UW System president search leader defends advancing single finalist

MADISON — The leader of the committee tasked with identifying candidates for the University of Wisconsin System president opening defended the panel's decision Thursday to advance University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen as the only finalist after all other contenders withdrew from the running.

Regent Michael Grebe, chairman of the presidential search committee, told the full Board of Regents during a meeting that the panel had identified a pool of finalists but the candidates withdrew themselves from consideration because they feared if they were identified as finalists they would compromise their ability to fight the coronavirus in their current positions. He did not elaborate.

Johnsen was the only member of the finalist pool who didn't pull out, Grebe said, adding that Johnsen was the committee's preferred finalist. The panel considered picking more finalists from its list of semi-finalists but decided that would accomplish little beyond creating a perception that there were multiple finalists.

“Jim was the clear favorite at that point,” Grebe said.

Restarting the search would have added another six months to the process, Grebe said. The committee likely wouldn't develop as strong a pool of candidates the second time around and Johnsen might decide to drop out, he said.

He stressed that Johnsen must still undergo a day of interviews on Tuesday.

Michael Bernard-Donals, president of PROFS, a group of UW faculty that advocates for tenure, research support and competitive wages, said this week that it's troublesome the committee found only one finalist and that he thinks it should have restarted the search.

Regent Carolyn Stanford-Tayor, the state's K-12 public schools superintendent, told Grebe that she, too, was concerned about having only one finalist for the job but felt more assured after hearing his explanation. She noted that Johnsen will be vetted on Tuesday.

The UW System has been looking for someone to replace President Ray Cross since Cross announced in October he planned to step down once his successor has been found. Cross has been frustrated with Republican-authored budget cuts, eight years of a GOP-imposed freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition rates and decreasing state aid.