Milwaukee lawyer chosen as next UW System president

By: - January 21, 2022 6:10 pm
University of Wisconsin-Madison Abraham Lincoln looks out over Bascom Hill on campus by Phil Roeder via Flickr CC BY 2.0

University of Wisconsin-Madison Abraham Lincoln looks out over Bascom Hill on campus by Phil Roeder via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Milwaukee lawyer Jay Rothman was selected as the next president of the UW System on Friday in a unanimous vote by the UW System Board of Regents. The decision ends the system’s second search for a new president in a multi-year process that has frequently sparked derision and criticism from members of campus communities about the openness and transparency of the search. 

Rothman, CEO of the law firm Foley and Lardner, has previously served on the board of Children’s Wisconsin and has no prior experience in higher education. Rothman also has no experience with public education, having earned a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and a law degree from Harvard University. Rothman’s parents both attended UW-Stevens Point and his daughter graduated from UW-Madison. 

In a statement, he said a strong UW System is essential to a strong Wisconsin. 

“I am humbled by the opportunity to lead the UW System and approach this role with profound respect for the unparalleled role public higher education plays in the lives of our students, alumni, and communities,” Rothman said. “I intend to lead by listening first, so that the experience I have gained over my lifetime in Wisconsin can help us build a great UW System together. This is not an original sentiment, but I want to say it because I believe it: the UW System is our state’s crown jewel, and a vibrant UW System builds a strong Wisconsin.”

The Board of Regents chose Rothman over one other finalist, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. 

Milwaukee lawyer Jay Rothman was named the next UW System president on Friday.

Rothman is set to become the eighth president of the UW System. He’ll succeed interim president and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who stepped into the role after the first search failed in the summer of 2020. Thompson is set to resign from the position on March 18.

The first search was widely criticized for failing to take into account the shared governance principles of the UW System, which are enshrined in state law and meant to give students and faculty a say in system decisions. That search ended when the lone named finalist, University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen withdrew from consideration. 

The search that has culminated in Rothman’s selection has also been criticized recently after the committee responsible for the search announced that the candidates would not need to participate in open interviews with members of the public. 

“No public interview. Never worked in higher ed. Announced on a Friday afternoon. Not a good look for the Regents,” Nick Fleisher, a professor at UW-Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, tweeted. “I think we have to reserve judgment on Rothman until we get a chance to know more about him. The process at the end here has ensured that we know very little.” 

“What we can say is that the Regents advertised what on paper should be one of the most attractive jobs in U.S. higher ed and filled it with the head of a local law firm,” he added. 

Rothman is a regular political donor, giving mostly to Republican candidates for public office at the state and federal level, including Rep. Bryan Steil and Sen. Mitch McConnell. He’s given two donations of $5,000 to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as well as donations to Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the presidential campaign of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. 

Rothman will be paid $550,000 a year and is set to begin his role on June 1. Former UW System Board of Regents President Mike Falbo will serve as interim president during the period between Thompson’s resignation and Rothman’s assumption of the job.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.