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Youngstown State students, faculty raise concerns about potential hire of Rep. Bill Johnson

Protesters gather outside YSU's Tod Hall to listen to speakers' concerns with the selection of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Marietta) as the university's next president.
Youngstown State University chapter of the Ohio Education Association
Protesters gather outside YSU's Tod Hall to listen to speakers' concerns with the selection of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Marietta) as the university's next president.

Students and alumni held a protest in Youngstown Monday about the potential selection of Ohio U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Marietta) as Youngstown State University’s next president.

Youngstown’s faculty union is also raising concerns about the process that lead up to the YSU Board of Trustees offering the position to Johnson last week during an "emergency" meeting.

Cryshanna Jackson, a professor and spokesperson for the Youngstown chapter of the Ohio Education Association, said faculty have not had time to even process the selection of Johnson because they've been kept in the dark about who the finalists were. She said faculty had heard about closed-door executive sessions being called but wasn't sure if candidates were being interviewed during them or not.

"We're kind of stunned that the process happened so discreetly and quietly behind closed doors and that there wasn't a more public process in selecting the next president for the university," she said.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who represents East Palestine, Ohio, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment at a hearing on the government response to the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine and the aftermath, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 28, 2023.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Bill Johnson was first elected to represent Ohio's 6th Congressional District in 2010. He is up for reelection in November 2024.

YSU spokesperson Rebecca Rose said Monday that Johnson and the university are "still negotiating." If they come to terms on a contract, the board of trustees will vote on that matter Tuesday.

"We plan on holding a press conference after Tuesday’s meeting so that the board can address the questions surrounding the process," Rose added.

Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Peterson told WKBN News that there were two other finalist candidates with backgrounds in education but said he believed Johnson's experience as a lawmaker would benefit YSU.

Hundreds of alumni, students, faculty and others have signed onto a letter urging the university to not choose Johnson and to restart the presidential search process with more community input. Johnson, who has represented eastern and southeastern Ohio since 2011, is a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump.

"Any questions regarding Congressman Johnson’s policy positions, if asked, were answered behind closed doors," the alumni letter reads. "The Congressman has opposed gay marriage, supported then-President Trump’s ban of travel from majority-Muslim countries and, without evidence, questioned the validity of the 2020 presidential election. These issues cast doubt on his ability to lead YSU’s diverse student body. The Board’s choice to unilaterally move forward with no community input is fundamentally undemocratic in a moment that calls for more, not less, stakeholder participation."

The Facebook event for the student-led protest, created by the group Community Concerned for the Future of YSU, noted their opposition to Johnson as a candidate.

"Johnson's horrific record of insurrectionist and anti-democratic action, hostility towards minorities, and denial of basic climate science are in stark opposition to the principles of public education," the event page reads.

A spokesperson for Johnson declined to respond to the assertions in the alumni letter. Johnson in a statement last week said he wasn't "looking for another job."

"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," he said at the time. "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."

The board of trustees is seeking a replacement for former YSU President Jim Tressel, who retired in February.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.