Dear President Cross and Members of the Board of Regents:
I am writing to share my deep concerns once again with the search and screen committee process for UW System President. This process has been flawed from the beginning, with the search committee failing to follow decades of past precedent of including shared governance stakeholders. You willfully omitted faculty and staff representation and only included a student regent, essentially removing shared governance stakeholders’ seats at the table. It is therefore no surprise that your announcement this week of only one finalist for System President has been met with criticism. All of this was preventable – it would have cost nothing for you to include shared governance stakeholders, who would have expressed significant apprehension with this approach from day one.
On November 5, 2019, I urged you to add members to the committee, stating, “no leader of our university system should want to start their new role with concerns from stakeholders because of the process by which they were selected and by which some stakeholders were excluded.” On November 12, 2019, I responded to your letter by saying,
“You are limiting your pool of applicants by willfully excluding faculty, academic staff, university staff, and students from your search committee. No rational UW System president will want to or be able to serve successfully under this process, their legitimacy being questioned prior to their being hired.”
That’s exactly what happened. This was dishearteningly predictable. Their legitimacy is being questioned by shared governance stakeholders. If the search and screen committee had included shared governance stakeholders from the beginning, I wouldn’t need to write a letter to tell you this. On Tuesday, June 2, UW System announced only one finalist under consideration for System president. Jim Johnsen, the president of the University of Alaska, has a questionable record, including votes of no confidence from faculty at both the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses and his dubious proposal to merge the UA System. For the only finalist to have such a track record is stunning, and this announcement has not been well-received.
I understand that some candidates withdrew their names from the search, likely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and their duty to their current campuses, and I recognize that these are unprecedented times.
However, according to UW Board of Regents Vice President and search committee chair Grebe, the candidate pool included “a number of impressive and qualified candidates.” Why then were additional candidates not recommended to be finalists? It is common practice to include multiple finalists for these positions. Just in the past two years, UW System named multiple finalists when searching for new chancellors at UW-Stout, UW-Whitewater, and UW-Green Bay. I am disappointed that the committee did not recommend additional candidates for consideration when the UW System is facing the most significant challenges it has seen in decades.
While I understand that some of the finalists dropped out due to applying for this position prior to the pandemic and a feeling of duty to their current employers, there is also a level of transparency and accountability that is expected when selecting a position of public trust of this magnitude. Prior to 2015 Act 55, state law required the release of the identities of the five candidates who are finalists, or the fewer than five candidates if there are fewer qualified applicants. While Republican legislators changed this law in the biennial budget in 2015, it is important to note that for years, the UW released the names of these finalists, and they should do so now. It is deeply frustrating for shared governance stakeholders who already were excluded from the process other than virtual “listening sessions” to only see one name and one finalist. They comprise 96% of the UW workforce. You owe it to them to do more.
Please consider the following options: 1) listening to the voices of faculty, staff, and students and determining if this is a failed search and there is a need to start over; 2) reexamining the semifinalist applicant pool and moving at least one semifinalist on to the finalist group; 3) passing a policy requiring at least one member of faculty, one member of staff, and one non-regent student to serve on the search and screen committee so this never happens again. Please seize this opportunity to learn from mistakes.
As the UW System seeks its new leader to navigate the challenges that our higher education institutions are facing across the country, we must choose the best possible candidate for the position. In this time of incredible uncertainty due to COVID-19, I recognize the UW System will be faced with its own unique and significant challenges with financial pressures, the Blueprint for the UW System, and other logistical issues as a result of dealing with this crisis. It is time to meet the moment with strong, sterling leadership.
We must uphold and protect the Wisconsin Idea that serves as a model for the rest of the country by ensuring the UW System president is committed to all 26 campuses, their programs, and most importantly, their faculty, staff, and students. I am urging you to reconsider this search committee’s recommendation to include additional candidates as we work to create a stronger UW System and select a new thoughtful, resilient leader. Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you are staying healthy and well.