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New YSU President Bill Johnson talks challenges, goals and keeping politics out of classrooms

Youngstown State University President Bill Johnson looks out over campus from his office at Tod Hall. Johnson sat down for an interview with Ideastream Public Media in early April to discuss his appointment, his goals for the university and challenges facing higher education.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Youngstown State University President Bill Johnson looks out over campus from his office at Tod Hall. Johnson sat down for an interview with Ideastream Public Media in early April to discuss his appointment, his goals for the university and challenges facing higher education.

Across the country, colleges and universities are facing financial challenges, and Northeast Ohio is no exception. Former Ohio Congressman Bill Johnson is new to the scene as Youngtown State University’s president, but he represented the Mahoning Valley for more than a decade before taking the helm in January.

Johnson spoke about his goals for the university in early April, in a conversation ranging from the university's troubles with enrollment to how the community has responded to his hiring after a career as a Republican politician who frequently voted in line with former U.S. President Donald Trump. Our questions are in bold. His responses have been edited lightly for time and clarity.

Institutions of higher education find themselves at a very challenging juncture right now. Enrollment across the country and at YSU has been declining for more than a decade. The pandemic didn't help, of course. YSU announced in January that it would be sunsetting five low enrolled programs and offering buyouts for 13 faculty. Where do you see the university's financial position now, and would people expect more budget cuts on the way?

Well, these were not budget cuts. Let me make certain that's clear. These were not budget cuts. These were academic realignments as a result of three years of evaluation and analysis of data that we have to provide both to the state and the federal government.

But look, in addition to this being a university where we provide education, it's also a business. It is a public school, which means we have stakeholders, shareholders, if you will, taxpayers of this state that expect us to operate in a fiscally, financially sound manner. And you see this kind of action... going on all over the United States.

I mean, look at what happened up at Notre Dame College, up near Cleveland. Look at what happened at Birmingham Southern College, down in Alabama, going under. I've read article after article after article about what presidents of universities should be concerned about. And the articles almost, every single one of them say there's one thing that presidents must be concerned about today, and that's the financial health of their institutions.

I'm proud to say that Youngstown State is in very, very solid financial health. When you look at our debt compared to our competing institutions in the region we [have] anywhere from two to six times less debt on our books.

When you look at the cost of tuition — and parents and lawmakers are looking at the value proposition — the cost of higher education versus the benefits of higher education and the return on that investment, our tuition costs are $2,000 less per year than our competitors. So we're doing something right.

I'm very proud of the team here at Youngstown State that has that at the forefront of their focus, that, yes, we are an institution of higher learning, but we have a responsibility to the shareholders, and that's the taxpayers of the state and the nation because a lot of financial aid comes here from the federal government in the form of Pell Grants. So we've got stakeholders that are outside of our state, even, that we are rightfully accountable to. So I'm very, very happy with the fiscal health here at Youngstown State right now.

So what's the plan to try to boost enrollment?

Well, enrollment's going down everywhere. As you pointed out, it's not just Youngstown State. You go look at the other institutions of higher learning here in Ohio, you'll see something very similar.

There's peaks and valleys, but the bottom line is this: We've got 10,000 Baby Boomers that are retiring every single day in America — going on the retirement rolls. That's 70,000 this week, 3.5 million this year. Over the next 20 plus years, we're going to put over 50 million Americans on the retirement rolls.

We have a tremendous workforce problem because of that because we don't have a birthrate to replace that aging, retiring workforce. We've got a shrinking pool of seniors, both public and private school, that are going away to college. When you combine that with homeschooling having increased by 50% since 2018, we don't even know where some of those students are. We have to dig for them. So you're exactly right.

You make a very valid point that enrollment is a challenge. But it's not just a challenge for Youngstown State University. It's a challenge for every institution of higher learning. But I can tell you what we're doing here. We're doing things to cast a wider net.

You know, how do we go find the students where they are? Look at military, for example. Military members that are on active duty — they want to pursue undergraduate degrees. Officers from the time they're second lieutenants until they come up for promotion to major if they don't have their master's degree by the time they compete in promotion boards, it diminishes their competitiveness for promotion.

So we've got a large group of, America's warfighters that are out there on the front lines and stationed who knows where protecting our freedoms. We need to be able to get to them, through online courses, and our graduate program online, by the way, is a growing population. Our graduate school is doing very, very well, as is our international program. But we need to be able to get to those military members.

Seamlessly integrating us with the school systems — college credit plus — getting seniors that are in our region that may not know that we are probably the most affordable four-year college program in our region for them.

And then again, you've got a lot of first-generation college students here in our region that, for whatever reason, dysfunctional family life, drug addiction, they're struggling at home, it's a problem for them to be able to imagine that they're even college material.

We are a restricted enrollment school, which means you've got to have a 17 on the Act and a 2.0 to be fully admitted to Youngstown State University.

What about those people, the Bill Johnsons of our region? Because I was like some of those folks. What about the ones that are close but not quite there? But it's of no fault of their own. It's not that they're not smart enough to handle the work. They've just never had the opportunity or the mentoring to be able to get there.

We're going after those students with a program that I call the Penguin Prep program, modeled similarly to what our military service academies do.

I spent 27 years in the United States Air Force, and I also nominated hundreds of students throughout the last decade and a half or so to military service academies. Oftentimes, not everybody is accepted to the academy, and sometimes they get an opportunity to go to that academy's prep school. So they go to that prep school for a year. They get college credit while they're there, but they get mentored and led and they get pulled across that confidence line to help them find the inner strength and believe that "Yeah, I can do this." And then they get into the academy.

I want to do something similar to that, to those borderline students here in our region. And so we're prototyping this program with our honors college, and we're going to the school system [to] help us identify those students, and get them here under the mentorship and the leadership of our honors college.

Let those students do some mentoring and leading and try and instill in these first-generation students who might not think they're ready, that they can actually do this work. So we've got a number of different enrollment ideas that we want to pursue.

And there is, of course, Eastern Gateway Community College. That's the community college with locations in Steubenville and Youngstown that looks to be on the path to close by the end of May after a number of issues arose. There are going to be some students that will be coming to YSU from there?

You bring up a good point, and that's going to kind of open a door to us for those first-generation students who don't have a 17 ACT and a 2.0 grade point average. You didn't have to have (that) to go to Eastern Gateway Community College. You simply applied, right? You didn't have to have minimum requirements, as I understand it. It was an open-enrollment school. So for credentialing, for workforce credentials, certifications and associate's degrees, we can bring people into those programs, and we're in the process of standing up programs to mirror what Eastern Gateway was doing, so that we can provide [a] seamless path of education options to students throughout our region, because we understand the challenges that Eastern Gateway has.

YSU is considering opening a Steubenville campus and replicating some of Eastern Gateway's programs. Tell me a little bit more about where that all stands now?

Our application was approved by the Higher Learning Commission to set up a second campus in Jefferson County. We're also going to be setting up a second campus here in the Youngstown area — don't know what facilities we're going to use just yet, that's all still in flux because those facilities are owned by somebody, right? So we've got to work through that.

Eastern Gateway has still got some decisions that it needs to make. The state has got some decisions that it needs to make. And Youngstown State is simply preparing to do the things necessary ultimately to provide those students with a seamless path to education options.

How many students have been enrolled so far from Eastern Gateway?

We've had 800-and-some applications, and the numbers are in the 200-plus for admissions. But we're getting on up there toward a thousand at this point of students that have inquired about coming here.

And YSU stands to benefit from that, to be clear?

Well, our enrollment is going to be going up, certainly. And that puts us in a good place. You know, if these students transition on into undergraduate programs, four-year programs and six-year programs with our master's degrees, and some of them are even going to go for their doctorate, certainly, it puts Youngstown State in a position to increase its enrollment. There's there's no question about that.

There was a protest on your first day in office. Some students and faculty and community members were upset about your past actions as a politician. You'd voted to object to the certification of the 2020 election. Folks were worried about your record on LGBTQ+ rights, and support for former President Trump's ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries. Have you tried to separate your career as a politician from your role as a president, and what are you saying to students who might be concerned about some of those past actions?

I was asked that question on the very first day that my selection was announced. I'm going to give you the same answer that I gave then.

I'm the 10th president of this university. I guarantee you that the nine presidents before me had political and ideological beliefs of their own. The difference between them and me is that I didn't have the luxury of putting mine in a box and hiding them on a shelf, or putting them under a bed because I'm an elected official — I was an elected official. Which meant that I had to vote my values.

I did that consistently, vote on my values and principles. But more importantly, I voted the majority opinion of the nearly 800,000 people that I represented. All you've got to do is go back and look at the seven elections and look at the election results. I won by four in 2010. I won by seven in 2012. I won by 19 points in 2014, then 46, then 50, 70 — growing continually.

As people got to know me in this region, they showed with their voice, which is the fundamental constitutional right of the American citizen. They showed with their vote that they appreciated my vote on their behalf. And that's how I gauged, "aAm I meeting the needs and concerns of the people that I represent?"

I didn't play politics for 27 years when I was in the Air Force. There's no more diverse subculture in the United States than our military. People come from all walks of life. They go from Los Angeles to New York, from Baton Rouge to Vermont. They come from all walks of life. Every race, every sex, every religion, every political and ideological position. But when you put on that uniform, you're one team. Here at YSU, we're one team. We're a family of penguins. I'll be operating the exact same way. Politics do not factor into my decision-making here, but I'm not going to tell you that my values are going to disappear because my values are the same today, and they're going to continue to be my values.

During that press conference, you said you stand for education of students, not indoctrination. What does that mean exactly?

What does an education institution today do? I mean, and a reporter asked me that question, and I reminded him, what was the first question that they asked me that day? How is the president going to leave his politics and ideology out of his decision-making role?

If it's fair to ask the president of a university to do that, and I think that's absolutely fair to ask, isn't it also fair to ask faculty to do the same thing? Teach them calculus. Teach them art. Teach them music. Teach them algebra. Teach them history. Teach them the core curriculum. Teach them the things that they need to know: how to think critically so that they can address the challenges of their day.

Because their challenges in this very dynamic world that we live in are going to be different from the challenges that you and I face in our lifetime. The world changes, right? So we need to teach them how to think, not teach them what to think. I think fair is fair. If you want the president to not play politics, everybody else ought to play the same way.

Do you think that other institutions of higher learning are, in fact indoctrinating students to a certain viewpoint? And is that a liberal viewpoint?

I think that's not my opinion. You're a journalist. You tell me. You do the research. I'm sure you do reading. You tell me, do the American people and do lawmakers, are they concerned about, the liberal bent of universities? Look at what happened at Harvard. Look at what happened at UPenn, right? So you tell me.

Moving on, what impact do you hope to have on YSU as an institution? Are there any other initiatives you'd like to talk more about?

This is a very special place. Long before I showed up on the radar as a potential candidate to be president of Youngstown State, I represented the region of the Mahoning Valley for 13 years, nearly a decade and a half.

I lived here and worked here and raised my family here for five years before that. My wife is from this region of the state. So I know the legacy of Youngstown State. I know that this is a special place. I have been in parking lots around the country and had people come up to me and say, "Hey, I recognize the 'Y.'" They say, "Are you from Youngstown?" And I say, yes. And they say, "I graduated there in 71. I graduated there in 82. I graduated there whenever, and what a great experience that was."

I want every student that comes here to have an unbelievable experience while they're here. I want them to come here committed to graduate when they start.

There is amazing faculty here. World-renowned faculty here. I want students to engage with those faculty members and have a plan to graduate and earn their degree while they're here.

I want them to also have a vision of what they want to do after they graduate. Part of our workforce education innovation program is to connect them with businesses and industry so that they can experience what they might be doing when they leave here. I wanted to defy the statistics that say that, not as many as we want, college graduates are actually working in the fields that they got an education in because it's a tough environment out there.

I want our students here at Youngstown State to have an opportunity to begin to build that career path before they ever leave here. Internships and work-study programs and those kinds of things. So, more seamlessly integrating the university with our business and industry community is a really important part of my vision.

And finally, I don't want them to leave here with a bunch of debt. We get some of our funding from the state government. We get some of our funding from Pell Grants and federal financial aid, and we get a lot of our funding, the gap is filled up with the Youngstown State University Foundation, benevolent donors that donate money that become scholarships for students in particular areas.

And so we want our students to know that scholarships are available for them. They just need to talk to our financial aid folks. And let's make sure that we get them on the right path to minimize the amount of debt that they're going to take on.

Remember, I told you when you asked about fiscal health, we're in really good shape. But I want our students to leave here in good financial shape as well.

Does that mean that the university will be more conservative when seeking tuition increases?

We have no plans that I'm aware of. Nobody's even talked about tuition increases here.

Is there anything else that we missed in the conversation that you want people to know about yourself or about your time here or your future?

My main focus are the students on this campus. And, I don't care what your walk of life is, what your politics and ideology is, what your religion and beliefs are. If you're interested in making a good student experience for the students that put their trust and confidence in Youngstown State, I'll work with you.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.