Sitting down with Johnson

Johnson in the Office of the President. Photo by Molly Burke / The Jambar

By Molly Burke and Christopher Gillett

The Jambar sat down with Youngstown State University President William “Bill” Johnson to ask about his plans for the future of the university.

Johnson said his first priority is to get undergraduate student enrollment up. 

“We’ve got to cast a wider net because we’re fishing in a smaller pond with fewer fish,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go to where the students are, whether that’s increasing our online presence and online offering, finding where those homeschoolers are.”

To boost enrollment, Johnson will work with the YSU Foundation on fundraising. Johnson said he will build off the groundwork established by former president Jim Tressel. 

“Under Jim Tressel and the [YSU] Foundation, they raised — over seven years — a significant amount of money, and we’re just going to build on that. There’s about 131,000 YSU alumni around the world,” Johnson said. “Trying to cultivate that group of worldwide ambassadors, that’s part of the formula.” 

As one of his first initiatives, Johnson established the Government Affairs Office and hired two staff members — Special Assistant of Government Affairs Sarah Keeler and Associate Director of Government Affairs Maria Bova. 

While he was a U.S. congressman, Johnson was frequently visited by other universities to discuss government affairs but never worked with YSU. 

“Youngstown State is kind of behind the power curve, behind the eight ball, at the end of the food chain on policy issues that affect the university,” Johnson said. “If we don’t have something like [the Government Affairs Office], we’re always going to be in the slow lane to the right, and everybody else is going to be going around us.”

Johnson said the Government Affairs Office will allow YSU to work with legislatures on finance and funding issues. 

“One of my messages is going to be going back to Columbus to talk to our legislature and to talk to our administration there,” Johnson said. “When you’re only getting $10.5 million in capital budget every two years … and you’ve got $400 million worth of facilities, maintenance and operations stuff to do, that’s a self fulfilling prophecy.” 

According to Johnson, first lady LeeAnn Johnson will be involved with the YSU community. Johnson said she plans to work with the dental hygiene program.

“[LeeAnn is] a dental hygienist by trade, so she’s already spoken to the folks in the dental hygiene school to make sure that she can go over there to help out,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of students that start the dental hygiene program, but the attrition rate is pretty high. We’re looking at how we fix that.” 

In order to evaluate progress of his initiatives, Johnson said teamwork will be required. 

“It takes a team to support a university like this. So, working in collaboration with our administration leadership team, with the faculty, with the staff, finding out where our shortcomings are,” Johnson said. 

On Johnson’s first day as president, Jan. 22, several students protested outside of Tod Hall and Johnson’s university residence, the Pollock House. Johnson said he believes the protesters didn’t give him a chance.

“I’m saddened that they thought that they had to do that. My principles are fairly easy to define. I think you give somebody a chance,” Johnson said.

While he was saddened to see the protest, Johnson explained he recognizes all students have the right to free speech and said he will listen to those opposing him. 

“Everybody has a right to share their thoughts, to express their beliefs. That’s fundamental to the rights guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States — as long as it’s not violent, as long as it doesn’t distract and prohibit other students from forwarding their education,” Johnson said. “I’ll meet with anybody that wants to have a productive conversation about how to move YSU forward. I’m not here to fight.”

Johnson said those who are interested in meeting with him can contact the Office of the President.

Some of Johnson’s opponents have connected his appointment to Ohio Senate Bill 83. According to Ohio Capital Journal, if passed, Senate Bill 83 “would allow universities to fire tenured professors for a broad list of reasons,” and “prohibits mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training.”

Johnson said he was not asked about Senate Bill 83 during the hiring process and he’s unfamiliar with the bill’s contents.

“Nobody in the search process asked me anything about Senate Bill 83,” Johnson said. “I don’t know anything about Senate Bill 83. I don’t serve in the State House or the State Senate.”

An inauguration for Johnson has not yet been planned or scheduled.