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Youngstown State faces blowback from alumni, donors after hiring Republican congressman as president

Bill Johnson 2 youngstown press conference
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Bill Johnson, U.S. Representative for Ohio's 6th Congressional District, speaks during a press conference Nov. 21 after being named president of Youngstown State University.

Youngstown State University is facing continued blowback — this time from donors, alumni and other notable stakeholders — after it hired Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, of Marietta, to serve as its next president.

That includes Youngstown-born actor Ed O'Neill, of "Married... With Children" and "Modern Family" fame. O'Neill, who played football for YSU, called the choice of Johnson "disgraceful."

“I know they're saying it's not political. Of course it is. … If you would say it isn't, you'd have to be an artichoke.”
Ed O'Neill, Youngstown-native who played football for YSU

"I've got a doctorate from YSU, an honorary doctorate that I'm going to give back," he said. "I don't want it... I'm going to start calling it Trump-U. And I think a lot of people feel that way."

Johnson is closely aligned with former President Donald Trump and voted to overturn the 2020 election.

Major YSU donor Bruce Zoldan, the owner of Phantom Fireworks, who recently gave $5 million to the university to fund a new student center, is also calling on the university to rescind its hiring of Johnson. He said he plans to stop donating to the university if Johnson remains its president and ask for his name not to be used on the new student center building.

Zoldan took issue with what he called the university’s “secretive” hiring process, wherein the university declined to release the names of other candidates. He also said politicians should not be leading the university, regardless of political affiliation. He’s hosted fundraisers and donated to politicians on both sides of the aisle, he said.

Zoldan is also concerned about Johnson's qualifications.

“He has no background in operating anything, let alone leading an institution of faculty and students of diversified backgrounds, (where) he's going to come in as an election denier and come in to lead the university,” he said. “It's an insult to our valley and to the university itself.”

The Youngstown State University Foundation, the independent nonprofit that oversees the university’s fundraising, said in a statement this week that it’s hearing from other donors who are concerned about the decision. The Foundation said it was also concerned about the process.

“We would have preferred a more inclusive process that represented the University’s students, faculty, and staff, along with its donor base, supporters, and alumni,” the Foundation wrote in a Nov. 28 letter. “During the past few days many of these individuals have reached out to the YSU Foundation trustees to express their concerns and their reluctance to provide on-going support moving forward.”

Foundation Chair Ed Muransky has also stepped down from the Foundation due to dissatisfaction with the process, said Zoltan, a close friend of Muranski. The YSU Foundation declined to confirm or deny that assertion.

There are better ways for donors to express their concerns than pulling financial support, said YSU spokesperson Rebecca Rose.

“We are disappointed that these steps have been taken without first engaging in a conversation to discuss concerns,” she said. “Withdrawing contributions and pledges is not the way to affect change, these actions will be most impactful to the students.”

A Johnson spokesperson acknowledged a request for comment sent Thursday afternoon but did not respond by this story’s deadline.

During a press conference in late November, Johnson said he would leave his career as a politician behind him and echoed past assertions about higher education institutions being biased toward liberal ideology.

"We're an education institution," he said. "Everybody here will have a voice. We want a diversity of voices. We want students to be educated, not indoctrinated. That's going to bring families back. That's going to bring parents back. That's going to bring students back."

The YSU Board of Trustees defended the hiring process used to select Johnson during that same press conference. The board interviewed candidates behind closed doors and did not reveal candidate names because they did not want to scare off potential high-quality candidates with a public process that could cause them to lose their current jobs if their employers realized they'd applied, said Trustee Anita Hackstedde.

O'Neill argued the entire YSU Board of Trustees, minus Trustee Molly Seal, who voted against hiring Johnson, should be "fired" for conducting the hiring process in secret and alleged they were politically motivated.

"They should find the right person for the job in a real vetting process where the teachers and the faculty and the students and the people find someone that they can agree on, or certainly not disagree (with) to this extent," he said.

Officials have said Johnson has agreed to start in March and will resign as a congressman sometime early next year.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.