Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents selected Jay O. Rothman as its next UW System President by unanimous vote in a closed-door meeting.
Rothman, a white man, will officially take over for current UW System Interim President Michael Falbo on June 1. The role was previously occupied by Tommy Thompson, who served as UW System President from July 2020 to March 2022.
Rothman is only the second system president to have no prior experience working in higher education. The only other president with no prior higher education experience, Thompson, served four terms as Wisconsin’s governor.
All of Rothman’s predecessors dating back to the origin of the system president position, including Falbo and Thompson, are white. Only one, Katharine C. Lyall, was a woman.
Still, Vice President Karen Walsh asserted his experience is relevant to the position of system president, which she says is “a different kind of job” than a chancellor’s role.
“[It] really requires quite a deft administrative skill, and we felt that Mr. Rothman had that. He’s an adroit manager; he asks very good questions. He’s a very collaborative leader.”
Rothman’s leadership record is extensive. He has served as the chairman and CEO of Wisconsin law firm Foley & Lardner LLP since being elected in 2011, a position he achieved after 25 years of climbing through the company’s ranks.
Rothman previously said he was interested in becoming UW System President because his term as CEO and chair of Foley & Lardner was ending without opportunity for re-election. His goals as incoming leader are to listen to system employees and build relationships across the state.
“I intend to lead by listening first, so that the experience I have gained over my lifetime in Wisconsin can help us build a great UW System together,” Rothman said in a press release.
The UW System included four testimonials vouching for Rothman on their website, all of which were from Wisconsin CEOs. Each praised his leadership and collaboration skills.
“The UW System is getting a leader of high intellect, integrity and exceptional work ethic,” Children’s Wisconsin President and CEO Peggy Troy wrote in her testimony. “Jay understood that it’s truly about people — whether the families we serve, or the faculty, providers and staff who make up the organization.”
Chancellors have also expressed confidence in Rothman. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank called his business relationships and fresh perspectives a “tremendous asset,” and UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt, who Rothman beat out in the finalist stage, told The Daily Cardinal that Rothman will do a “fine job” and looks forward to working with him.
“He’ll be surrounded by people with academic backgrounds,” Walsh said. “He’s also making very good use of the chancellors, who he plans to keep close to him as we chart a course going forward for the system.”
Students, faculty concerned with Rothman’s selection
Students and faculty are more cautious about Rothman’s selection than administrators. Many have taken issue with his lack of higher education experience, including UW-Stevens Point Student Government Association President Will Scheder.
Scheder acknowledged Thompson’s tenure as UW System President indicates an outsider can find success in the role, but called Thompson a “unicorn” situation due to his previous political experience.
“Obviously, Jay has never been involved in higher education, so I think he’s gonna have a steep learning curve on how this system operates,” Scheder said.
Student and faculty leaders were also upset that finalists were not made available for public interview. Both Scheder and Michael Bernard-Donals, steering committee president of UW faculty organization PROFS, said the lack of public interviews was “disappointing.”
UW-Milwaukee professor Nick Fleisher went further, offering harsh critiques for the Board of Regents shortly after Rothman’s selection was announced.
“No public interview. Never worked in higher ed. Announced on a Friday afternoon. Not a good look for the Regents,” Fleisher tweeted. “I think we have to reserve judgment on Rothman until we get a chance to know more about him. The process at the end here has ensured that we know very little.”
Walsh and Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds III said there was no public interview for the finalists because of “extraordinary public input” throughout the process.
“We decided that a public question and answer usually devolves into, depending on the questions coming from the audience, kind of a ‘gotcha’ scenario,” Walsh said.
Walsh also added that a “wide range” of diverse voices were included throughout the finalist interview process, including “shared governance folks, students, regents and campus leaders.”
Scheder, who participated as one of two student representatives for finalist interviews, corroborated Walsh’s claim but added that Rothman’s past experiences lack transparency.
“I don’t know much about Rothman because he spent a lot of time in the private sector, so a lot of the way he might conduct himself as a leader is not really out there for the public to examine,” he said.
Rothman’s only public appearance prior to his selection came during a 24-minute media conference, where four media outlets were invited to ask the finalists two questions each. The outlets were required to submit their questions before finalists were announced, and both Rothman and Schmidt were given the same questions.
When asked about concrete steps during the media conference, Rothman responded, “... Do I have the answers now? No.”
Rothman has spent time traveling around the state since then. According to UW System Media Relations Director Mark Pitsch, Rothman has held meetings with multiple chancellors, Board of Regents members, and other campus leaders as part of his transition process.
At an April 7 Board of Regents meeting in Stevens Point, Rothman said was devoting “as much time as [he could] listening to people within the system, as well as people outside the system.” He claimed he heard “varied and diverse perspectives” about the challenges facing the UW System, but did not elaborate and gave no specific examples.
Current UW System Interim President Falbo also spoke to Rothman’s leadership ability at that meeting, expressing confidence in his “good friend” of 30 years. Falbo also served on the UW System Presidential Search Committee.
“Disappointment” in lack of diversity
The UW System faced transparency and diversity concerns with the last presidential selection process in 2020. The search committee for that process was half the size of previous ones and excluded faculty, staff and students.
The process also broke precedent by returning just one finalist, then-University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen.
“They basically said, ‘Here's your candidate, shut up and take it’,” Scheder recalled. “We weren’t consulted at all.”
Johnsen later dropped out due to “process issues” with the UW System.
Walsh said the Board of Regents learned from these criticisms and revised their approach to the most recent search process. 21 committee members were selected in July 2021, including two student regents and multiple faculty representatives.
“There was a representative from each campus, including community folks,” Walsh said. “That broad stroke was done deliberately so we could get good feedback and a range of options.”
According to an open records request of UW System data, the committee reviewed 44 applications. 23 of the applicants were white, 11 were people of color and 10 applicants did not report their race. Only seven applicants were women.
Despite a larger committee, the process returned two white, male finalists: Rothman and Schmidt.
Their selection was part of a larger trend among UW System Presidents, all of whom have been white. The most recent interim presidents and finalists have also been white men.
Scheder says the lack of diversity among UW System Presidential candidates was “disappointing” but matches his expectations for the UW System.
“They seemed like people [the UW] System would pick, I guess, which are people that are established, well connected, very experienced individuals,” Scheder said.
When asked about the lack of diversity, Walsh said that the committee could not guarantee any finalist would have a specific racial or gender identity.
“We went into this with a diverse pool of candidates, and the committee picked the top people,” Walsh explained. “We were looking for the best candidate and I think we got that.”
As for diversity within the search committee, Walsh believes the Board of Regents is capable of making the right choice.
“I think it’s up to us to decide the numbers and whether we can get good feedback from whatever number of faculty, staff, or students we have,” Walsh said.
A tough road ahead
When Rothman assumes his position as UW System President, he will be thrust into the middle of multiple issues, including declining enrollment at branch campuses, empty regents seats and a potential tuition increase for the 2022-23 school year.
Another situation facing Rothman is the Wisconsin Legislature, which proposed numerous bills earlier this year seeking to limit faculty and administrative reach at UW schools. The bills, if passed, would have altered UW ethnic studies requirements, banned select racial education topics and eliminated qualified immunity for campus administrators.
During the same hearing, UW-Madison Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Zumbrennan raised concerns about the Legislature’s efforts to intervene in UW curriculum.
“I myself routinely teach materials that a reasonable reader might conclude engage in race and sex stereotyping as defined by the proposed legislation,” Zumbrennan testified. “It might make me think twice about assigning texts by authors ranging from Malcolm X to Frederick Douglass to John C. Calhoun, texts that are in fact essential to understanding the American political tradition.”
Rothman will also have to make a decision on the UW System’s free speech survey. The survey was scheduled to begin earlier this month, but was postponed to Fall 2022 due to student and faculty concerns.
According to the Federal Elections Commission contribution database, Rothman has donated $105,500 to political candidates since 2008. He has donated to candidates from both major parties as well as non-partisan organizations, but the majority of his donations (over 80%) went to Republicans.
Rothman was unavailable for comment, but Walsh said Rothman is “quite non-partisan” from what she’s seen so far and was not concerned about political bias influencing his decisions as UW System President.
Will Scheder said he was optimistic about Rothman’s ability to be an “operator” that works well with the Legislature — but was anxious to see how he performs.
“With the current political climate of the state, it’s gonna be revealed rather quickly whether or not he has what it takes to be a good president.”
Tyler Katzenberger is the State News Editor at The Daily Cardinal. He has covered numerous protests and written state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.