Johnson Says He’s ‘Looking to Make a Difference’ at YSU

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Even with backlash in the community over U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s selection as the 10th president of Youngstown State University, the seven-term congressman has no second thoughts.

“Absolutely not, not for a second,” he said. “I’m extremely honored and humbled to have been selected. I’ve already notified leadership in Congress, and at some point soon, I’m going to be the president of Youngstown State.”

Johnson was on campus Thursday and said he met with deans, faculty members, students, union leadership and others.

“I thought the meetings were very, very positive,” he said.

He said he wants to be the university president to invest in the lives of future generations.

“Youngstown State has a legacy of high quality, superior education and creating opportunities for the young people not only in our region, but across the state and across the world,” Johnson said. 

It’s an opportunity to lead in a different capacity, he said.

The current operations of Congress aren’t the reason he wants to be the university president, the congressman said.

“Let me let you in on a little secret – Washington has been dysfunctional since the day the Constitution was signed and President [George] Washington was sworn into office,” Johnson said.

He said he’s always had a lot of diversity around his decision-making table. 

“I’m not looking for an easy road. I’m looking to make a difference,”Johnson said. “At Youngstown State, they’re giving me a chance to do that.”


YSU trustees voted 8-1 on Nov. 16 to offer Johnson the job, and the announcement was met immediately with opposition.

Alumni collected signatures on petitions asking trustees to reconsider. They cited the lack of an open search and some of Johnson’s political views. Some donors have said they will rethink contributing money to YSU because of the process and the selection.

In previous searches, finalists were announced and visited campus, meeting with students, faculty and staff and others and answering questions.

YSU trustees said they used a search firm that recommended the search be confidential to attract the best candidates. The university has refused to identify the other two finalists, although the board chairman said they come from higher education backgrounds.

But the explanations have done little to quell the criticism.

Two resolutions of no confidence are on the agenda for the Dec. 6 academic senate meeting.

One addresses the presidential search process, and the other is a resolution of no confidence in Johnson. 

“We have no confidence in the process itself,” said Amanda Fehlbaum, at-large academic senator, representing the Beeghly College of Liberal Arts and Social Science. “We feel it was deliberately misleading, and we need a do-over.” 

Regarding Johnson, Fehlbaum said he doesn’t meet the qualifications outlined in the presidential packet published at the beginning of the search.

The booklet said the successful candidate will have substantial leadership, “preferably in a higher education environment with a terminal degree, or an appropriate level of executive management experiences that will facilitate the success of the institution” and its impact with the region.

Resolutions of “no confidence are symbolic and nonbinding, but it will send a message that we are unsatisfied,” Fehlbaum said.  

Johnson said he’s not concerned about the no-confidence vote because those in the academic senate don’t know him yet.

‘Expand the Excellence’

To address declining enrollment that’s affecting colleges and universities across the country because the number of college-age individuals has decreased, Johnson said he plans to cast a wider net.

Students don’t just come from the Mahoning Valley, Ohio or even the U.S. 

“We can bring in more international students,” he said. 

The chancellor of Troy University, where Johnson graduated, conducted commencement exercises in two cities in Vietnam where Troy has branch campuses, Johnson said.

There are many places that need what YSU has to offer, Johnson said.

He wants to “expand the excellence that Youngstown State already has a legacy of providing to the students that choose to come here.” 

One of the areas he wants to improve is creating a more robust relationship with state and federal officials who provide funding and create policies for higher education.

The university has a strategic plan, Johnson said, and he looks forward to helping to execute it. He also wants to expand its goals and objectives to achieve long-term sustainability and growth for YSU. 

Addressing Concerns

Some of Johnson’s positions have raised concerns. He bristled at the suggestion that he’s an election denier.

“Just because you read it in the press, doesn’t make it true,” he said. “I was one of the first members of Congress to refer to Joe Biden as the president of the United States when he was sworn in.”

He was one of the members of Congress, however, to vote against certifying the electoral college results of the 2020 election.

He said Congress doesn’t rubber-stamp anything, and it has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the electoral college.

“I have legitimate concerns about some of the states, Pennsylvania being one of them,” he said. “I expressed those concerns in my objections. I wasn’t the only one.”

The Pennsylvania secretary of state violated that state constitution by allowing mass mail-in ballots and changing the date the ballots could be received without going through the legislature, Johnson said. 

“Yes, I had a problem with that,” he said. “Did that change the outcome of the election? No. Does that mean that I denied the outcome of the election? No. That’s why I refer to President Joe Biden as President Biden, because that’s who he is.”

Some on campus have taken issue with what they see as Johnson’s anti-LBGTQ views.

“I don’t know where that’s coming from either,” he said. “I do not tell people how to live their personal lives.”

In 2022 though, Johnson voted against the Respect for Marriage Act, which “codified the recognition of marriages between individuals of the same sex and of different races, ethnicities, or national origins, and provided that the law would not impact religious liberty or conscience protections, or provide grounds to compel nonprofit religious organizations to recognize same-sex marriages,” according to Ballotpedia. 

But both in the military and as a member of Congress, Johnson says he swore to protect the U.S. Constitution.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that you can be an LBGTQ person in this country if that’s what you choose to be,” he said. “You can be a gay married couple in this country if that’s what you choose to be. I’m not going to discriminate against people based on those positions. I’m going to stand for the law because I believe the rule of law is important.”

Every YSU president has had their own political beliefs and ideologies, Johnson said, but he had to cast votes on the House floor.

People who have concerns “are going to have to sit down and have a conversation with me.”

He said there will be a diverse group of people surrounding him as he makes decisions at YSU, and “every single voice at this university will be heard.”

As far as people who say they won’t donate to YSU anymore, Johnson hopes they change their minds.

“But at the end of the day, I had to raise money for political campaigns,” he said. “I’m going to go about doing the job and, hopefully, people that believe in this university will look past the fog and friction that’s been created by the hair on fire that’s going on right now. If they sit down and talk with me, I hope I can change their mind. I would be willing to talk to anybody and everybody.”

Pictured at top: U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson speaks during a press conference at YSU on Nov. 21.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.