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Emails reveal troubled search for University of Wisconsin president before Jim Johnsen withdrew as finalist

  • Author: Kelly Meyerhofer, Wisconsin State Journal
  • Updated: July 26
  • Published July 26

The sole finalist in the University of Wisconsin System presidential search was “forced to withdraw” amid an onslaught of criticism that UW Board of Regents leaders viewed as “unfair” and “unprofessional,” emails show.

Messages exchanged between members of the board and search committee offer new insight into how and why the lone finalist, University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen, withdrew from a search last month that by most accounts appeared to be a done deal. The emails were released to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state's public records law.

Johnsen's two-sentence statement on June 12 explaining why he withdrew referenced "process issues," though what those were has not been explained. He declined to comment for this story.

A statement that same day from Regents president Drew Petersen offered no explanation as to why Johnsen pulled out of the search. It also did not acknowledge the role of mounting opposition to Johnsen from faculty and others after Petersen excluded them from the search committee.

That opposition appears to be a key reason for Johnsen's withdrawal, according to the emails.

In a message to search committee chairman Michael Grebe and Jack Jablonski, a System official who oversees communications, just hours before the news became public on June 12, Petersen provided his own perspective on the about-face: "Disappointment he was forced to withdraw from the process and a sad day for the reputation of the UW System. Shared governance is about listening -- and that's a two way street."

Petersen declined to say whether his actions, specifically by rejecting calls to expand the search committee, played any role in the unsuccessful search.

"We are not going to feed speculation on why Dr. Johnsen chose to withdraw, especially in that Dr. Johnsen issued his own statement," he said through a System spokesman. "Our focus is on moving forward and learning how we can continue to improve the process, from beginning to end, for a future search."

Mounting opposition

The search to identify System President Ray Cross' successor began last fall and, from the very outset, was clouded with criticism. Petersen appointed a search committee that included four Regents, two former Regents, two chancellors and one provost, but no faculty or staff members in a break with tradition that angered many.

The committee identified Johnsen as the lone finalist in early June, a break from past practice of publicly naming multiple finalists. Search leaders defended the decision to name just Johnsen, saying he was their unanimous top pick and others dropped out late in the process over concern that being publicly named as a finalist could affect their ability to lead their current campus through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnsen himself worried about the prospect of public identification.

"Clearly concerned about the potential publicity," Grebe wrote to Petersen and a search committee firm employee in an early April email that included "Johnsen" as the subject line.

Search committee members saw appealing qualities in Johnsen, such as his ability to weather deep budget cuts, a situation the UW System may find itself in during the next budget biennium.

Groups representing faculty members across different campuses, however, interpreted his legacy in Alaska as that of a unilateral decision-maker. The statewide group representing professors also questioned the decision to present a white male candidate as the only option under consideration.

The national search for the next System president yielded 29 applicants, three of whom self-identified as underrepresented minorities, according to information provided in response to a records request. Five of the applications came from female candidates.

By the day of Johnsen's sole public interview with System employees, nearly 2,000 individuals signed a petition calling for a new search to begin.

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, who serves on the Assembly's Committee on Colleges and Universities, also asked for a new search to start in a letter she penned to the board in early June. Jablonski sent Petersen and Grebe a copy of the lawmaker's note, calling it an attempt "to try to create news" and offering a suggestion to "pre-empt" it by sending a statement to reporters with the board's rationale for naming only one finalist.

Despite the growing opposition, the search process continued. The committee planned to meet June 12 to make its hiring recommendation to the full board.

Petersen arranged earlier that week for Johnsen to talk with Regent Karen Walsh, who was appointed by Evers to the board that is still controlled by appointees of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. A few days before their conversation, members of UW-Madison's graduate student union had stopped by her home to plead for a new search.

Johnsen emailed Petersen on the morning of June 11 that he had a good conversation with Walsh, emails show. Petersen responded with an apology, "Sorry this is such a production." Johnsen told Petersen, "You are directing it well," to which Petersen replied with a thanks.

Search in shambles

Hours after Petersen and Johnsen's email exchange, the months-long search fell apart.

June 11 marked the end of a two-day comment period to collect feedback on Johnsen. About 870 comments were submitted to the System by students, employees and others within the UW community, the majority of which expressed opposition to Johnsen or the search process itself.

Johnsen pulled his name from consideration in a phone call to Grebe that evening.

"He made the decision to withdraw from the search, believing that the criticism that had been pointed in his direction -- much of which was unfair and misdirected, in my opinion -- made it difficult for him to lead the UW the way he had hoped to," Grebe told the search committee in a June 12 email. "He remained professional and courteous throughout the discussion. He is a fundamentally decent man."

Johnsen returned to his job leading Alaska’s public university system the next week, only to step down a few days later amid calls for his resignation. Faculty there took issue with how he handled some questions about his time in Alaska during his interview for the Wisconsin job.

Hours after the search fell into shambles, Petersen and Grebe sent a message to the full board on June 12, outlining the events of the past 24 hours.

"To say this has been an agonizing process does not do the situation justice," the two wrote in an email. "You are all aware of the search committee's thought process regarding naming one finalist. It was the right thing to do. Regrettably, our finalist candidate was maligned as soon as his name was announced, and despite impressive academic and business acumen, seasoned leadership in time of crisis, and a demonstrated record of accomplishments, Dr. Johnsen received an onslaught of unfair and in many instances, unprofessional criticism, which no candidate deserves."

Their email went on to say "this process will be a blow to the reputation" of the System.

A week after the search collapsed, Petersen named former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson to serve as interim System president for at least a year until enough time has passed to attract new candidates.

“It will take some time to heal the wounds of this process and the treatment our candidate faced,” Petersen and Grebe told the board.

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