By Molly Burke and Christopher Gillett
Youngstown State University students plan to walk out of classes at 10 a.m. on Jan. 22 outside of Tod Hall in protest of U.S. Rep. William “Bill” Johnson becoming YSU’s 10th president.
The board of trustees announced in an email Jan. 2 that Johnson would start his presidency Jan. 22. The board hired him in November through a confidential search process which has received backlash from the YSU community — including donors, retirees, past presidents and alumni.
The Walk-Out Against Johnson’s Presidency was organized by students Rose McClurkin, Aiden Holderfield, Chris Cremers, Jenna Knowles and Grace Persing. McClurkin passed out fliers for the walkout at a protest against recent program cuts held outside Tod Hall on Jan. 10.
The group of students introduced the idea at a meeting McClurkin hosted at the Wick Avenue public library of Youngstown & Mahoning County on Jan. 8. Community members attended to express concerns about Johnson as his first day approaches.
McClurkin said the meeting was held to generate concrete ideas about how to protect academic freedom and create demands to YSU’s administration.
“We want to see transparency from our administration — not just the board. We want to see safety for all of our diverse students on campus. We want to protect academic freedom. Basically, my gist of this meeting is that we can brainstorm some concrete ways that we can think about doing that,” McClurkin said. “We could maybe have some very impactful demands that we can collectively ask for as a leading part of the student population and our alumni.”
McClurkin said it’s important to make the demands because many people have grown apathetic to Johnson becoming president, which she believes the board wants.
“I think our board is banking on us being quiet, so I’d like to not be,” McClurkin said.
Holderfield created the flier for the walkout. He said it’s worth trying to let the administration know the students’ demands.
“There’s this sense that we can’t really do anything, like no matter what we do it’s not going to make a difference,” Holderfield said. “There is a chance that we can change this. Their actions aren’t pointless. This is something worth putting energy into.”
At the meeting, attendees also discussed contacting local organizations for support and promoting more information about Johnson on social media. Students suggested creating pins, painting the rock and posting fliers on campus to “make it visible that he isn’t welcome here.”
Meeting attendees also expressed concern over Ohio’s 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 “‘shall not seek to indoctrinate any social political or religious point of view.’”
The bill also “prohibits mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training,” and says, “Ohio universities can only enter into a new or renewed academic partnership with a Chinese academic institution if there are certain ‘safeguards’ in place.”
Several meeting members said they believe Senate Bill 83 and Johnson’s hiring are part of a larger Republican-backed effort to negatively influence the higher education system.
Jason Long, a graduate student in the history masters program, said he is worried YSU is a test case for Ohio universities.
“With some of the concerns with academic freedom around the state, it seems as though YSU is serving as a test case for the state of Ohio — a test case for how much politicization they can do to our state universities and to see if they can replicate it on other campuses,” Long said. “My fear is that YSU will be the first domino to fall.”
Michael Kripchak, who is running as a Democrat for Bill Johnson’s congressional seat, was at the meeting. Kripchak said he was worried about the future of education in the country.
“It’s hard not see a pattern that’s been happening with slowly delegitimizing education, saying that ‘It’s unimportant,’ saying that ‘politics need to come into it,’ and ‘we need to control what free thought is,’ because free thought is scary to those who are trying to control you,” Kripchak said.