Former YSU President Issues ‘Open Letter’ to YSU Community

Editor’s Note: Leslie H. Cochran, YSU president emeritus and YSU president from 1992 to 2000, sent this letter Thursday to local news organizations. It has been edited for style. The original letter can be viewed here.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In 1992, I became president of Youngstown State University after a board-failed search the year before.

The community was in disarray and the university was said to be “dead in the water.” The lone exception was Jim Tressel’s team had just won a football championship; it was a cornerstone to rebuild the university. And that’s what the presidents did over the next three decades – brick by brick, dollar by donated dollars, program accreditation by program, and win by win in the athletic programs. Students excelled, reaching new heights; alumni pride skyrocketed; millions of contributed funds enriched the institution; and each new president was welcomed to a campus full of excitement, enthusiasm and a promise for higher levels of excellence.

And then, in 2023, for some unknown reason, the members of the YSU Board of Trustees decided to turn their collective backs on these decades of achievement, victory and success. Instead of embracing the concepts of shared governance, community involvement and an open presidential search process, they elected to limit the presidential selection process to a chosen few. 

The results speak for themselves – votes of no confidence and expressions of resentment, bitterness and anger – a place where boos and protest signs filled the boardroom, a place where the new president was confronted by a vote of no confidence, and a place where the board has become recalcitrant, unwilling to listen, change or interact with campus constituencies.

Undercurrents of the Covert Action

Upon learning of the board’s action, I wondered, why did the board make such a dramatic shift in direction? And then I jotted down a couple of questions: First, “Why would the board be interested in making such a change?” And, second, “How might they go about doing it?” Under normal conditions, the answers would be readily available. But under a covert action, it takes time to piece together known statements and information and draw conclusions to “why” and “how” the events occurred.

The Gatekeeper’s Control

The pieces started to fall together when I found the board formed a subcommittee of four members to recommend a search firm and determine which candidates would be considered as finalists. Essentially, it was a powerful gatekeeper committee, which had enormous control and influence. Later, I found that this committee included two members who had contributed to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s campaign, and a third member who was responsible for daily operations and was secretary to the board for a major business that publicly supported former President Donald Trump, with whom Johnson voted with 96.8% of the time.

The Orientation of Selection Firm 

An educational executive search firm usually assists universities in searching for and recruiting top talent – would there be a firm that would “find” Johnson? Of course not! And would they conveniently do that discreetly? Interestingly, after reviewing the top five search firms with a colleague, it became transparent that one firm in particular emphasized “confidentiality” above all other ideals – Witt/Keifer – the same firm employed by the board to conduct the presidential search at YSU.

And so, the gatekeepers had the ideal “search” firm. Witt/Keifer would provide credibility for the search. The board found a shield, or scapegoat. And should something go awry, Witt/Keifer would maintain “confidentiality” throughout the search. In this case, however, the board exceeded the norm for most closed searches, by not even inviting the finalist to campus for public interviews – thereby, limiting the level of transparency customary even within the context of a confidential search.

The Former Trustees’ Appeal 

The board raised another issue when it changed the selection date, in midterm, from commencing the search sometime in the 2023 fall semester, with the new president assumed to take office in fall 2024. 

Instead, the board held an emergency meeting on Nov. 16, 2023, and a special meeting on Nov. 21, which was followed by an open meeting in which the board voted 8-1 to approve a presidential contract for Johnson.

The departure from past practice resulted, within a few days, with a statement signed by 11 former YSU trustees, which indicated:

“We do not share the Board’s view that a more open process yields lesser quality candidates. YSU has done well with its past selections through more open processes. But the current Board kept the process close to its vest. That seems counter to the ways of a public board operating in the public interest, and has brought suspicion, distrust, and discomfort. We are concerned the current Board actions negatively impact YSU’s institutional integrity and credibility, thereby negatively impacting its students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the region it serves.”

Since ethical behavior is measured by what is called “a person doing right in a moral sense” – being truthful, fair, honest – a basic question is raised: Did the action of the board violate the “spirit of ethical behavior?”

The Perspective of the Dissenter’s Vote

On Dec. 5, the Daily Beast published excerpts from an interview from the lone member of the board who had voted against the hiring of the congressman. Some of her most salient points were as follows: 

  • “What I as a board member would like to see is a step back, and to go through this process again in an appropriate way.”
  • “I never envisioned that my vote, especially since it stood alone, would have any particular power on reversing or changing things. But it gave me the ability to sleep well at night, knowing that I hadn’t done something that I knew was just not right.”
  • “Unfortunately, there may be deeper reasons why things [were] done. And for those individuals, whatever motivations they may have had for trying to make this happen in such a manner, they will have to figure out how to reconcile that within themselves.” 
  • That she was perplexed by the nature of the “emergency” necessitating the November 16 emergency meeting, adding, “I think that there were things that were done on someone else’s timeline versus what was the right timeline for the board to work through the issue.” 
  • That Johnson’s statements referring to indoctrination on college campuses resemble “some of the language and words we’ve heard in … political agendas.” 
  • That the congressman has “splinter[ed] our university and put its future at an unnecessary risk.”
  • That in voting against the congressman’s hiring, she voted against what she “didn’t want to see for our community and for our university and for the students of our university.”
  • “Never in the history of the university am I aware that we have ever … handled a search in this manner, and ended up in the predicament that is being faced today. I just absolutely could not, in good conscience, vote any other way.”

The Lack of Accountability, Openness, Transparency and Full Disclosure 

Concerns of impropriety, conflict of interest, unethical behavior, indiscretion and a host of other questionable actions permeate the YSU presidential search process. It’s clear, there were mechanisms in place for a few members to control the outcome. Since not one member noted his conflict of interest and recused himself during the final vote, one can assume the three members who had contributed $86,000 to Johnson’s campaigns also failed to disclose such information during committee deliberations.

The eight board members became so focused on getting their man in office, they neglected the university and failed to fulfill their obligations as trustees. Throughout this debacle, I doubt if one of the eight reminded his/her colleagues that the trustees serve the public trust. Did any of the members remind the others of the values and principles that guide and shape higher education in the public (not personal) interest? Or did any of the board members recall they are “accountable” to the institution’s mission, in which one of YSU’s four major values, listed in the university’s Mission, Vision, and Values – states, “We root all behaviors, decision and actions in the achievement of integrity, mutual respect, collegiality, equity, and inclusion.”

With so little regard for fulfilling their responsibility as board members, and the damage they have inflicted on the institution, I wonder with all reason how they can continue to serve as board members.

Don’t the eight understand when they allow their personal interest to prevail over the public welfare, they jeopardize the future of the institution? And have they considered the potential of a domino effect, which could result in enrollment losses, financial contribution declines, budget cuts and action from Columbus that might be even more detrimental?

Maintaining Personal Integrity and Restoring the Integrity of YSU

Johnson’s website notes he was raised on a farm where he learned his early values of “hard work, honesty and sacrifice.” Those values guided him into the U.S. Air Force where he served for 26 years. Again, his life was guided by the Vision and Creed for the U.S. Air Force, which states, “We live and serve a commitment to three core values.” The initial statement – “Integrity First” ends with words to “exercise courage, honesty, and accountability in order to do what is right even when no one is looking.”

While the congressman’s ethics of trust and integrity seem laudable, his credentials are severely lacking. His views and beliefs are simply out of touch with the values of higher education. Further, he’s unqualified as measured by the presidential search criteria and the voices of the

Faculty Senate, who have already voted “no confidence” in him. And when recently interviewed, he demonstrated his limited knowledge of a university by referring to “trade programs.” In another case, he didn’t even understand the purpose and the representation of the Faculty Senate.

Perspectives from the Past

On a personal note, Mr. Congressman, after 30 years in higher education, I can tell you even under the best circumstances, being a university leader you can’t direct the faculty – you can only guide them, like a colleague. And this is only possible when there’s a high level of trust in you, when you can develop a common sense of direction, and when the faculty and staff rally around you.

The issues the board has created will not go away. The university’s value structure has been ripped apart. Even if the questions about your partisan views and qualifications were not looming in the background, you would still not be able to repair the damage. The ugly head of this fiasco will appear and reappear on a regular basis, and you will pay the price.

Recommendations for Consideration

The congressman has said he’ll work to set aside his extreme partisan views, but these challenges are so deep-seated; they are beyond his reach. For example, I wonder how he’ll explain his support for Trump’s position that some states (those Trump lost) had “slipshod and partisan-based outcomes,” and how he’ll describe the process by which he was selected … “manipulated and scrupulously-orchestrated outcome?”

So with these issues in mind, Mr. Congressman, you are being called upon to do what is right for the students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the Youngstown community who are waiting for you to step aside from your appointment as president of Youngstown State University. 

They are asking that you recall the second statement of the Vision and Creed of the U.S. Air Force – “Service Before Self,” which concludes with the words you’ve followed, “to have the discipline to follow rules, exhibit self-control and possess respect for the beliefs, authority and worth of others.” This is a time to demonstrate the personal values you have claimed to possess, and to respectfully say, “No thanks.”

Building upon the values you learned in your early years, and the details about your search you’ve learned from this letter, I’m sure you’ve realized your selection process did NOT follow the basic tenets in which you say you believe. Consequently, I hope you will stand tall and do what is right in the face of what some of your overzealous supporters have manipulatively carved out for you. It’s time to say, “No thanks.”

The Options Ahead

Both the board and the congressman can, or in concert can, bring closure to what most people see as a nightmare for YSU and the expanded Youngstown community.

Whether the actions of the board members are technically illegal remains to be seen, but clearly their actions do NOT pass any test of professionalism. And for the board members to continue to stonewall will undoubtedly reduce whatever support they have – statewide. Therefore, I ask the members of the board to initiate a process by which the two parties can find common ground to rescind the offer in a reasoned and respectful manner.

For Congressman Johnson, I suggest you rely upon the values you profess and withdraw immediately so it’s clear you are NOT one of them and don’t want to be perceived as one of them.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.