Congressman Bill Johnson

YSU Selects Congressman as Next President; Process Draws Criticism from Faculty Union

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Youngstown State University trustees have made their choice for the next person to lead the university as president, and the selection process is drawing criticism from the faculty union.

Trustees voted 8-1 Thursday afternoon in an emergency session to offer the position of university president to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6th.

Molly Seals, a retired hospital administrator, cast the lone dissenting vote.  “I do not believe the congressman is right for this job,” she said.

Only four trustees attended the meeting in person. The others attended via video conference, some from Florida.

Michael Peterson, trustees chairman, said he was “pumped.”

“I’m excited about it for Youngstown State University,” he said. “I’m excited about it for the community. I’m excited about it for the students from Youngstown, having been one, knowing the impact that Youngstown State had on my life at 57 just like it did when I was 17, 18.”

Johnson has demonstrated himself as collaborative and invested, Peterson said. “That’s what we need,” he said.

‘Disheartening’ Process

Not everyone shared that enthusiasm.

Mark Vopat, president of the YSU-Ohio Education Association faculty union, called the process “disheartening.”

Johnson has no higher education experience, he said.

Moreover, people on campus weren’t aware that the trustees had narrowed applicants to a list of finalists, he said.

“There’s been zero transparency,” Vopat said.

In previous presidential searches, finalists visited campus and met with groups on campus. That didn’t happen this time.

“Not a single candidate was brought to campus,” Vopat said. “The faculty, the staff, the students didn’t have a chance to ask questions.”

They didn’t have the opportunity to hear Johnson’s vision for the university, either, he said.

Vopat, who lives in the Akron area, said he doesn’t know anything about Johnson apart from what he’s read on the congressman’s website. But his phone was “blowing up” after the announcement. Other faculty members were unhappy about both the process and the selection, he said.

The faculty union president said that under interim President Helen Lafferty, the union and administration were building a climate of shared governance.

“All of that has been undermined completely by this process,” he said. “This has all been behind closed doors.”

Vopat said the faculty doesn’t feel secure and that morale is low. 

“For them to take this kind of action, without any input from the community at all, it’s just disheartening,” he said. “I don’t understand what they were thinking. It undermines the progress we had been making.”

Support for Johnson 

Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, said the business community would support Johnson as the new president. ”We think he would be ideal,” he said. “I wouldn’t envy anybody walking in [former YSU President Jim] Tressel’s footsteps, but if there’s anybody who’s going to do it, it’s going to be somebody like congressman Johnson.”

Coviello said Johnson has demonstrated an ability to raise money for his congressional campaigns, help shape policy at a federal and state level and bring leaders in the community together. “I’ve seen all those characteristics in him, and that’s what we want in our university president,” he said.

Moreover, university presidents routinely deal with state and federal government, and Johnson “is somebody who can do that very well.”

Coviello added that he views Johnson not from a political lens, but rather as an effective administrator. “I would feel very comfortable about him making decisions from an administrative perspective. We need someone who could run a university,” he said.

Johnson’s Statement

Also at the meeting Thursday, trustees authorized negotiation of an agreement with Johnson.

Johnson issued a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he was made aware of the opportunity to become YSU president by a national executive search firm.

“I wasn’t looking for another job, because I love serving the people of Eastern Ohio,” he said in the statement. “When I was approached about leading this great university, with student success at the forefront, and helping to prepare the next generation of Americans to lead, I listened.”

He said that if he determines the opportunity to lead YSU is a “good fit, I’ll have a very difficult decision to make. In the meantime, my focus will remain on representing Eastern Ohio in the U.S. House.”

Peterson cited the veteran congressman’s career as a businessman and his “servant leadership” as characteristics that make Johnson a good selection.

“We challenged the search firm and then we challenged the search committee, and we laid a burden on them as to what we were expecting as far as candidates,” the board chairman said.

Trustees are former YSU students, Peterson added, saying the students, faculty and staff are important to trustees.

“For us, this was not an easy, simple task,” Peterson said. “There was a lot of work and a lot of hours and a lot of meetings to get to the level that we have and to see the level of applicants for this position. To see what we’ve ended up with, I’m excited.”

He said Tressel was a servant leader, and trustees wanted the next president to exhibit that trait as well.

Other Finalists

Peterson said Johnson was one of three finalists for the job. He said the other two finalists come from education backgrounds, but he declined to identify them.

The Business Journal has filed a public records request with the university to learn who the other two finalists are.

On Nov. 6, the YSU News Center issued a notice announcing that the trustees governance committee, of which all trustees are members, would meet Nov. 7, Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 to discuss “YSU’s future state.”

The reason for the meeting stated in the announcement was  “to consider the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion, or compensation of a public employee or official …”

When asked if the meetings pertained to the presidential search, a university spokeswoman said in an email that according to information provided to her, “the Governance Committee will be meeting to discuss YSU’s future State and that no formal actions will be taken.”

The meetings were in executive session and conducted at the Avalon Inn in Warren. 

The trustees’ executive committee met again Nov. 14 to “consider the presidential search and such other matters as may properly come before the Board of Trustees.”

That meeting also was conducted in executive session with the same reason listed as provided in the meetings from the week before.

– Dan O’Brien, managing editor of The Business Journal, contributed to this report.

Pictured at top: U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson tours the Windsor House in Canfield in January 2019.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.