Following a two-year search process, the wait is finally over! The Board of Regents has selected the eighth president to lead the University of Wisconsin System Schools, replacing former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson who held the interim position since 2020 while entertaining us with his antics and dangerous hobbies.
So who is our new system president?
The Board of Regents selected a “business-minded” attorney lacking previous experience in higher education administration in a closed-door meeting. Jay O. Rothman was unanimously selected over UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt.
Rothman has held an executive position as chairman and CEO of the Milwaukee law firm Foley & Lardner since 2011. Before his career in law, Rothman earned his bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and later his law degree from Harvard Law School.
In other words, Rothman has no experience, personally or professionally, with higher public education.
Perhaps Rothman expressed some revolutionary ideas throughout the interview process with the Board of Regents. Maybe his business and law experience give him an edge in solving problems faced by the university system — increasing diversity in schools, making school more affordable and securing more funding for public education from the state.
The problem is we don’t know his ideas — we don’t know anything about the process because the interviews were held behind closed doors without significant input from UW System faculty and staff, students or community members. There was no public forum.
Before Rothman was named for the position, he made a 24-minute media appearance where he answered eight questions that fell short of solving the above issues. Reporters inquired about “concrete steps,” on a number of issues.
At one point Rothman answered, “... Do I have the answers now? No.”
Perhaps as an ode to his lack of experience, Rothman has expressed a desire to lead by “listening first.” Maybe that’s true, and hopefully, we can see that play out.
We, as The Daily Cardinal Editorial Board, deem it imperative to the success of not only UW-Madison, but all of the UW System Schools, that the student voice be put at the forefront of any decisions made by this new Rothman administration.
If Rothman is to keep his promise, he must ensure that students are involved and consulted within administrative decisions affecting us. Because of Rothman’s lack of experience with higher public education, it is even more critical that students are heard since Rothman himself has not experienced the student perspective of his position.
Let’s face it. He didn’t even go here, or any other UW System school.
This sentiment further applies to the search for a new chancellor here at UW-Madison following Chancellor Blank’s departure. Some of those steps have already been taken, as there are a number of students and community representatives on the search committee.
This committee has already shown more transparency than the search for the new system president. Two sessions for student input are planned by the committee, the first on Thursday, Jan. 27, from 1-2 p.m., with the second set for Monday, Jan. 31, from 1-2 p.m. In-person listening sessions will be held at the Marquee Room in Union South, or can be joined online.
For those of us readying to attend these sessions, or for the rest of us quietly wondering what qualities our next leader should have, we can look to the president search as a signal for what may come — and how hard students and faculty may have to push to see a chancellor chosen who reflects our needs and values.
If what we hope for is an individual with a background in higher education, we may have to hold our breath. Institutions across the country are taking part in a broader trend of boards looking to people with non-academic backgrounds to lead systems and even run colleges. A 2018 study by Virginia Commonwealth University found that 40.5% of university presidents had never held a tenured or tenure-track-eligible position in academia. If we’re interested in diversity, we may also be in trouble. Of the 44 applications for the presidential search, just seven were women. Only 11 identified as a person of color.
Regardless of what is to come, the UW-Madison campus community — and the UW System at large — deserves better than a closed-door decision.