University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen withdrew himself from consideration for the position of University of Wisconsin System President earlier this summer.
In Oct. 2019, former UW System President Ray Cross announced his retirement, causing a nationwide search to find his replacement. In June, the UW Board of Regents named Johnsen as the sole finalist for the position.
Johnsen later declined to take the position, just 10 days after he was named the sole candidate. In a statement on the University of Alaska Public Affairs Board, Johnsen said his withdrawal came as a result of “important process issues” within the UW System.
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Johnsen’s withdrawal from the candidate pool revealed what some view as flaws in the Board of Regents’ controversial search process for a new UW System President.
Several have called the search a failure from its inception. President of the Wisconsin Conference of the American Association of University Professors Nick Fleisher said the process failed when the Board of Regents named the nine-person search committee in November — a departure from the normal practice in selecting UW System presidents and chancellors.
“The process failed because it excluded all kinds of groups from the search process that are normally important,” Fleisher said. “Those groups include faculty, staff, students and the general public.”
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The American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin’s Vice President of Higher Education, Jon Shelton, said if a wider array of individuals convened to search for a new president, Jim Johnsen likely would not have been named the sole candidate in the end.
Shelton said Johnsen, a white male, was named the finalist in an inopportune time, a week after the death of George Floyd and amid national protests. Shelton said Johnsen’s lack of diversity initiatives at the University of Alaska made him an inappropriate candidate for the time.
“If you had faculty or staff on the committee, somebody would have said it’s not the best idea to move forward with one single candidate right now, given the bigger situation in the state,” Shelton said. “For those reasons, the search was flawed, and the Regents have recognized that.”
Shelton said UW’s search process is evidence of a trend to empower Regents rather than faculty with regards to appointing leaders within the System.
Shelton said before a rule change in 2017, the process of naming campus chancellors involved a search committee consisting of faculty, staff and students. The committee then presented a handful of acceptable candidates to the Board of Regents, which ultimately determined to whom a position would be offered.
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This process was altered in 2017. Shelton said the new search committee consists of a group of 10 people, including five Regents, two faculty members, two staff members and one community member. The change limited the power of the faculty and staff and gave more influence to the Regents, which sparked concern when replacing the UW System President.
Both Shelton and Fleisher advocated for a return to the previous hiring process implemented before 2017. Shelton said he sees a balance returning.
June 19, the UW Board of Regents selected former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as the Interim UW System President. This decision was also made by the Board of Regents without inclusion of faculty or students, but Fleisher said for interim president, the selection process can look different. The current understanding is that Thompson will hold his position for the upcoming year as the new search for a System president begins.
State Sen. Fred Risser (D-26), who represents the UW campus in Madison, said Thompson would serve well as an interim president.
“I think Tommy Thompson was a good choice to quickly come in and right the ship. Thompson loves Wisconsin and the University.” Risser said. “He should provide the needed stability while the Board steps back and takes a deep breath.”
As of now, there is no timeline in place for the creation of a new search committee. Shelton said the future is unknown for the UW System, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which muddied the prospects of what a future selection process will look like.
Shelton emphasized the importance of confidence and excitement in a leader in higher education and voiced his hope for more inclusive future hiring processes.
“It is important for the leader of an institution as big as the UW System to have faculty, staff and students who are enthusiastic about that person.” Shelton said “If you’re the Board of Regents, you have to bring in faculty, staff and students on the ground floor. And have them be involved in the process every step of the way.”