Finalist for UW System President withdraws from search

Speaker Vos blames "leftist liberals on campus" others look at improving the process

James R. Johnsen, President of the University of Alaska
James R. Johnsen, President of the University of Alaska by Ana Soc CC BY-SA 4.0

The only finalist in the search for the University of Wisconsin System’s next president, Jim Johnsen, withdrew from consideration Friday. Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska system, was named as the finalist earlier this month after a long and controversial search process. 

After he was announced as the only finalist, Johnsen immediately faced criticism from faculty members across Wisconsin who were worried about no-confidence votes he faced made by faculty and students across multiple campuses in the Alaska system. 

In an interview with faculty and staff on Tuesday, Johnsen raised eyebrows with his response to a question about diversity. He told a story from his childhood when his family shared a duplex with an African-American family — describing himself as the “white son” to the family’s “Black father.” He also said he understood the minority experience because he’d worked at a company that was majority Native Alaskan. 

Concerns were also raised over the decision being made by a search committee that did not include any students or faculty. The committee had been criticized from the start by faculty and students who felt it ignored the shared governance process. Shared governance — outlined in state law — is how university chancellors, System leadership, faculty and students work together to make decisions.  

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A petition was circulated by the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) calling for a declaration of a failed search and for starting the process over. The petition drew nearly 2,000 signatures from faculty, staff, students and alumni on university campuses across the state.

Separate, but related to the search process is outgoing President Ray Cross’ recently announced “Blueprint” for the future of the UW System. Jon Shelton, vice president for higher education at the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, says this context made the search process more difficult. 

Board of Regents Meeting
President Ray Cross addresses the UW Board of Regents in a meeting Thursday. (Screenshot)

“A big part of the story is how Ray Cross’ blueprint announcement fits into this,” Shelton says. “He announced it right in the middle of the search process, at a point when finalists were considering whether or not to be publicly revealed. I think that’s really unfortunate. It may have led some good candidates to not be associated with the search. Faculty and staff were already walking on eggshells. When you run a search like this, when you have only one candidate, it adds to that sense of anxiety. That’s the bigger context for this.” 

In a statement, Johnsen cited UW System’s process issues as his reason for withdrawing from consideration. 

“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.”

UW System leadership said Friday that it will assess its options as it tries to figure out its next steps. 

“It’s disappointing, a dark day for the UW System,” Regent President Andrew 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. 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.”

Shelton, a professor at UW-Green Bay, says he’s also disappointed with the outcome, but hopeful it can be used as a “learning opportunity” to inform the next round. He also hopes that the relationship between leadership and faculty is improving, but added that Petersen seemed to be blaming faculty and staff response for Johnsen’s decision. 

“It doesn’t leave you with a lot of options,” Shelton says. “It’s obviously a disappointing outcome for everybody. I think this is why really cutting faculty and staff out of the process — it puts us in a difficult position. The search committee was totally behind this person but there was a clear contrast with all the other stakeholders. That’s disappointing but it does say something about where we are.” 

Shelton was optimistic that the process would be better the second time around, allowing the eventual choice to have a “mandate” to guide the institution, but State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) had a different perspective. 

“This is a disappointment,” Vos said in a statement. “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. I remain confident that the Board of Regents will find a leader with strong business acumen, who can guide the System through challenging fiscal times.” 

Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said Johnsen’s withdrawal is the result of a failed process.

“From day one, I have been vocal about my serious concerns with the search and screen committee process for UW System President,” Shankland said in a statement. “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.”

But representatives from AAUP-Wisconsin said Johnsen’s withdrawal was the result of hard work from those who spoke up and a referendum on the system’s leadership.

“To all those who have made their voices heard, despite the clear indifference of the search committee and the Regent President, we say thank you,” AAUP-WI said in a statement. “Regent President Drew Petersen and Regent Michael Grebe, the search committee chair, were warned early and often about the problems of the search process they embarked upon. They chose to take the unprecedented steps of excluding faculty, staff, and students from the search committee, and of forwarding just a single finalist with a problematic record for the position. It is clear that the Board of Regents needs new leadership to conduct a successful search that can move the UW System forward.”