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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Lone Finalist Withdraws From UW System President Search

Monique Musick

Updated Friday at 10:23 a.m. CT

Jim Johnsen withdrew from the search for University of Wisconsin System president on Friday. He was the lone finalist, drawing criticism from UW System faculty and staff.

“After deep reflection as to where I am called to lead a university system through these challenging times, it is clear to me and my family that it is in Alaska,” Johnsen said in a statement. “I appreciate the strong support from the search committee at Wisconsin, and for all those who supported my candidacy, but it’s clear they have important process issues to work out.”

Original story

Jim Johnsen, the lone finalist for University of Wisconsin System president, was interviewed in an online public forum Tuesday. He answered questions about how he would lead the state’s public universities during an exceptionally challenging time, as campuses lose millions of dollars because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnsen faces another challenge: mounting opposition from faculty and staff across the system, who are calling on the board of regents to declare a failed presidential search.

Johnsen is currently president of the University of Alaska System. He ended up the only finalist in the UW search after other candidates dropped out. The chair of the search committee, Regent Michael Grebe, said the other contenders withdrew because they felt being publicly identified would hurt their ability to manage coronavirus matters on their campuses.

Grebe defended the search team’s decision to move forward with just Johnsen, saying he was their top choice anyway.

“Much of the past three months or so has been unprecedented and unanticipated,” Grebe said at a regents meeting last week. “Those unanticipated events do not change our very firm belief that as a committee we’ve identified an outstanding candidate who represents the attributes that our community values.”

The presidential search has been controversial from the beginning because no faculty or staff were included on the search committee. And now that Johnsen is the only finalist, many faculty and staff feel even more strongly that it was a failed process.

Johnsen was criticized for presiding over major academic program cuts in the University of Alaska System. Faculty groups at UA voted "no confidence" against Johnsen twice, in 2017 and 2019.

Nick Fleisher says that track record is alarming. Fleisher is a UWM professor and president of the AAUP Wisconsin chapter, which advocates for faculty rights.

"Both on the process and the substance of who has been nominated for this position, we have big problems." - Nick Fleisher

“This is someone who is not a good leader and who does not have the right values to support public education,” Fleisher said. “So both on the process and the substance of who has been nominated for this position now, we have big problems.”

In a public forum with UW campuses Tuesday, Johnsen said his unpopular decisions as the leader of the Alaska system were forced by dramatic state budget cuts.

“In response to these budget challenges we faced, decisions needed to be made quickly,” Johnsen said. “And there’s no question that relationships, particularly with our shared governance leaders, were frayed as a result of those severe disruptions and tough decisions that needed to be made.”

UA continues to downsize: last week, the board of regents in Alaska voted to cut or reduce more than 40 academic programs, including majors like sociology, theater and chemistry.

The question of program cuts at UW schools became more pressing in recent weeks. Ray Cross, the outgoing system president, released a “blueprint for the future” which argues that campuses couldn’t be “all things to all people” and should identify programs that could go.

Johnsen didn’t address Cross’s blueprint directly Tuesday. When asked about how the UW System should handle the fallout from COVID-19, he said there is still a lot of uncertainty.

"If I'm provided this opportunity to lead, I [want to be] informed by and learn from your perspective and your goals for the university." - Jim Johnsen

“My view is that it provides an impetus to look hard at costs we have incurred, practices we’ve developed over time, to look hard at those and ask ourselves do we need to organize ourselves this way?” Johnsen said.

>>UWM Grapples With 'Catastrophic' Financial Hit As Leaders Plan For Fall

Throughout the campus forum, Johnsen emphasized that as president, he would listen to the people who make up the UW System.

“My first step in the first 90 to 100 days would be to learn and listen,” Johnsen said. “To meet you and build relationships. So that if I’m provided this opportunity to lead, I’m informed by and learn from your perspective and your goals for the university.”

In the coming days, the search committee will decide whether to recommend Johnsen to the full board of regents for appointment.

Meanwhile, almost 2,000 faculty, staff, alumni and students from UW campuses have signed a petition calling on the regents to start over with the presidential search.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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