Youngstown State University Offers President’s Job to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — In a stunning move Thursday, the Youngstown State University Board of Trustees offered U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson the job as 10th president of the university.
The board voted 8-1 Thursday to offer the leadership post to Johnson, R-Ohio, first elected in 2010 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Johnson said he is considering the offer but has not yet made a final decision.
The board gave authorization for negotiations “to begin on behalf of the university for an agreement of employment with Mr. Johnson in conformance with the terms, conditions and parameters reviewed by university legal counsel, subject to approval by the board of trustees,” according to a YSU statement.
Michael Peterson, chairman of the YSU trustees, said Johnson “is a strong, innovative, servant leader who we believe will be well positioned to guide the university as we take charge of our future. … I am excited for the offer. I am excited for the future of YSU and for the future of our students.”
The Presidential Search Guidance Committee has been working with executive search firm Witt/Keiffer.
Three finalists, selected from about a dozen applicants, were interviewed privately, the chairman said. Unlike Johnson, he said the other two finalists had backgrounds in higher education. Peterson declined to identify the other finalists by name.
Peterson said Johnson’s experience in Washington would serve him well at YSU, but the congressman’s record of hard work in the mold of retired President Jim Tressel would serve YSU, the Youngstown community and the 11,000 students at the university well.
“We need a workhorse, not a show horse,” Peterson said.
The vote Thursday to offer the job to Johnson was 8-1 with Trustee Molly Seals voting no. Seals said she did not think Johnson was the right person for the job.
Only four of the nine YSU trustees were physically present for the emergency meeting in Tod Hall. They were Peterson, Joseph Kerola, Charles George and Sergul Erzurum. The other five trustees attended and voted remotely from various locations in Ohio and Florida.
The remote attendance could come into question based on an Ohio open meeting law that specifies, “A member of a public body shall be present in person at a meeting open to the public to be considered present or to vote at the meeting and for purposes of determining whether a quorum is present at the meeting.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s 2023 Open Government Resource manual further explains that a small number of public bodies have statutory authority to conduct meetings using remote means. It is unclear whether the university’s board of trustees falls under that exemption.
Johnson, 69, did not attend the meeting.
Shortly after the vote, he released this statement: “Very recently, I was made aware of the opportunity to become president of Youngstown State University by a national executive search firm. I wasn’t looking for another job, because I love serving the people of eastern Ohio. When I was approached about leading this great university, with student success at the forefront, and helping to prepare the next generation of Americans to lead, I listened.
“I continue to be honored and humbled to serve the men and women of eastern Ohio in Congress, and if I determine this opportunity to lead YSU is a good fit, I’ll have a very difficult decision to make. In the meantime, my focus will remain on representing eastern Ohio in the U.S. House.”
Unlike previous YSU presidential searches, the candidates and finalists never were announced publicly nor brought to the campus for interviews and forums with campus groups.
In a timeline for the search released in May, trustees said the selection process would include the larger community, such as students, alumni and professors, along with donors and possible other stakeholders. That timeline estimated a new president would be in place by mid-2024. Peterson said Thursday he hopes Johnson accepts and can be installed in early 2024. The university’s spring semester begins Jan. 8.
Meanwhile, the YSU-Ohio Education Association faculty union almost immediately protested the selection and lack of transparency. Mark Vopat, its spokesman, released this statement: “The Board of Trustees has conducted this search with next to zero transparency. They have not allowed faculty, staff and students an opportunity to offer any input on potential candidates.
“We are surprised and disappointed that the board would offer the presidency to anyone without first having a campus visit to meet with university stakeholders; especially someone with no higher education experience or a terminal degree in any academic field. This action shows a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the university community.”
The search has been underway in earnest since May after Tressel, previous president for close to nine years, retired in February. The trustees hired Helen K. Lafferty, an administrator and professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, as interim president, effective Feb. 1.
Tressel’s annual salary when he left YSU was $375,000. U.S. House members are paid $174,000 a year.
In his seventh two-year term in Congress, Johnson has represented at least a portion of Mahoning County. With redistricting, he has represented all of Mahoning County since the beginning of this year.
Johnson’s 6th Congressional District includes all of Mahoning, Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Belmont, Harrison, Monroe, Noble and Washington counties and portions of Stark and Tuscarawas counties.
Mahoning is the most-populous county in the district.
Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1973 and retired as a lieutenant colonel after 26 years of service.
He received his bachelor of science degree in computer science from Troy University in Alabama in 1979 and a master’s degree, also in computer science, from Georgia Tech in 1984. He never has worked as an educator.
After leaving the military, he co-founded Johnson-Schley Management Group, an information technology consulting company that lasted for three years. From there, he formed J2 Business Solutions Inc., which focused on providing executive level IT support as a defense contractor to the U.S. military.
He had a short stay in 2005 with Lockheed Martin.
From 2006 to 2010, Johnson served as chief information officer for Stoneridge Inc., a global manufacturer of highly-engineered electronic components for the transportation industry. That’s what brought him to Ohio.
Johnson moved to Poland in Mahoning County and ran for Congress — the first time he sought elected office — in 2010, winning the 6th District race against two-term incumbent Democrat Charlie Wilson. He later moved to Marietta, where he resides with his wife, LeeAnn.
Their son, Nathan, is a YSU student.
Johnson beat Wilson in 2012 in a rematch and has been re-elected overwhelmingly in 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022.
Johnson serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee including as chairman of its Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials Subcommittee.
During his time in Congress, he has sponsored 20 pieces of legislation that were signed into law.
A staunch conservative, Johnson was one of the first Ohio Republican members of the House to support Donald Trump in his successful 2016 election.
Johnson also supported Trump in his unsuccessful 2020 re-election effort.
On Aug. 1, he endorsed Trump for the 2024 presidential election, saying: “It’s time to return to the America first, commonsense policies of the first term of President Donald Trump.”
He added: “America simply cannot continue down this dangerous and reckless path chosen by Joe Biden and his extremist administration.”
Johnson’s re-election fund had $1,329,874 in it as of Sept. 30, the most recent filing reporting deadline.
If Johnson resigns, it could set up an unorthodox parallel race for his unexpired term and the term that will begin in January 2025.
It is likely there would be primaries in March 2024 for the unexpired term, as well as the full two-year term. The winners of the primaries for the unexpired term would run in a special August 2024 election for the rest of the year with a November 2024 election for the full-two year term.