Bill Johnson pleased with his first four months at YSU

YSU President Bill Johnson reflects on his first semester at YSU.

YOUNGSTOWN — At the end of his first semester as the president at Youngstown State University, Bill Johnson is pleased with how his term as the university’s 10th president began.

“I think it’s still a work in progress because I didn’t come from academia, but I brought a strong leadership background and a strong business background to the job,” he said. “I think what has gone well has been the way the faculty and the staff have rallied to address the challenges that we’ve had.”

Johnson was referring specifically to the difficulties YSU faced while trying to accommodate students displaced by the closure of Eastern Gateway Community College, and he said YSU has handled that challenge admirably. However, Johnson also faced several other challenges.

The former congressman walked into a search for a new provost and also had to manage an impending plan to restructure some of the university’s academic departments, which led to cutting programs and faculty.

There was also loud disapproval over his political background, the path that YSU’s Board of Trustees took to hire him and the implementation of policies since he took office. Several alumni, including actor and Youngstown native Ed O’Neill and Bruce Zoldan, president and CEO of Phantom Fireworks, also voiced their displeasure over how Johnson was hired.

Eventually though, Johnson was able to settle in to his new position and get to work.


When Eastern Gateway Community College announced in February, amid a state and federal investigation into its financial practices, that it would be closing at the end of the spring semester, students there were left wondering where — or if — their education would continue.

Shortly after the news broke, YSU announced it would take the lead in ensuring those students could complete their certification and associate degree programs.

Johnson said Gov. Mike DeWine asked if YSU could help fill the void that would be left from EGCC closing, and he believes it did. He said the university has since created more than 60 new programs and is continuing to accept applications.

“We’ve already made several hundred admissions, so we’re way down the road with that, and our enrollment is trending upward because of that,” he said.

The process has not been completely smooth, though. In late April, YSU had to notify several students, set to enroll in the respiratory care and radiology programs at the Steubenville campus, that the programs would not be accredited by their respective governing bodies in time for the fall semester.

The university said they were informed by JRCERT, the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology, and COARC, the Commission On Accreditation for Respiratory Care, that the agencies would not expedite accreditation for the associate programs. YSU now has to pursue full board approval from both agencies, a 12- to 18-month process. The lack of accreditation left about 16 students out.

Johnson also said the university had to be very careful in how it approached the transition, so as not to be drawn into EGCC’s problems.

“Eastern Gateway took federal financial aid dollars, and they used those federal financial aid dollars in a way that the U.S. Department of Education says, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ so they cut them off from Title IV funding,” Johnson said.

He said the university now will be able to put itself, and the community, in a unique position because YSU will be in a place to “cover the full continuum of education.”

“From accreditations and certifications and associate degrees for the workforce needs of today — the doers, the makers, the builders — but then also the four-year bachelor’s master’s, and doctoral degrees for the next generation of engineers and visionaries and creators and dreamers about the next generation of technology and innovation,” he said.

Johnson also said EGCC’s liability would have been detrimental to YSU’s own financial conditions, which he said are otherwise sound.

“Let me make it clear. YSU is in really good financial shape,” he said. “Our tuition is about $2,000 less than any of our sister competing universities in our region, and we are the second lowest tuition in our state.”


If YSU is on such sound financial footing, then, why the cuts to programming? Among complaints that drove protests at the beginning of the spring semester was the announcement that several programs in biology, geography, other liberal arts, and, most notably, the Dana School of Music, would be cut, and several faculty members with them. Students and faculty said they believed YSU was unfairly cutting programs and personnel to save money, while it should have been looking elsewhere for savings.

Johnson was clear about that as well.

“I don’t know who gave those reasons, because those reasons did not come from the university, because that’s not the reason why,” he said. “Those program realignments were made after three years of strategic planning and analytics, data we have to provide to the federal and state legislatures and agencies.

“So, the decisions were made, and here’s the bottom line: while this is an educational institution. it’s also a business, and we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the dollars we are given by the taxpayers and we have a responsibility to earn a profit,” Johnson said. “The program realignments were made before I ever got here – I knew what the proposals were, I found that out during the interview process.”

However, Johnson said the idea that they were going to shut down the Dana School of Music is far from the truth. Johnson also said that all of the faculty who left accepted early retirement packages.


Protests filled the beginning of Johnson’s tenure on campus and a small protest of about 20 people ended the semester outside of the Wick-Pollock House, where Johnson lives. Students and alumni burned an honorary doctoral degree given to O’Neill in 2013. O’Neill had returned it this year, saying he was no longer proud of his connection to the university. Students also opposed new administrative policies that they said violated their First Amendment rights.

Johnson said he isn’t necessarily concerned with the protests, as none of the students who have voiced objections have come to speak to him directly and that’s what he wants. He said he welcomes anyone with concerns about anything to do with YSU to knock on his door and have a conversation.

“Communication solves 90% of most problems,” he said.

Johnson said he believes he has a healthy relationship with students and said he has lunch with students “on average, twice a week.”

“We sit around the table and talk about the things that are important to them,” he said. “I’m deeply engaged with the Student Government Association and our different athletic programs. I meet frequently with our colleges, with the deans and the chairs, and I have a complete, total open door policy for anybody that wants to talk to me.”


Along with program cuts and student relations, Johnson also received criticism for hiring two staff members from his time as a congressman.

Sarah Keeler, who has worked for Johnson since February 2011, now serves as Special Assistant for Government Affairs, at a salary of $170,000. Maria Bova, a constituent services caseworker since August 2019, is the university’s new associate director of government affairs, earning $57,360.

Johnson said they were hired because that vacancy was a problem for the university. He said that problem was identified during his interview process when he was asked why YSU always came up short when competing for supplemental budget funding from the state or having a say in policies that affect higher learning.

“I said: ‘There’s a real easy answer for that question. I’ve been serving this region for 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Take a guess how many times the YSU director of government affairs showed up in my office in Washington D.C. or my district office to talk to me about any of the things you just mentioned — federal funding, policy, development, anything.'”

He said the number was 0.

He said he then told the interview panel he couldn’t achieve the university’s goals “if we’re not going to be active in those arenas, so we need to stand up a government affairs shop here.'”

That led to Keeler’s hiring. Johnson thought she was the best fit for the job.

Johnson said Tim Harrington, his new executive assistant, was looking for a position at the same time that former executive assistant Cynthia Bell — who transferred to the Office of Academic Affairs — was looking for a change. Harrington makes $92,000 annually compared to Bell’s $69,000. Harrington was the COO and VP for Operations at BOC Water Hydraulics in Salem.

Johnson’s special assistant, Brien Smith, also was recently hired as the new provost and executive vice president for academic affairs — the same position he once held at Youngstown State — at the University of North Alabama. Johnson said he was told during the interview process that Smith would be leaving YSU.

Interim provost Dr. Jennifer Pintar, who filled Smith’s role after he was named as Johnson’s special assistant in January, is one of three candidates being considered to fill the position permanently. The others are Dr. Alyson Gill, a former provost of Lees-McRae College; and Dr. Carolyn Smith Keller, the associate provost of University of Wisconsin, Platteville.

“I’ll be making a recommendation to the board and we’ll be making an announcement within the next couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “Our next board meeting is June 6-7, so you’ll know by the end of the first week in June who that new provost is going to be. We had some very good candidates and I’m not surprised because Youngstown State is a gem. Who wouldn’t want to work here?”

Have an interesting story? Contact Dan Pompili by email at dpompili@vindy.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today