Zoldan Considers Pulling Name from New YSU Center

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Businessman Bruce Zoldan, whose family donated $5 million for a new student center at Youngstown State University, is considering not having his family’s name on the building because of how trustees selected the university’s new president.

Zoldan said he hasn’t made any “nuclear” decisions regarding the center and he doesn’t plan to ask for his donation to be returned. But he may ask that the money be used for student scholarships instead of the center bearing his family’s name. 

The center was to be called the Zoldan Family Center.

The Zoldan family also donated $1 million in 2020 for student scholarships and a new mentorship program.

Zoldan isn’t sure if he’ll donate to YSU in the future.

“I’ve been a major contributor to Youngstown State University in the past,” Zoldan said. “I’m not sure what direction I’m taking going forward.”

Last week, YSU trustees voted 8-1 to approve a three-year contract with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson to be the 10th president of YSU. Trustee Molly Seals cast the only no vote.

The decision met with boos from many who attended the meeting. Students, faculty, alumni and community members have voiced opposition to both the selection and the process trustees used.

In previous YSU presidential searches, names of candidates and finalists were released and finalists visited campus, talking with students, faculty and staff.

Although Michael Peterson, trustee chairman, said Johnson was one of three finalists for the post, the university has refused to identify the other two. Peterson said the other two have higher education backgrounds.

Trustees said the search was confidential and used a search firm because open searches deter the best candidates from applying.

“This is not about Bill Johnson personally,” Zoldan said, adding that he has held fundraisers at his home for high-level state and national figures from both sides of the aisle.

He said he’d be just as upset if trustees, using the same process, selected former U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, for the presidency. Johnson is a Republican.

“It’s the process that was used,” Zoldan said.

He referred to the way previous YSU presidential searches were conducted with the involvement of students, faculty, staff and business and community leaders. And while the final decision rests with the board of trustees, previous presidential searches have been open, he said.

“As a major supporter of YSU, I believe I should have seen who the candidates were, what their resumes were and if some of the people could have been possibly a better choice for higher education than Bill Johnson,” Zoldan said.

Zoldan attended YSU while building his business, Phantom Fireworks, but left just a few credits shy of a degree. He’s the company president and chief executive.

“We love the university,” he said. “We love the Youngstown area. But we don’t like the process. We think it’s a crime the way it went down. … It’s a slap in the face.”

He said he’s heard from other community business leaders who are upset too.

“I’ve not talked to anyone who is happy about it,” Zoldan said.

Zoldan was one of the business people who advocated for Jim Tressel to be YSU president in 2014. He emphasized though that trustees at that time followed an open, transparent process.

He believes this decision is going to come back to haunt university trustees, and he expects an announcement soon from other community business leaders who are unhappy with the process.

On Tuesday, the YSU Foundation released a statement saying it would have preferred a more inclusive presidential search process that represented the university’s students, faculty and staff, along with its donor base, supporters and alumni.

“During the past few days many of these individuals have reached out to the YSU Foundation trustees to express their concerns and their reluctance to provide on-going support moving forward,” the YSU Foundation statement said.

Paul McFadden, foundation president, said the foundation has heard from some benefactors, but he declined to comment beyond what’s in the statement.

The foundation is an independent, development and advancement partner with YSU. It has its own staff and board of trustees.

Zoldan said that at this politically divisive moment in the country, YSU doesn’t need a politician as its president.

“Bill Johnson should stay in Washington, D.C., where he can do the most good for this area,” he said. “And YSU needs to go through a process that’s transparent and respectful in choosing the next president.”

YSU issued a statement from Peterson, trustee chairman, Tuesday afternoon to the YSU community.

“We want to address the concerns regarding transparency and inclusivity with the presidential search and to clarify the approach we undertook,” the board chairman wrote.

The university had big shoes to fill in naming a successor to Tressel, he said.

“Our number one priority was to ensure that we find a strong leader to continue to build upon the successes of President Tressel,” Peterson’s statement said. “Specifically, leadership, fundraising, expanding regional recognition and building relationships with students, the community and government relations. With that in mind, we needed to conduct a search that would bring us the strongest candidates possible.”

The list of qualities and skills required for the position was developed with input from more than 600 stakeholders. The university used national search firm WittKeifer for the process.

“This was a confidential search not a closed or secret search as more than 20 campus constituents were included in the process,” Peterson’s statement said.

The constituent group included four vice presidents, the provost and vice provost, the academic senate past and incoming chair, a dean and leadership of police, human resources and the YSU Foundation, Peterson’s statement said. 

The decision to use a confidential search is not unique to YSU, he said. 

“Higher education has moved toward a confidential search with a broad but limited group of constituents as part of the process,” Peterson said in the statement.

He also pointed to an August email sent to campus that outlined the process. It said that a leadership group and a campus constituency group would provide input on the finalists as determined by the board. 

“To ensure confidentiality, all discussions within the committees and the Board will be held in executive sessions,” the August email said.

It doesn’t say, however, that the names of finalists would be kept confidential.

The search firm presented a list of potential candidates to the presidential search committee. That committee narrowed the list, and the first round of interviews took place. The pool was narrowed to finalists who toured campus and visited the Wick Pollock House, the presidential residence on campus.

The full board and constituency group interviewed the finalists.

“This process was thorough, followed the current best-practice advice from our search firm WittKiefer, and was conducted with the utmost integrity,” Peterson said in his statement. “We assure you that every step was taken with the best interests of YSU at heart.”

Pictured at top: Bruce Zoldan, president and CEO of Phantom Fireworks, speaks during a check presentation of $1 million to Youngstown State University.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.