A university made a MAGA congressman its president. Is it a sign of things to come in higher ed?

Congressman Bill Johnson accepts a contract to become president of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio (screengrab/WKBN)
Congressman Bill Johnson accepts a contract to become president of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio (screengrab/WKBN)

In the heart of downtown Youngstown, Ohio, inside a conference room where the Youngstown State University board of trustees hold their meetings, a chorus of angry boos rang out when it was decided the college's next president would be an election-denying MAGA congressman.

With little forewarning, YSU's trustees selected Congressman Bill Johnson — one of five Ohio Republican congressmen to back a bogus Texas lawsuit seeking to invalidate millions of legitimate votes in the 2020 election — as the university's new president.

Three of the board members — all appointed to their positions by Republican Governor Mike DeWine — contributed to Mr Johnson's congressional runs, according to the Youngstown Vindicator. Mr Johnson announced he would not seek re-election at the end of his term.

The only dissenting vote, YSU Trustee Molly Seals, said "I do not think the congressman is right for this job" in a statement.

Students, faculty, alumni, and community members were outraged to find out that Mr Johnson — who has no background in education of any kind — was offered the contract with only two hours notice and without any public input, according to local broadcaster WKBN.

Typically a public college maintains a confidential candidate search when looking for new administrators, but provides the public and university community the opportunity to review and question those potentials before a final decision is made.

Prominent alumni and community members have sought to distance themselves — and their investments — from the college in the wake of the announcement, often citing the seemingly rushed and secretive search process as the core of their criticism.

Bruce Zoldan, the CEO of Phantom Fireworks, which has locations across the nation, announced he may remove his name from a new YSU building after his family donated $5m to the school for its construction.

“I’ve been a major contributor to Youngstown State University in the past,” Mr Zoldan said, according to The Business Journal. “I’m not sure what direction I’m taking going forward.”

He likened the process to a “slap in the face” to those who loved the university.

Ed O'Neill, who portrayed Al Bundy on Married with Children and later stalwart patriarch Jay Pritchett on Modern Family, is also among the YSU alumni angered by the university's decision. He recently announced his plans to return his honorary doctorate.

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

Ed O’Neill attends the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on Location at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Getty Images for IMDb)
Ed O’Neill attends the IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on Location at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Getty Images for IMDb)

Even the university’s independent funding arm, The YSU Foundation, aired its concerns after the congressman’s selection.

“While the YSU Foundation will always be the support organization for student scholarships and other educational enhancements, the YSU Foundation believes that it is our responsibility, in the best interests of the University and community, to raise our concerns with the recent presidential search process and its effect upon the YSU Foundation’s exercise of its mission,” it said in a statement.

The foundation’s chairman has resigned in the wake of YSU’s decision to select the congressman.

Mr Johnson has previously harped on "cancel culture" and "indoctrination" on college campuses. When discussing federal student loan forgiveness, he asked if "these colleges and universities — who are charging an ever-rising, astronomical tuition with huge administrative overhead and salaries, who are advancing this cancel culture philosophy in their liberal halls, and with what appears to be a low return on student investment — bear some responsibility too?"

When asked to clarify his comments after he accepted the position, he said students “want to know they’re going to be educated, not indoctrinated. That’s what I stand for. We’re an education institution. Everybody here will have a voice,” according to the Youngstown Vindicator.

The Independent has reached out for comment.

Despite his political views — which include opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion rights for women, calling the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot a “sham”, support for Mr Trump’s Muslim ban, and the aforementioned election denial — Mr Johnson insists his ideology will not colour his role as president.

“I am committed to an inclusive and respectful environment at the university,” he said, according to the Youngstown Vindicator. “Regardless of political, religious or personal affiliations, my focus will be on fostering open dialogue, understanding diverse perspectives and contributing positively to the well-being of every student.”

Alumni fighting his ascension are sceptical.

They don't see Mr Johnson’s selection as just a way to secure the outgoing congressman a hefty $410,000 base salary — for someone who previously complained that college was too expensive — but as indicative of a potential broader strategy by Republicans to force their views on higher education.

Ashley Orr, a 2016 YSU alumnus and the school's only Rhodes Scholar, told The Independent that the move was an example of "early encroachments of conservative politics into higher education" that "runs the risk of becoming an example or case study for how these selections can happen in other places", citing states like Florida and Texas, where legislative clamp-downs on primary and higher learning have been frequent in recent years.

The Republican-led legislature in Ohio has been pushing to outlaw mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training for employees at higher education institutions in the state. Another bill, HB327, has been tied up in committees since 2021 but would prohibit the vaguely worded "teaching of divisive topics" on Ohio campuses.

While alumni opposed to Mr Johnson — like Ms Orr and 2017 alumnus and current Yale Law School resident fellow Jacob Schriner-Briggs — object to the college president holding views they argue would undermine the ability of YSU to maintain a safe environment for its diverse student body, their focus is on pointing out the flawed selection process that landed the congressman the position in the first place.

They and three other alumni have circulated a letter that has amassed 2,600 signatures from previous YSU grads expressing their opposition to the selection process. The school’s Student Government Association and faculty union have issued similar concerns, and its faculty-run Academic Senate is considering a vote of no confidence in the board.

YSU campus (YSU)
YSU campus (YSU)

YSU Trustee Anita Hackstedde defended the selection process, arguing that confidential selections produced the best results and that the board was “very careful to comply with the open meetings act and the public records act,” according to the Youngstown Vindicator.

Michael Peterson, the board’s chairman, described Mr Johnson as “a strong, innovative, servant leader who we believe will be well positioned to guide the university as we take charge of our future. … I am excited for the offer. I am excited for the future of YSU and for the future of our students”, the paper reports.

Mr Schriner-Briggs noted that public comment was prohibited at the 21 November meeting that solidified the board's selection. The board said it would hold a session allowing public comment on 7 December — well after it selected its finalist, offered the position, and Mr Johnson accepted — which he described to The Independent as "fundamentally undemocratic."

Ms Orr shared the sentiment, calling the selection process "unforgivable", and argued that a divisive president was not an ideal candidate to lead a college struggling to attract and retain students.

"I don't want to get caught up in politics, but the process was unforgivable," she told The Independent. "The leader of YSU needs to be someone who can create a culture of inclusion on campus because it will lead to better student outcomes, better enrollment, and better retention."

Graig Graziosi is a graduate of Youngstown State University