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The War Over a MAGA Congressman’s ‘Secretive’ Hiring as College President

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When the board of trustees at Youngstown State University selected an anti-abortion, election-denying, Trump-endorsing Republican congressman late last month as the school’s next president, faculty, students, and alumni immediately opposed the “secretive” move.

The board had unexpectedly called an emergency meeting to nominate Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) as a replacement for Jim Tressel, who is retiring in February. Johnson—who has spoken out against college students purportedly being “indoctrinated” by left-leaning professors, is opposed to gay marriage, and said he believes “Big Tech” and “the Democrat party” stole the presidency for Joe Biden—was selected over two other candidates whose identities remain under wraps.

Those with skin in the game were upset that YSU extended Johnson the three-year contract—which comes with a $410,000 salary, free housing, a car, and a potential six-figure bonus—without any input from members of the greater Youngstown State community. One major donor described the move as an “insult” not only to the institution but to the entire Mahoning Valley. And, many asked, what was the rush, when interim president Helen Lafferty’s term didn’t expire until July 2024?

Still, the nine-member board on Nov. 21 voted 8-1, amid resounding boos and shouts of “Shame!” from the audience, to install Johnson as YSU’s next leader. The optics didn’t help: three trustees appointed by GOP Gov. Mike DeWine had given tens of thousands of dollars to Johnson’s congressional campaigns, and the entire affair to this point had been conducted almost completely behind closed doors. Already, a slew of major donors to YSU have pulled their financial support in response, and actor and YSU alum Ed O’Neill, star of the classic sitcom Married… with Children, has vowed to return the honorary doctorate the university awarded him in 2013.

On Monday, the board’s lone dissenter doubled down on her opposition to Johnson, calling for a do-over.

“What I as a board member would like to see is a step back, and to go through this process again in an appropriate way,” YSU trustee Molly Seals told The Daily Beast in her first interview since her “no” vote.

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“I never envisioned that my vote, especially since it stood alone, would have any particular power on reversing or changing things,” Seals said. “But it gave me the ability to sleep well at night, knowing that I hadn’t done something that I knew was just not right.”

Preventing Johnson from altering the culture and curriculum at YSU, as other right-wing ideologues have attempted to do in states like Florida, Kansas, and Alabama, “will take great courage” on the part of the trustees, according to Seals. Specifically, it will mean “being willing to admit when what you’ve done is not right.”

Seals, who emphasized that she speaks only for herself and not for the entire board, called it “uncharted territory.” At the same time, Seals said she is “only one of nine voting board members,” and that any new steps taken will require a consensus.

“Unfortunately, there may be deeper reasons why things [were] done,” Seals went on. “And for those individuals, whatever motivations they may have had for trying to make this happen in such a manner, they will have to figure out how to reconcile that within themselves.”

Seals said she was perplexed by the supposed “emergency” conditions requiring an immediate decision on Johnson, who was one of three candidates proposed by an executive search firm hired by YSU. (“Due to a confidentiality document I cannot give names of the two qualified higher education leaders who were among the finalists,” Seals said.)

It hadn’t been an emergency before that week, Seals continued, adding, “So, yes—I think that there were things that were done on someone else’s timeline versus what was the right timeline for the board to work through the issue.”

The community response has been “very significant,” according to Seals, who said she has heard from alumni, students, past board members and trustees, and others who feel Johnson was appointed “for other [reasons] than what is in the best interest of the university.”

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A group of YSU alumni, including the university’s only Rhodes Scholar, penned an open letter asking the trustees to revisit the procedure and conduct a more transparent search for a new president. And although it garnered more than 2,000 signatures, as did a petition on Change.org, the request for trustees to revisit the procedure and conduct a transparent search for a new president has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Youngstown State University

In response, fireworks mogul Bruce Zoldan, who in January donated $5 million to YSU for a new student center, announced he would consider withdrawing the gift and rethink future ones.

“He has no background in operating anything, let alone leading an institution of faculty and students of diversified backgrounds, he’s going to come in as an election denier and come in to lead the university,” said Zoldan, who has supported both Republican and Democratic politicians. “It’s an insult to our valley and to the university itself.”

“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,” Mark Vopat, the spokesman for YSU’s faculty union, said in a statement at the time. “This action shows a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the University community.”

Still, Johnson has said that nothing will stop him from taking the job.

“Everybody’s got their hair on fire because they think I’m going to bring my politics here,” he said at a press conference in late November. “But if everybody else is allowed to bring their politics and ideology here and I’m not, how is that fair?”

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In an interview last week with local CBS affiliate WKBN, Johnson said “People say that I’m this, that or the other, and there’s no foundation of truth in any of that. If they would just sit down and talk to me first, and then draw their conclusion, I think we’d be a lot further down the road,”

A spokesman for Johnson did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday. A Youngstown State spokeswoman said in an email, “Bill Johnson is President-Elect of Youngstown State University and he will begin serving as YSU’s 10th president by March 15, 2024. For more in-depth information on the search process, please see the email sent to campus.”

In it, the university defended its search, and said the emergency meeting was scheduled “to ensure the integrity of the process” after learning that “some candidates’ information may have been made public.”

A photo of Rep. Bill Johnson, the incoming Youngstown State University president, seen with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at the Capitol in June for a House Republican Conference caucus meeting.

Rep. Bill Johnson (left), the incoming Youngstown State University president, seen with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (right) at the Capitol in June for a House Republican Conference caucus meeting.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Seals told The Daily Beast that she is gravely concerned about the way Johnson talks about “liberal” indoctrination on college campuses being responsible for declining enrollment, and hears echoes of “some of the language and words we’ve heard in… political agendas” when he speaks.

As one of the largest employers in the area, if donations to YSU collapse and enrollment continues to drop (which is part of a larger nationwide trend), Johnson’s hiring could help to depress the wider regional economy. Seals, for her part, is extremely concerned about the potential for a “very significant impact” thanks to Johnson’s appointment to YSU, which she called “an anchor institution in this community.

Johnson, according to Seals, has “splinter[ed] our university and put its future at an unnecessary risk.” Universities across the nation “are going to have to learn from this,” she said. Nevertheless, Seals herself isn’t quite sure where things go from here.

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“I wish I knew what would happen next,” she said on Monday. “I don’t know what will happen next.”

What Seals does know, she said, is that her vote against Johnson was a vote against what she “didn’t want to see for our community and for our university and for the students of our university.”

“Never in the history of the university am I aware that we have ever… handled a search in this manner, and ended up in the predicament that is being faced today,” Seals said. “I just absolutely could not, in good conscience, vote any other way.”

Johnson has said he plans to resign from Congress during the first quarter of 2024. His first term as YSU president is set to begin March 15.

Source: The Daily Beast

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