Guest Commentary: How to Move Forward at YSU

Submitted by Amanda Fehlbaum, YSU associate professor of sociology and director of women’s and gender studies at Youngstown State University.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The results from the Academic Senate’s votes of no confidence were clear and decisive. We have no confidence in the presidential search process as led by the Youngstown State University Board of Trustees and Mike Sherman, vice president of student affairs, institutional effectiveness and board professional. We have no confidence in president designee Bill Johnson.

The votes were taken by a representative body made of faculty, members of administration and students. This was not, as Johnson erroneously claimed to WFMJ, “less than 50 professors.” Johnson should know how a representative body works even if he has a track record of not respecting legitimate outcomes. 

This misunderstanding of the Academic Senate is yet another example of how Johnson does not comprehend how a university operates. Nevertheless, barring some surprise information that comes to light, Johnson will start his tenure in spring 2024. 

If we are to move forward as Johnson would like to do, and in the spirit of transparency, I believe the following must happen:

1. Johnson must release his curriculum vitae and other application materials submitted as a part of the presidential search process. The trustees have said they were especially impressed with Johnson’s military record. Inclusion of that information would be beneficial as well. He has already signed his contract with YSU, so there is no harm in its release. The date of its submission is also important, as it will show whether or not he truly was looking for another job. Honesty is vital, and as his job for the past 13 years involved taking some liberties with the truth (as all politicians do), it would be a good first step toward establishing a foundation of trust.

2. Johnson must establish a President’s Cabinet like YSU interim President Helen Lafferty had that includes the leadership of the three unions at YSU (YSU-OEA, YSU-ACE, YSU- APAS), as well as the chair of the Academic Senate and the president of the Student Government Association. This should be completed within the first month of taking office. 

3. Johnson must commit to filling the vacancy of assistant provost of diversity, equity and inclusion by the start of fall 2024 using a national search of applicants and an open – not closed or confidential – process that has robust involvement of a variety of stakeholders. Upon hiring, Johnson should make this person part of the Presidential Cabinet.

4. Johnson must publicly commit to taking SafeZone Training in spring 2024. A special training that includes himself and members of the President’s Cabinet could be arranged in the event he does not feel comfortable attending around students.

5. Johnson must set firm calendar dates for town hall sessions with various constituencies he did not fully engage with during the presidential search process: students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. These should not all take place at the same time; rather, each constituency needs its own town hall. Efforts should be made to have it be accessible to those unable to attend in person. 

6. Johnson must attend the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities New Presidents Academy at the earliest opportunity.

7. Johnson must commit to helping create board policies that will ensure that this convoluted “confidential” process does not happen again. The board of trustees did a horrible job at obtaining input from everyone, as outlined in the Concerned Alumni Report on the 2023 Youngstown State University Presidential Search. Other universities that use search firms and confidential processes do not have such vitriol because there is thorough input from all stakeholders prior to the search – not just a survey open for 10 days over finals week that only receives 600 responses. Those universities hold focus groups and town halls so that people feel heard. We must eliminate the deception that marred this search. Using search firms in higher education is popular, but it is not right. 

8. Johnson must acknowledge that universities are not businesses – and lead with that in mind. Johnson has no experience in higher education leadership. It is tempting from the outside to see universities as businesses and to make cuts using similar metrics. Faculty, academic programs and staff are often on the chopping block, and other areas – administrative salaries, athletics – are held sacrosanct and untouchable. People do not come to universities for the vice presidents. 

9. By mid-March 2024, the board must openly state the metrics that Johnson is supposed to meet in order to earn his bonus in three years. His current contract does not state these metrics. Faculty know the minimums we must meet in order to achieve promotion – each college sets certain standards, and these are posted online. Johnson’s metrics should be publicly available as well.  

Johnson is entering a quagmire: The tenuous trust nurtured under Lafferty’s interim term has been shattered, faculty retrenchments will happen in January and there is no confidence in him or the process used to choose him. 

The board of trustees said it wanted a “workhorse” not a “show horse.” Following through with the items listed above will require a lot of work. Should Johnson fail to complete them, it will further confirm to me that no confidence is warranted in his ability to lead Youngstown State University.  

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amanda Fehlbaum is an associate professor of sociology and director of women’s and gender studies at Youngstown State University.

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