YSU Trustees to Meet Today Amid Calls for a ‘Do-Over’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Youngstown State University Board of Trustees plans to hold a special meeting Tuesday afternoon amid continued opposition to its decision to offer the position of university president to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson. 

About 70 students, faculty, alumni and community members gathered outside Tod Hall on Monday afternoon, voicing opposition to Johnson’s selection.

Trustees voted 8-1 in an emergency meeting last week to make the offer to Johnson, R-6th, who has been in Congress since 2010. Molly Seals was the only trustee to vote no.

Amanda Fehlbaum, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology, led the group in chants.

She shouted, “YSU trustees.”

“Do-over,” the group responded.

Johnson hasn’t said if he’ll accept the job. Trustees said he was one of three finalists. YSU hasn’t said who the other two finalists are, but Trustee Chairman Michael Peterson said last week that they both have higher education experience.

The university denied a Business Journal public records request for the resumes and application materials of the candidates, saying it does not have the records.

“The University did not keep and does not maintain or hold those records and therefore, cannot provide such records to you,” the university general counsel wrote in an email. 

YSU used a search firm, WittKieffer, to conduct the search and collect applications.

But David Marburger, a Cleveland attorney who specializes in media law, said the Ohio Supreme Court has already ruled that saying the search firm has records does not allow public entities to opt out of providing them as part of a records request.

“That doesn’t help them,” he said. “They still have to get them.”

The court ruled that the resumes submitted to a search firm were public records.

In a 2003 case out of Cincinnati, however, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that applications in a school superintendent search in which the Cincinnati school district used search, were not public records.

In that case, candidate resumes were returned to the candidates, after the interviews and not kept by either the school district or the search firm.

Trustees plan a special meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday “to consider and/or take action upon the presidential search …” A university spokeswoman said negotiations with Johnson continue, and if they agree on terms, trustees will need to vote on a contract Tuesday. A news conference is planned after the meeting. 

Rally organizers distributed phone numbers and email addresses of the trustees for attendees to contact them and express their concerns. Some group members plan to return for the trustees’ Tuesday meeting.

Pictured at top: Protesters gathered outside Tod Hall at YSU on Monday.

Later Monday, the Student Government Association approved a resolution opposing the process used to select the new president.

“As the body tasked with uniting, representing and serving the student body, we feel students were not included in this decision-making process by the Board of Trustees whatsoever,” the resolution said.

Students, staff and faculty didn’t have the opportunity to meet any candidate, it said.

“This decision by the board undermines the progress made on campus to improve the climate at YSU and embrace shared governance between faculty and administration,” the SGA resolution said.

In introducing the resolution, its sponsors said the issue isn’t partisan. It’s about the process and the lack of involvement of campus and the community.

Rose McClurkin, a YSU senior who attended the rally, said her main opposition is to the process.

“My primary concern is that the board of trustees offered this position without asking anybody, without alerting the community, without telling the faculty or the students,” she said. “There was no opportunity to vet, to process, to be involved.”

She started an online Change.org petition regarding the decision “to let student voices be heard.” That was also the reason for the rally, she said.

McClurkin said she hopes it prompts trustees to reopen the process, and this time involve the community.

“Transparency with the board is the primary issue,” she said. “If we get a good, an ethical and a transparent process and he does end up being the best candidate, so be it.”

The community should make the determination of who is the best candidate, McClurkin said. She said that as an individual, she disagrees with some of Johnson’s positions. But as a representative of students, she believes students’ voices should be heard.

At least one person at the rally supports the choice of Johnson.

YSU student Austin Browne, president of the YSU chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization, held up a poster that read, “Bill 4 Pres.”

He doesn’t believe that conservatives have a voice on campus. He serves in both SGA and the academic senate but doesn’t believe he’s permitted to voice his views. 

“In these governing bodies, there’s no voice ever given to conservatives, so I can empathize with Bill Johnson in a sense,” Browne said. “He’s a proven leader and he’s up for this job, and the only reason they’re discrediting him is because of his political beliefs.”

As far as a lack of transparency, he said that’s “characteristic of the university.”

Jenna Knowles, a senior from the Bahamas, represented the African-Caribbean Student Union at the rally Monday.

She also pointed to the need for more transparency in the process. She called it a disservice to faculty and students.

“As an international student, we feel the brunt of the impact of how people discuss immigrants,” Knowles said. “When people look at us when we say where we’re from, people make these assumptions.”

They see that international students are different from them, she said. 

“For someone to speak and not just be anti-immigration necessarily, but to specifically say that the concern is illegal immigrants are criminals, more dangerous, drug dealers – when you send out that message and you have a platform for that message, it sends this idea … that inherently people who are foreign are more dangerous, and that’s not the rhetoric that I want somebody who is the president of my university to have sent out,” Knowles said.

Some from the community joined the rally. Signs mentioned Johnson’s support of the fracking industry and his politics.

The same day trustees voted to offer Johnson the job, the YSU faculty union criticized the decision, citing a lack of transparency. Over the weekend, five alumni wrote a letter to the board asking them to reconsider. The letter faulted the process and also objected to some of Johnson’s political positions and asked the board to rescind the offer. They want a new search, with involvement from community and campus stakeholders.

On Monday, those alumni, Daniel Catello, Ashley E. Orr, Madeline K. Grimes, Tyler P. Pabst and Jacob M. Schriner-Briggs emailed trustees and members of the media a copy of the letter that is signed by 2,300 people, “including alumni representing every academic class between 1962 and 2023.”

“We expect this to be explicitly addressed during the Board’s meeting tomorrow,” the email to trustees said. “If the YSU community remains excluded from this process, we will continue to coordinate with students, faculty, staff and alumni to give voice to the concerns that you have so far ignored.”

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.