Public Prohibited from Speaking at YSU Trustees Meeting

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Members of the public were told they would be able to speak Thursday at the Youngstown State University trustees’ regular meeting regarding the board’s selection of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson as president.

They weren’t.

Instead, the trustees permitted three people to speak at their governance committee meeting Wednesday.

Those three were a student who organized a petition opposed to the selection process, the president of the Student Government Association and one of the alumni who gathered signatures on a letter to trustees requesting a reconsideration of the trustees’ decision.

Those attending the regular meeting Thursday – some carrying signs denouncing Johnson, a seven-term congressman – weren’t permitted to speak.

Shannon Tirone, associate vice president of university relations, said at the beginning of the meeting there would be no public comment.

Under trustee bylaws, requests to speak at a trustees meeting must be made in writing three weeks before the meeting. But the meeting where trustees voted to approve a contract with Johnson to become the 10th YSU president was Nov. 21, just more than two weeks ago.

Also, the procedure wasn’t explained to the public during the Nov. 21 meeting, which was attended by many opposed to the decision. Public comment wasn’t permitted at the Nov. 21 meeting, but Michael Peterson, trustees chairman, announced at that time that people could speak at the regular trustees meeting.

“Mic check, mic check,” a few people in the audience shouted in an attempt to address the board.

“On Nov.  21 we were promised by this committee that there would be public comment at this meeting,” said Daphne Carr, a Youngstown resident, one of the people who attended the meeting. “Evidently, we were lied to.”

Others shouted back, asking for decorum.

The exchange occurred during the student presentation portion of the meeting.

“Because we are all here about the students – we all talk about the students – then let the students come up,” Peterson said.

Some applauded that.

“We demand that our voices as a community, as alumni, as students be respected in the potential for this university to be a place for 21s-century education,” Carr said.

Jacob Schriner-Briggs, a 2017 alumnus who addressed the governance committee Wednesday, said Peterson was using students as a prop.

Daphne Carr, a Youngstown resident, spoke out about the public not being permitted to comment during Thursday’s meeting.

Peterson said he isn’t using students as a prop, saying he’s there for the students.

“I’m sorry if you don’t like the opinion and the decision, but we are here for the students,” he said. “Please, for the love of goodness, allow these students to get up and talk. And if you choose not to, then I have to question your motive for why you’re here.”

People across campus and the community have voiced opposition to the selection and the selection process since Nov. 16, when trustees voted 8-1 at an emergency meeting to offer Johnson the job. Trustee Molly Seals cast the dissenting vote.

The vote at the Nov. 21 meeting approved the contract, which will pay Johnson $410,000 the first year.

Critics, including students, faculty, alumni, donors, former YSU trustees and community and business leaders, have taken issue with the lack of input from constituents in the selection and with Johnson, citing his lack of higher education experience and some of his political views.

In previous searches, finalists visited campus, meeting with constituent groups and answering questions. Although the university has said the three finalists, the other two of which it has refused to identify, toured campus, those visits weren’t announced.

Trustees have said that the search was confidential based on the advice of the search firm because open searches deter the best candidates from applying.

Former YSU President Jim Tressel, who retired in February, was hired through an open search in 2014.

The board also approved a resolution of appreciation for Helen Lafferty, who has served as interim president since February.

“This moment is a bittersweet one for me,” Lafferty said. “Saying goodbye is more difficult than I thought.”

She said she knew she would love it at YSU, but she didn’t know how much.

“All of the good things that I enjoy in my life today are because of this place,” Lafferty said. “After these many months with you, that love and affection has deepened beyond words.”

Lafferty’s comments at her last trustees meeting drew applause, a standing ovation and requests, yelled from the audience, that she stay.

In addressing the media after the meeting, Peterson reiterated the reasons why the search was confidential.

“To those that said, ‘Hey in my nine years, we had three presidential searches and they were all open,’ well just in checking, I think they had three presidents in five years,” he said. “That may indicate a flaw.”

Cynthia Anderson served as president for three years, from 2010 to 2013, and then retired. In 2013, the board of trustees hired Randy Dunn, who served for only seven months before leaving for a job as president of another university. The board hired Tressel in 2014.

Peterson said the board was looking for a 10th president who loved YSU, connected with YSU and would be a great representative to any stakeholder. 

“We need someone who can go out there and actually be the face and engage people to get them to come to YSU,” he said. 

Johnson persuaded eight trustees, despite some differing political views, that he could make an impact at YSU, the board chairman said.

He said everyone separates politics from their work life.

“Bill Johnson won’t be fracking at Youngstown State,” Peterson said, referring to some of the opposition signs at previous meetings. “He won’t be denying marriages at Youngstown State, and he will be leading the charge to give – and this is first, second and third – the students what they want and what they need out of this university.”

He said Johnson’s connections in state and federal government also are attributes he’ll bring to the university.

“You have people on that board who are Democrats,” Peterson said. “You have Black folks; you have white folks; you have people who are connected to the LBGTQ community. Is there anyone on that board who would ever think to allow someone to come to this university and all of a sudden treat anyone differently? Absolutely not.”

He said he feels badly for people who are upset. But after people who were opposed met Johnson, the responses have been positive, Peterson said. 

“Why? Because you don’t talk politics then. Then you actually get to meet the man, and it’s the man we are hiring.”

Pictured at top: Michael Peterson, YSU trustees chairman, speaks to the media after Thursday’s meeting.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.