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YSU President-elect Johnson criticized higher education

While U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson isn’t the first Republican selected as Youngstown State University president, he is a partisan conservative who has served in Congress for 13 years.

Johnson, R-Marietta, faced criticism by alumni, students and faculty for his politics including opposing gay marriage, being anti-choice, supporting immigration restrictions, challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election and for his professional background that doesn’t include any higher education experience.

Johnson voted 96.8% with former President Donald Trump, a Republican, and only 20.2% with President Joe Biden, a Democrat, according to an analysis of his voting record.

Johnson’s campaign fundraising emails are usually filled with partisan rhetoric such as one on Oct. 6 about Trump’s trial in New York.

It reads: “There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re after him to settle their political vendetta. The liberal elites hate him and they’re using any tactic they can to ruin him — personally and politically. And they don’t just hate him, they hate people that support him and values he represents. The elites hate you and they hate me.”

But after getting hired Thursday, Johnson said he’ll leave politics at home.

“I am committed to an inclusive and respectful environment at the university,” he said. “Regardless of political, religious or personal affiliations, my focus will be on fostering open dialogue, understanding diverse perspectives and contributing positively to the well-being of every student.”

During his time in Congress, he’s been critical of higher education.

In a Feb. 4, 2021, social media post in a response to plans to forgive college student loans, Johnson wrote: “Don’t these colleges and universities — who are charging an ever-rising, astronomical tuition with huge administrative overhead and salaries, who are advancing this cancel culture philosophy in their liberal halls, and with what appears to be a low return on student investment — bear some responsibility too?”

Asked about this statement at a Thursday news conference, Johnson said universities are seeing declining enrollment, home schooling numbers are increasing. Johnson said what he’s hearing from people is they want students to be safe and “they want to know they’re going to be educated, not indoctrinated. That’s what I stand for. We’re an education institution. Everybody here will have a voice.”

Conservatives have used indoctrination as code to criticize higher education, saying universities have a woke, liberal, cancel-culture agenda that they’re teaching students.

As for the “huge administrative overhead and salaries,” Johnson is getting $410,000 annually in base salary at YSU — compared with $174,000 as a House member. He also is eligible for a 25% bonus for meeting “goals and metrics” determined by the board of trustees, gets free rent at the Pollock House on campus, a $750 monthly car allowance, free membership to a local country club and civic organization of his choice, and if his three-year contract is renewed, his new annual base salary would be $512,500.

On Oct. 12, Johnson wrote on social media in response to some college students rallying in support of Hamas, a terrorist group, that “it grieves me to watch,” but “that’s called freedom of speech.”

He added: “But keep in mind many of these schools objected to, and in some cases, banned conservatives from speaking on taxpayer-funded campuses. I’m talking to some of my colleagues in Congress about exposing them for the frauds they are when it comes to actually protecting constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights.”

The secret process used by the YSU Board of Trustees to hire Johnson caused a huge uproar.

Trustee Anita Hackstedde said that a “very open process” doesn’t produce the best results as top candidates don’t apply because they’re already employed and to have that information get out puts them in an awkward situation.

She said: “As a consequence, running an open search has a hampering effect on the ability to find the best qualified candidates for the position” and “that’s why many institutions of higher learning have made the decision to move to a confidential search process.”

Hackstedde contended the board was “very careful to comply with the open meetings act and the public records act,” saying of the latter that they “acted appropriately to balance public records requirements with the desire to have a robust search on behalf of YSU.”

But YSU, a public entity, refused to provide the names of any of the other candidates. When asked for the resumes of the nine finalists, the university said it didn’t have them. I don’t doubt that’s true, but it’s fair to believe that was done on purpose.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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