Johnsen withdraws candidacy for UW System president


University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen presents the State of the University Address on Feb. 28, 2020. He is a finalist to replace retiring UW System President Ray Cross.

Kaitlyn Scoville, Copy Desk Chief

The search for a new UW System President came to a halt after sole finalist Jim Johnsen withdrew from his candidacy Friday, just one day after the United Faculty and Staff of Oshkosh came out in opposition to his running.

In a University of Alaska System news release, Johnsen stated he appreciated the search committee and those who supported him, but raised a comment that there were some “important process issues to work out” within the UW System.

“After deep reflection as to where I am called to lead a university system through these challenging times, it is clear to me and my family that it is in Alaska,” Johnsen wrote.

Johnsen was appointed the 14th president in 2015 and oversees three universities and 13 community campuses, according to University of Alaska’s website.

A statement released on Johnsen’s withdrawal stated that it’s a “disappointing, dark day for the [University of Wisconsin] System.”

“Dr. Johnsen is a fine person who conducted himself with professionalism and honor throughout the process, during which he was unanimously identified by the search committee as the best candidate for our system,” the statement read.

The statement then closed with comment on identifying and addressing the current financial situation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic before moving forward with the search for a candidate for UW System president.

UWO sociology professor and member of UFSO Paul Van Auken was encouraged by Johnsen’s withdrawal from the UW System President candidacy. He added perhaps there was some connection between the withdrawal and some of the criticism he had received.

“Maybe he didn’t like the backlash or that it looks like he’s jumping from one hornet’s nest to another,” Van Auken said.

UFSO announced Thursday that it opposed an alleged closed-door, exclusionary search process for a new UW System President and a finalist chosen by the Board of Regents.

After the Board of Regents Presidential Search Committee announced on June 2 that Johnsen would be a finalist for the position, UFSO announced its opposition to the process by which Johnsen was chosen and his accomplishments working as the UA System president.

Current UW System President Ray Cross announced his retirement in October, 2019 after 42 years dedicated to higher education. He has been system president since January 2014.

The UFSO Executive Board said, “the legitimacy of the search process has been marred from the outset by the Board of Regents’ unprecedented exclusion of any faculty, staff or non-Regent students from the search committee.”

Additionally, the email said the group believes the Board of Regents is “clearly following a predetermined agenda” and that Johnsen holds a “dubious record as an administrator” that should disqualify him from the candidacy.

The email listed several reasons why UFSO believes Johnsen should not hold the future position of UW System president:

  • “In 2016, he oversaw a hasty consolidation of the UA System’s teacher education programs that is regarded to have led fairly directly to the [University of Alaska Anchorage] School of Education losing its accreditation.”
  • “In September of 2019, Johnsen and the UA System received a warning letter … expressing concern that ‘that the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast have failed to meet … critical Standards for Accreditation.’”
  • The University of Alaska System announced on June 5, 2020, the Friday before Johnsen’s interview for UW System President, that they were eliminating multiple bachelor’s and master’s programs among multiple campuses. This included cutting around 40 programs and the reduction and merging of several others.

In the wake of a new hiring process for UW System presidential candidates, UFSO President and UWO environmental studies professor Jim Feldman said the group will be looking back on previous issues among the UW System and going from there for the betterment and advocacy for UW Oshkosh.

Feldman brought up concerns of declining funds for the UW System, the tuition freeze that has been ongoing since 2012 and the overall attacks on the UW System by the conservative majority state legislature.

“It has felt like the leadership of the UW System has not been fighting for and advocating for the best interests of the faculty, the campuses, the students, the staff,” Feldman said. “Public support for higher education in Wisconsin has declined.”

Van Auken added that he believes that the voices of people stepping up and making their voices heard was likely a large role in Johnsen’s withdrawal.

UFSO will be looking for a new candidate that doesn’t just have business or administrative experience, but comes from within the ranks of academia, Van Auken said.

He added that Johnsen didn’t have the proper characteristics to hold such a high-powered position; a candidate should demonstrate the commitment to what the System stands for.

On the Board of Regents resuming their search for a new UW System president in the near future, Feldman hopes the group will return to its old practices, be inclusive and listen to the public.

“I would hope when they resume the search, it will be done in accordance with the long-standing tradition of transparency and pure governance,” Feldman said, “and incorporating the perspectives of multiple stakeholders.”

This story has been updated with news that Johnsen has withdrawn his candidacy.