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Business attorney to be University of Wisconsin's president

Jay O. Rothman
UW System screen capture
Incoming UW System President Jay O. Rothman.

University of Wisconsin System leaders on Friday chose Jay Rothman, a Milwaukee business attorney with no experience administrating higher education, as the next president running the 26-campus system.

The regents chose Jay Rothman, chairman and CEO of the Foley & Lardner law firm., over the other finalist, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt.

The system said in a statement that Rothman has accepted the job and will begin June 1. He will make $550,000 annually serving as the system's eighth president.

“I am humbled by the opportunity to lead the UW System and approach this role with profound respect for the unparalleled role public higher education plays in the lives of our students, alumni, and communities,” Rothman said in a statement. “I intend to lead by listening first, so that the experience I have gained over my lifetime in Wisconsin can help us build a great UW System together."

The move comes after the system went almost two years without a permanent president. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has been serving as interim president since Ray Cross retired in June 2020.

The regents offered the permanent president position to Jim Johnsen, then president of the University of Alaska, the month Cross retired, but Johnsen withdrew from consideration amid concerns about his spotty record in Alaska and massive backlash about the selection process in Wisconsin. Faculty, staff and students complained loudly that they weren’t involved on the search committee.

Multiple faculty groups have complained this time around, too, that regents never held any public forms where professors could question Rothman and Schmidt. Regent Karen Walsh, who led the search committee, countered that the panel didn’t need to hold forums because it received plenty of public input during listening sessions this past fall.

Rothman, 62, has been chairman and CEO of Foley & Lardner since 2011. He joined the law firm in 1986 and has been a partner since 1994. He holds a bachelor's degree from Marquette University and a law degree from Harvard.

He has no experience administrating higher education. He told reporters during a news conference earlier this month that his term as head of the law firm is ending and he's looking to start a new chapter in his life.

Foley & Lardner is based in Milwaukee and has 1,100 attorneys and 22 offices nationwide. Rothman said his experience leading the firm has prepared him well for running the 26-campus, 165,000-student UW System.

Schmidt, 57, has served as chancellor at Eau Claire since 2013. He previously worked in administrations at Winona State University and at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Winona State, a master’s degree in business administration from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and a doctorate in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota.

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