Protesters muzzled at YSU
Trustees forbid comments from critics of Johnson selection
YOUNGSTOWN — The Youngstown State University Board of Trustees refused to allow public comments or questions at its Thursday meeting about the controversial hiring of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson as the school’s next president, despite saying at a Nov. 21 meeting that comments would be permitted.
The announcement of no public comments was made right before the start of the meeting by Shannon Tirone, YSU’s associate vice president of university relations. She claimed “misinformation” about the comments came from local media and social media.
But Michael Peterson, YSU trustees president, said at the Nov. 21 meeting, at which the board hired Johnson in an 8-1 vote, that time would be given at the December meeting for public comments.
The decision to forbid public comments Thursday was met with boos and shouting from the audience who demanded to be heard.
The shouting got so loud at one point that Peterson requested a recess. Just as the board was preparing to leave the meeting room, students who were giving presentations about other issues asked the members to stay, and the meeting continued though the interruptions from the public over not being permitted to speak didn’t let up.
After a while, several of the 100 or so people in attendance — some with signs opposed to the Johnson hiring — walked out of the trustees’ meeting room.
“The entire community has been outraged because this wasn’t an open process” and then Peterson went back on his Nov. 21 statement about speaking Thursday,” said Mark Vopat, YSU-Ohio Education Association faculty union president.
It was when Vopat started speaking Nov. 21 that Peterson specifically said time would be made at the next trustees meeting for public comments.
“They said you can come and ask questions and express concerns, and they’re closing off the public once again,” Vopat said. “There’s anger, there’s frustration with the whole process and it’s making the whole situation worse. A board that everyone says wasn’t open enough and inclusive enough is being less open and less inclusive even after explicitly saying, ‘We’ll entertain those comments and questions.’ They’re just making it worse.”
‘THERE’S A PROCESS’
Peterson said three people who wanted to speak were heard by the trustees during a Wednesday committee meeting. He also said three people were invited to address the trustees at a Nov. 21 executive session.
“There’s a process,” Peterson said. “You have to make a request. It’s three weeks out, but what we did is we said, ‘You know, just come in executive session and you can talk.’ When I say, ‘meeting,’ I’m talking about both days. They came to that meeting (Wednesday) and we let them speak.”
Vopat was among three people permitted to talk behind closed doors with the trustees during a Nov. 21 executive session.
The process wasn’t explained at the Nov. 21 meeting. Peterson said at that meeting there would be time at the trustees meeting in December for the public to speak.
Also, more than the three people who spoke Wednesday at a committee meeting wanted to address the board.
Those speaking Wednesday to the board were Alexander Papa, Student Government Association president; Jacob M. Schriner-Briggs, a 2017 YSU graduate and current Yale Law School Press Clause Fellow; and Rose McClurkin, a YSU senior who organized a petition that received more than 2,000 signatures objecting to the hiring of Johnson, a seven-term Republican congressman.
In addition to Vopat and Papa, Ashley Orr, YSU’s only Rhodes Scholar, spoke in the executive session that was closed to the public.
The trustees bylaws require any person addressing the board to submit a written request at least three weeks in advance.
Peterson acknowledged that Schriner-Briggs didn’t submit a written request, but was allowed to speak Wednesday because he drove from Connecticut.
Schriner-Briggs, however, did share a copy of an email he sent Monday to trustees, requesting to address the board Thursday.
The email stated, in part, “The Board’s bylaws provide that a person ‘desiring to address the board shall submit in writing a request’ to do so ‘not less than three weeks prior to the meeting of the board at which the party requests to be heard.’ See Art. VIII (3)(a). The Board announced that it had reached an agreement with Congressman Bill Johnson to become YSU’s next President on Tuesday, November 21, 2023. It scheduled its next regular meeting after formalizing and publicizing that agreement. As the Board’s timing has made it impossible to satisfy Article VIII, Section 3(a), we formally request that the Board grant our request to address it and suspend this requirement.'”
It was unclear whether the board responded to the written request.
Daphne Carr of Youngstown, who frequently spoke out during Thursday’s meeting, also said the public was promised comments would be permitted.
“Evidently, we were lied to,” Carr said.
Schriner-Briggs said: “The public record is really clear that at their last meeting when they rammed this through, they said they’d hear from the public (Thursday), and now they’re going to hide behind bylaws and hide behind technicalities to make sure no one but eight of them gets a say. It’s disgraceful. The process is broken. The optics of it are disastrous. They’re not even pretending to look like a body that’s accountable to its constituents.”
Schriner-Briggs was among five alumni, including Orr, who sent a letter when the board was preparing to hire Johnson objecting to the confidential search with more than 2,600 people signing in support.
The five also released a 38-page report Thursday detailing objections to the confidential process and the hiring of Johnson as well as the fallout from the hiring.
Tyler P. Pabst, one of the five alumni, said: “It was my understanding we’d be allowed to speak. It’s really disappointing that they appear to be so confident in their decision that they’ll force it upon us, but not confident enough to defend it in public.”
Faculty, staff, students, alumni and major donors have been vocally opposed to the hiring of Johnson, a conservative congressman with no higher education experience. Several donors have criticized the decision and are urging the YSU board of trustees to rescind the three-year contract with Johnson that’s already been signed.
Johnson is to start March 15, though Peterson said Thursday it could be sooner. Johnson and Peterson said the hiring is final and nothing will change it.
Asked to comment after the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Trustee Molly Seals, the lone “no” vote to hire Johnson, said: “I’m embarrassed by it all.”
Following Thursday’s meeting, the YSU-OEA faculty union sent a statement renewing criticism of the board and commenting on growing campus turmoil.
“We’re seeing a board that has distanced itself from the YSU community — from students, donors, alumni, faculty and staff — making increasingly divisive decisions that impact YSU and, by extension, the entire region,” YSU-OEA President Mark Vopat said in the prepared release. “They are refusing to hear public comments in their meetings, refusing public information requests, and effectively stonewalling the very constituents they serve.”
The press release added that the board had indicated that public comments would be heard at the Dec. 7 meeting, but abruptly changed course and did not take public comments.
“This is not how a public university should behave,” Vopat said. “Public universities are open to dialogue and debate. That is the foundation of shared governance and how we get stakeholders to trust and invest in us. We need to have open conversations about our leaders, the vision for the university and our programs if YSU is going to weather this.”