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UWGB faculty upset with potential UW System president hire

This story was written on Thursday, June 11. 

As of 10 a.m. Friday, June 12, Johnsen withdrew from consideration for UW System president. 

“It’s disappointing, a dark day for the UW System,” said UW System Regent President Andrew S. Petersen. “Dr. Johnsen is a fine person who conducted himself with professionalism and honor throughout the process, during which he was unanimously identified by the search committee as the best candidate for our system. We will work to identify and get through our immediate financial and operational challenges with the pandemic, then deliberate on the next steps to conduct a new search when there is a better opportunity.”

By Ben Rodgers

GREEN BAY – With the appointment of Dr. Jim Johnsen as UW System president looming on the horizon, members of local higher education are not satisfied.

Johnsen, 62, the current president of the University of Alaska System, was announced as the sole finalist by a search committee made up of several Board of Regents members.

UW System
Jim Johnsen

In response to his selection as sole finalist, nearly 2,000 UW-System students, staff and alumni signed a petition from the UW-Madison chapter of the Association of American University Professors calling for a new search.

“We have a system, each year, that services 170,000 students and 40,000 employees. We are a nationally-prominent system. For a long time the UW System was seen as the best, or one of the top two or three systems in the country,” said Jon Shelton, UW-Green Bay associate professor of democracy and justice studies, and faculty representative to the UW System. “It’s still regarded as being a really important system. The action to have one finalist for a position of this magnitude is really problematic, because it doesn’t allow people to select the best candidate, frankly.”

Shelton said traditional searches of this magnitude have involved faculty and staff on the search committee, and this one did not.

“In higher ed, it’s really important that people doing the work on campus are a part of the decision making,” he said. “Particularly for faculty, because faculty are the ones putting together the curriculum.”

Shelton was part of more than 700 people who attended a virtual meeting where Johnsen answered questions from faculty and staff June 9.

“There’s concerns all the way around, and his interview didn’t do much to alleviate those concerns,” Shelton said. “This is why you need to have multiple candidates. Some of his answers would seem even more problematic were there other candidates who were part of the process.”

The UW System blueprint

Outgoing UW System President Ray Cross presented a blueprint in May for the UW System to move forward amid possible budget cuts forced by the pandemic.

Shelton said part of the blueprint is the consolidation of programs.

One hypothetical example he gave related to UW-Green Bay and UW-Stevens Point both having nursing programs.

Under the blueprint as it stands, he said one of those schools could need to eliminate a program, which would take away student choice.

“If this blueprint were to happen, then what it would mean is a diminished set of possibilities for students to major in, especially students from working families,” Shelton said.

No stranger to cuts

According to an article published June 10 in Inside Higher Ed, Johnsen made a deal in August 2019 with Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, to cut $70 million in state funding from the system’s budget over three years after Dunleavy used a veto to originally slash $130 million from the system months earlier.

The same article states the higher education board in Alaska voted to cut or scale back more than 40 academic programs spread across all three of its campuses, eliminating the system’s sociology degree programs.

Several other programs related to geography and environmental science will disappear, along with master’s programs in chemistry and physics, among many others, according to the article.

An article published June 10 in the Wisconsin State Journal said Alaska’s public universities rely on the state for more than 40 percent of their revenue, and funding is highly dependent on the whims of the oil industry.

“One thing might make him a good candidate,” Shelton said. “He has dealt with a system which has challenges of enormous budget cuts.”

Teacher creation

Rebecca Nesvet, associate professor of English at UW-Green Bay, said she is concerned about Johnsen because Anchorage recently lost the ability to accreditate teachers.

On Jan. 15, 2019, The Anchorage Daily News reported, “A national oversight body has revoked the accreditation of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s teaching degree programs, throwing the viability of hundreds of aspiring teachers’ degrees into question and casting an unflattering light on the university.”

Nesvet said Johnsen’s potential hire worries her, as someone who teaches students on track to become teachers.

“In 2019, all of UA-Anchorage’s education programs, including early childhood ed, primary ed, and secondary ed, lost national accreditation,” she said. “With worthless degrees, their recent alumni can’t teach in most public schools. Now, Anchorage students can’t get licensed to teach and Alaskan schools are trying to hire teachers from out of state. Meanwhile, Johnsen now demands that the education programs be eliminated completely.”

Regent decision

The decision to hire Johnsen will ultimately come down to the 20-member Board of Regents, and could come soon, after the search committee makes its recommendation.

Robert Atwell, Green Bay, serves on the board after being appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker, but is not on the search committee.

Atwell said other potential finalists for the position declined to be publicly named, for fear it would affect their leadership abilities during the pandemic.

He also said he has only met Johnsen over a Zoom call that lasted for about 90 minutes, and listening to the hearing June 9.

“I do have a great deal of respect for the people on the search committee, and I have uniformly heard very good things about (Johnsen) from the committee members, who come from a variety of different perspectives,” Atwell said. “I think the committee had a lot of very good people on it. I’ve heard pretty clearly that the committee as a whole felt he was the strongest candidate.”

He also said he was confident Johnsen didn’t create the mess in Alaska, but was the one who had to deal with it.

At the same time, Atwell said he has received numerous messages from UW-Green Bay faculty, staff and students opposed to the hire.

“I think it was a surprise to come down to one canidate being put forward,” he said. “The thing I hope people can take into consideration is we’re facing some very significant challenges ourselves here, as a state and a system, and the decision about whether to vote for Dr. Johnsen or not is not whether to vote for Dr. Johnsen or not, it’s about whether to go forward with him or go in a different direction, which has its own set of circumstances. I’m weighing all of these matters carefully and listening carefully to what people have to say, both those that oppose him and those that support him.”

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