How Not to Conduct a Presidential Search

A failed system president search in Wisconsin.
By Nicholas Fleisher

The University of Wisconsin system is searching for a new president. The search committee was formed in early July and begins its work in earnest this fall, nearly two years after former system president Ray Cross announced his retirement. Despite COVID-19’s having upended many aspects of uni­versity life in the interim, Wisconsin’s lengthy wait for a new system president is not the result of a pandemic-induced delay. Rather, it comes in the wake of a failed search that culminated in the withdrawal of the lone finalist in June 2020. This was followed by the appointment of an interim president, a yearlong cooling-off period, and, most recently, a change in board leadership.

The failed 2019–20 search is an object lesson in the politicization of university boards and their increas­ing hostility to shared governance, particularly the faculty’s role. In what follows, I provide a chronicle of the search and the efforts of various faculty groups (including local AAUP chapters and our state AAUP conference) to improve the search process and to draw attention to its severe flaws in the face of board intransigence. While it is difficult to know just how chastened the board was by the search’s failure, the board’s most recent actions offer at least a few encour­aging signs.

A Flawed Search

The search for Ray Cross’s successor officially began on November 1, 2019, when board president Drew Petersen named a search committee. This was exactly one week after Cross had announced his retirement. The search committee was unprecedented in both size and makeup, consisting of only nine members, all of whom were regents, former regents, or senior campus administrators. Unlike in past searches, and in viola­tion of AAUP recommended standards, no faculty members served on the search committee, and neither did any staff, students (apart from one student regent), or members of the general public.

Faculty, staff, and student groups immediately protested. Not only had the regents chosen to exclude faculty and other core constituencies from the search committee, but they refused to conduct even pro forma public outreach in assessing priorities and needs for the next system president. Resolutions condemning the composition of the search committee proliferated in faculty senates across the system, and Wisconsin-based faculty organizations issued statements opposing the search process. Even the governor weighed in, urg­ing the regents to reconsider. They were unmoved.

Relations between the regents and UW system faculty had been strained for several years. Ever since appointees of former Republican governor Scott Walker had gained control of the board in 2015, the regents had been enthusiastic supporters of detrimen­tal policy initiatives coming from the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature: a weakening of ten­ure and shared governance, punitive “free expression” policies for students, and a hasty and ill-considered consolidation of the two-year campuses, to name just a few. The changes in the system’s tenure policy became a subject of national attention and prompted a wave of faculty no-confidence votes in the board and Cross in spring 2016. By 2019, the regents had become accustomed to brushing aside even the most serious expressions of criticism from faculty, and they had similarly little compunction about ignoring the new Democratic governor, who had defeated the man who appointed them. Indeed, the search for a new system president was being chaired by regent Michael Grebe, the son of Walker’s former campaign manager and political guru.

Beyond these political antagonisms, the search was also an important test of a new board management philosophy. Instead of observing academic customs and adhering to normative standards of governance, the regents were determined to apply an unapologeti­cally top-down corporate leadership style. Immediately upon taking over the board in 2015, Walker’s appoin­tees had made major changes to system policies governing searches for campus chancellors, severely curtailing the role of local faculty in those searches and concentrating power in their own hands through­out the process. This would be their first chance to do the same in a search for a new system president.

Many months of silence followed. In a perfunctory gesture toward openness, the regents set up a web­site where university constituencies and the general public could submit comments. In March 2020, they announced that they would not suspend the search despite the erupting global pandemic. They otherwise worked entirely in secret. Finally, on June 2, 2020, they announced a single finalist for the position: Jim Johnsen, then the president of the University of Alaska system.

The regents’ decision to bring forward only a single finalist was another transgression against academic norms in a search that was already full of them. Adding insult to injury, in Johnsen they advanced a candidate whose conduct in office had prompted mul­tiple votes of no confidence from Alaska faculty. The Wisconsin AAUP conference highlighted this history of faculty concern in a statement calling on the regents to declare a failed search.

Owing to pandemic restrictions on travel, on June 9 the regents arranged a ninety-minute online public forum for Johnsen. This would give Johnsen the opportunity to introduce himself to the univer­sity system he was being tapped to lead and give the regents something to say in response to the charge that they were installing a preordained candidate with no public vetting. The event was designed to be just long enough to provide a patina of openness but short enough to avoid any gaffes that might derail the plan. It accomplished neither. Despite the controlled and highly scripted nature of the forum, Johnsen managed to put his foot in his mouth almost immediately. This was Tuesday. By Friday, Johnsen had withdrawn his candidacy. Ten days later, he was also out at Alaska.

Subsequent reporting detailed how support for Johnsen’s candidacy had eroded even within the search committee after the online forum. More intriguingly, it uncovered emails between the search committee and the search firm it had hired revealing several candidates’ insistence that they were willing to be considered only if they were named sole finalist for the position. The erosion of the norms of shared governance and openness is thus not solely a creation of increasingly partisan and corporate-style academic governing boards. If the evidence uncovered after the failed Wisconsin search is reflective of broader trends, senior administrative candidates may also be coming to expect a less open process.

There is, one hopes, a lesson for boards and candidates in the search’s failure. University lead­ership can go only so far in antagonizing faculty, staff, students, and the general public. To be sure, the Wisconsin regents nearly succeeded in ramming through a candidate selected in total secrecy over the universal objections of campus constituencies. The failure of the Wisconsin search owed as much to chance and ineptitude as it did to the consistent and determined activism of campus groups. But it did fail. Johnsen attempted to save face by noting, upon his withdrawal, that Wisconsin had some “process issues” to work out. His subsequent resignation as Alaska sys­tem president led some cynics to assert that the secrecy of the process was appropriate and necessary, that his Wisconsin candidacy had doomed him in Alaska. But Johnsen’s history in Alaska was already troubled quite independently of the Wisconsin search, and in the brief span of the Wisconsin online public forum he had managed to make a number of impolitic remarks about the state of Alaska and its people. Someone who was not a sole finalist might have been less cavalier about burning bridges at home.

A Return to Shared Governance?

The Wisconsin regents soon announced the appoint­ment of former governor Tommy Thompson as interim president of the UW system and declared that they would wait at least a year before searching for a permanent replacement. The new search was attended by board drama even before it started, as Michael Grebe, who had led the abortive Johnsen search, sought election as board president for the 2021–22 year. Grebe wanted another bite at the apple and exuded confidence that he would lead the board as it once again searched for a system president. Mean­while, appointees of Democratic governor Tony Evers gained a majority on the board in May 2021. In a rare contested election for board of regents president, Grebe lost to Edmund Manydeeds, an Evers appoin­tee. Manydeeds subsequently announced the appoint­ment of a new search committee, one that includes constituencies that have traditionally participated in presidential searches in Wisconsin.

The process that the new search committee follows and the outcome of its work remain to be seen. One hopes that the committee and the full board will take to heart the lessons of the Johnsen search, as well as the lessons of similar flawed processes in Colorado and South Carolina, where presidents appointed over the objections of faculty went on to short and rocky tenures in office. The inclusion of faculty on Wiscon­sin’s new search committee is certainly a heartening sign. Equally encouraging is who is not serving on the new search committee: Grebe and Petersen, who, as previous search committee chair and former board president, respectively, so aggressively bungled the Johnsen search. Depending on how quickly the new search proceeds, they may or may not be able to par­ticipate in the final regents’ vote. Their terms on the board end on May 1, 2022.

Nicholas Fleisher is associate professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin AAUP conference.