the job of making this university system the great system that it has been for so long.”