UW Regents address presidential search, COVID-19 blueprint in meeting

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

    The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents discussed two of its most controversial issues in a meeting Thursday — System President Ray Cross’ proposed “Blueprint” to survive after the COVID-19 pandemic and the search process for Cross’ replacement. 

    The two issues have become intertwined and the actions of System leadership on both has been criticized by many  faculty and staff at the 13 individual UW campuses. 

    The search for the retiring Cross’ replacement — and criticism of the process — started before the pandemic, but last week the presidential search committee announced just one finalist for the job, University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen. 

    From the beginning of the search process, the committee has been criticized for not including any staff, faculty or students and this week’s announcement brought more ire — particularly because at multiple campuses in the Alaska system, faculty voted no confidence in Johnsen’s leadership. 

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

    “The problems here are compounded by the search committee’s decision to name Johnsen as the sole finalist,” the statement continued. “This is a departure from accepted academic standards. It suggests either a weak candidate pool or a fixed search. The Regents chose to pursue an unprecedented search process that excluded faculty, staff, and non-Regent students. This is its predictably egregious result.”

    At Thursday’s meeting, Michael Grebe, Regent Vice President and chair of the search committee, attempted to explain why Johnsen was the only finalist named. He said several other top choices withdrew because they didn’t want to leave their campuses while dealing with the fallout of COVID-19. 

    “We believe that Jim is an excellent candidate with relevant experience, and outstanding personal attributes,” Grebe said. “We believe he matches the characteristics that we heard clearly expressed during the listening sessions that took place prior to the search. We believe that he would be a leader who will exemplify our approach.”

    Grebe said multiple times that even though a number of the committee’s choices withdrew, Johnsen had already been unanimously identified as the top candidate.

    “However, at that point, each of the candidates, other than Jim Johnsen chose not to move forward, and not to be publicly identified,” Grebe said. “Their reasons included concerns that their ability to manage COVID pandemic matters on their current campus, would be jeopardized if they move forward, along with other factors. So, the committee was left with one finalist, Jim Johnsen, who was also the unanimous preference.” 

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    Critics of the makeup of the search committee say that it’s possible that the decision wouldn’t have been unanimous had faculty and students been included. 

    Cross announced his “Blueprint for the University of Wisconsin System Beyond COVID-19” in May. His proposal includes refining programs at the comprehensive campuses — which means cutting departments that are duplicated at different schools. 

    The blueprint was criticized for not being responsive to the current crisis caused by COVID-19, ignoring the shared governance principles of the system and for being a power grab by the system administration. 

    After many of these criticisms were presented at a series of “listening sessions” about the blueprint, Cross backed off and said it is only the suggestions of an outgoing president for where he thinks the system needs to go. 

    “The concepts suggested potential long-term strategies that we must consider,” Cross said at the meeting Thursday. “In other words, these are concepts, under discussion on a lot of detail and how to accomplish that. But the blueprint does not solve our short-term financial crisis, and a crisis is what we face.”

    To address the short-term crisis, Cross brought up a letter he wrote to state leaders Wednesday asking that a special session of the Legislature  be called. In the letter, Cross asked for the ability to borrow money to increase cash flow, to begin fall classes earlier than Sept. 1 and to ease some regulatory requirements. 

    A special session has not yet been called. The Board of Regents is next scheduled to meet Aug. 20-21.

    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.