Openness must start now or pushback will grow

The reaction was swift, strong and divided.

I’m speaking of the community’s reaction to Youngstown State University Board of Trustees’ presidential hiring decision, but ironically that statement also could apply to the hiring process itself.

Since the board announced its decision to hire U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson as the next university president, this newspaper has published 13 letters to the editor on both sides of the issue, one guest editorial and several unsigned soundoffs. There are at least six more letters that we have received, but have been unable to publish yet because of space or inability to reach the writers for verification purposes.

To receive more than a dozen letters on any topic is remarkable. To be sure, this issue has struck the community’s collective nerve.

Let’s be clear. That’s not a bad thing. Community involvement and the freedom of expression are part of what makes America great, after all.

Nothing generates community response like political issues.

Readers were not shy about voicing their opinions in recent months about statewide Issue 1, the so-called reproductive rights amendment, and about Issue 2, the issue that legalized recreational marijuana.

Ever since Donald Trump first ran for office, we have been hearing outcry from those who supported him, as well as those who were filled with vitriol for him and his policies. Commentary from readers often was angry and dripping with hatred.

I’m pleased to report that has not been the case for the reaction to Johnson’s hiring.

Yes, the anger and frustration is clear, but for the most part, the letters have been measured, calm and professional. The points — on both sides of the issue — have been sound, well reasoned and logical.

Frankly, it’s been refreshing and impressive.

In addition to the choice, much of the reader response also has focused on the secrecy that shrouded the decision-making process. We, too, have been troubled by the lack of transparency in the process. In addition to the failure by the board of trustees to release the names of all the candidates or finalists, or to involve the campus community, Johnson himself has been slow to respond to the media and the public.

So far, Johnson has declined our requests to meet one-on-one for a discussion about where he sees the university now, his vision for its future and how he hopes to contribute to that. He did not speak publicly in an effort to calm the crowd that had gathered for the Nov. 21 trustees meeting when the board voted 8-1 to hire him. Rather, he addressed the media for a brief press conference on campus following the board meeting. The press conference was not open to the public.

That is concerning to me.

If, indeed, Johnson is the right person for the job who so impressed the board — and I’m not saying he’s not — then why not share his vision by addressing publicly this group of faculty, students and others in the community whom he expects to lead?

Fortunately, there is an up-side to this controversy. It has generated much interest in the campus and reminded us all how much we treasure what Youngstown State University brings to our community.

If you haven’t taken a drive through the campus recently, I encourage you to do that.

The growth and amount of investment in this campus has been incredible. Its newly established links — geographically, economically and socially — to the downtown are far-reaching in establishing an important partnership.

Indeed, much of this transformation came under the tutelage of recently retired YSU President Jim Tressel.

While Tressel’s selection as university president in years past also received some pushback due largely to his level of education and training, he was able to use openness and honesty to overcome the concerns and work with the community for the greater good of the region.

I can only hope that the newly hired president, too, can keep an open mind to partnerships, development and growth.

We are eager to hear from Johnson the ideas that he presented to the board of trustees making them so impressed with him.

The lack of those open conversations will only strengthen the outcry.


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 $4.85/week.

Subscribe Today