Johnson could be hired today as YSU’s chief
YOUNGSTOWN — If both sides come to an agreement, the Youngstown State University Board of Trustees will vote today on a contract to hire U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson as the university’s next president — a move that has drawn objections and criticism from employees, alumni and students.
“We are still negotiating, and if both parties agree on terms then we will have a contract that will need to be voted on by the board” today, Becky Rose, YSU spokeswoman, said Monday.
Neither YSU nor Johnson will confirm a deal is done.
But the board of trustees announced a news conference after today’s special 2 p.m. meeting “to discuss the presidential search process and the current status of the search,” according to a Monday media advisory from Rose.
Today’s special meeting agenda lists “presidential search” under unfinished business.
The board voted 8-1 in favor of offering the president’s job to Johnson, R-Marietta, at an emergency meeting Thursday in a stunning move. The board had announced the meeting only two hours prior and has failed to disclose why it considered the offer to Johnson an emergency when plans have been to have a president in place by mid-2024.
A group of five alumni — including Ashley Orr, YSU’s only Rhodes Scholar — wrote a letter Saturday demanding the board rescind the offer, objecting to the board’s refusal to “incorporate the greater YSU community in its decision making” as it “flouts basic values of transparency, accountability and democratic participation.”
It also states: “Johnson’s positions are highly contentious and directly relevant to the diverse interests and identities of YSU’s student body.”
The letter objects to Johnson’s opposition to gay marriage, his support of former President Donald Trump’s “ban of travel from majority Muslim countries and, without evidence, questioned the validity of the 2020 presidential election. These issues cast doubt on his ability to lead YSU’s diverse student body.”
Only two days after the letter was written, the group collected about 2,300 signatures with 80% of them alumni, including those representing every academic class between 1962 and this year. The rest of the signatures included faculty, current YSU students, concerned parents and other YSU community members. It was emailed to the nine YSU trustees Monday afternoon.
A petition on change.org in opposition to hiring Johnson received more than 1,750 signatures as of Monday with objections to selecting the congressman because he doesn’t have any higher education experience, the trustees didn’t give the faculty or the community a say in the selection process, and because Johnson is anti-choice and an “election denier.”
Johnson, 69, is in his seventh two-year term in the U.S. House and has supported fellow Republican Trump in 2016, 2020 and has endorsed him for the 2024 presidential election.
A day before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Johnson said he would vote against counting all of the electoral votes, specifically Pennsylvania, won by President Joe Biden, a Democrat, claiming the “election wasn’t fair.”
Johnson, whose district includes all of Mahoning and Columbiana counties, also said at the time: “Simply rubber-stamping these slipshod and partisan-laced electoral outcomes is wrong.”
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Unlike previous YSU presidential searches, the candidates and finalists for this never were announced publicly nor brought to the university for interviews and forums with campus groups.
The YSU-Ohio Education Association faculty union immediately protested the selection of Johnson and the lack of transparency.
The board’s presidential search guidance committee worked with the executive search firm of Witt / Keiffer.
The search has been underway since May after Jim Tressel, the previous president for close to nine years, retired in February. The trustees hired Helen K. Lafferty, who was an administrator and professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, as interim president, effective Feb. 1.
Tressel’s annual salary when he left YSU was $375,000. U.S. House members are paid $174,000 a year.
Three finalists were interviewed privately from about a dozen applicants, Michael Peterson, chairman of the YSU trustees, said after Thursday’s vote.
YSU denied a request Monday from this newspaper for the applicants’ resumes, with Rose saying “the university does not have records responsive to this request.”
Rose cited a 2003 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which The Cincinnati Enquirer sued that city’s board of education to get resumes, correspondence and other documents related to a school superintendent search. The school used an outside firm for the selection process. All documentation was reviewed by school board members in executive session and then returned to the applicants except one who agreed to leave it with the board.
After the superintendent was hired, the school district provided the newspaper with only materials submitted by the person hired and the finalist who left his documents with the school board. The board didn’t provide any other materials to the newspaper because it didn’t have them. The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the school district.
REMOTE VOTE LEGAL
Of the YSU board of trustees’ nine members, only four were physically present at Tod Hall for the emergency meeting. The other five attended and voted remotely from various locations in Ohio and Florida.
Most public bodies are required to have its members attend in person to vote.
But a provision put into the 2021 state budget bill permits the boards of trustees at public universities to have remote voting and attendance as long as it adopts a specific policy, which YSU did on Sept. 21, 2022.
That YSU policy, which mirrors the state law, allows virtual attendance as long as that trustee attends in person at least half of the regular board meetings annually, at least one-third of the trustees attend the meeting in person, all votes are taken by roll call and those who intend to attend remotely have to notify the chairperson not less than 48 hours before the meeting, except in the case of declared emergency.
The board is holding a “special” meeting today while the one last Thursday was an “emergency” meeting.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said Monday that public university boards of trustees have the special dispensation as long as they adopt a policy for virtual meetings.
“For it to be a public meeting, it’s got to comply with all the statutory requirements including the people have to be able to be heard, you’ve got to as a public be able to see what (trustees) are doing,” Yost said.
He added: “It’s very important to recognize that while universities can do this, not all governments were given this authority by the General Assembly.”
Johnson never has worked in higher education and was approached to seek the job.
Johnson earned a master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech in 1984 and a Bachelor of Science degree, also in computer science, from Troy University in Alabama in 1979.
After 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1999 as a lieutenant colonel, Johnson owned a couple of information technology consulting firms and served from 2006 to 2010 as chief information officer for Stoneridge Inc., which brought him to Ohio. He was first elected to Congress in November 2010.
Information in the YSU presidential search booklet sought applicants with “unquestioned integrity, high energy and demonstrated leadership and administrative abilities,” “demonstrated ability to enhance the quality of academic programs via the stimulation of faculty excellence,” “a strong understanding of, commitment toward, and leadership in creating an environment that fosters and enables student futures for academic success and lifelong learning,” “a strong communicator,” “background and experiences that merit broad-based respect,” “demonstrated capacity and capability to articulate the value of YSU,” and “experiences with capabilities to understand, articulate and implement strategies that situate the institution as an anchor institution.”
In a Thursday statement, Johnson said he “wasn’t looking for another job,” and “if I determine this opportunity to lead YSU is a good fit, I’ll have a very difficult decision.”
Some of the YSU trustees are corporate executives at businesses that are among the largest donors to Johnson’s political campaigns.
Trustee Richard C. Fryda, president and CEO of Compco Industries, has given $19,000 to Johnson’s campaigns since 2013, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Compco employees have given a combined $87,708 to Johnson’s political campaigns and his leadership political action committee, the third-most ever to the seven-term congressman’s political fund, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign finance and lobbying data.
That includes $24,400 in Johnson’s last political campaign, which was the second most for the 2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets. Fryda gave $5,500 of it, according to FEC reports.
Trustee Joseph J. Kerola, president of PI&I Motor Express, gave the $6,400 maximum individual contribution in the 2022 campaign to Johnson, according to FEC reports.
PI&I employees gave $23,050 to Johnson’s 2022 campaign, which was the third most of any company for that election cycle’s re-election effort.
Overall, Kerola has given $22,200 to Johnson’s campaigns since 2014.
Trustee Charles T. George, CEO of Hapco Inc., gave $5,800 to Johnson’s campaign in the last election cycle, according to FEC reports. No one else from Hapco gave any money to Johnson for that race, but George’s contribution alone was enough to make his company’s employees 73rd among businesses contributing to Johnson’s campaign in the last election.
George has contributed a total of $21,700 to Johnson’s campaigns since 2014, according to FEC reports.
The other YSU trustees have never contributed to Johnson’s political campaigns, according to FEC data.