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YSU students, faculty, alumni protest Bill Johnson's first day as president

Youngstown State University students, faculty and alumni march across campus to protest the hiring of new university President Bill Johnson on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Youngstown State University students, faculty and alumni march across campus to protest the hiring of new university President Bill Johnson on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

New Youngstown State University President Bill Johnson's first day in office Monday was marked by protest, with 50 Youngstown state students, faculty and alumni joining a walkout, marching to the president's campus residence despite the cold weather.

Chanting "YSU, shame on you," the protesters expressed concern about Johnson's background as a Trump-aligned Republican politician (he retired as an Ohio U.S. representative Sunday), and how that will impact the direction of the university. Students and faculty also carried signs protesting cuts YSU had announced earlier in January - prior to Johnson's tenure - with the university saying it was removing several low-enrolled music, arts and geography programs, along with 13 faculty positions in those fields.

Protester Audrey Jobe, a senior majoring in music education, said Johnson is not worth his $410,000 base salary.

"How are we cutting programs and faculty? And yet we somehow manage to have the highest paid president YSU has ever seen, with three new hires that have not existed within the last 10 years," Jobe said.

The university said last week it's hired two of Johnson's former congressional staffers, Sarah Keeler and Maria Bova, to head up YSU's government affairs office, which had been out of operation for 10 years. The university also hired a new executive assistant for Johnson, which is not a new position, said Shannon Tirone, associate vice president for university relations.

She said the hires are needed because YSU was the only public university in Ohio without a staffed government affairs office. She was present at the protest with hot cocoa and donuts outside Tod Hall, at the protest’s starting point, with signs bearing a message from Johnson asking students to reach out to set up a meeting with him.

"It means that everyone loves Youngstown State University and they have a passion for this institution," Tirone said of the protest. "We need that. But we also need to be able to sit down, to have a united voice, to be able to have that conversation, too. And so hopefully individuals reach out to him. Hopefully meetings are set up."

Daniel Catello, a 2014 YSU alum, believes the university’s trustees were "politically motivated," in hiring Johnson.

"The motivations of the trustees and admin are extremely political, but our opposition is not," Catello said. "This fight is not red versus blue. We have seen valley leaders from all sides of the political spectrum speak out against these decisions."

He and other protesters took issue with the secretive process used to hire Johnson - where Johnson was the only candidate announced by the university - along with his lack of experience in higher education. Protesters also bore signs suggesting “dark money” was involved in Johnson’s hiring. Campaign finance records show three trustees had previously donated to Johnson’s campaigns. Catello also worried that more cuts will be on the way to "right-size" the institution under Johnson.

Alicia Prieto Langarica, a distinguished professor of math and statistics at YSU, said she was concerned about how Johnson's hiring will affect the university's treatment of students of color and LGBTQ+ students. Still, she said she was holding out hope that Johnson's promises to listen to students and to support the institution bear themselves out.

"I want to believe that he will work with faculty and staff to help create an atmosphere that allows all of our students to succeed," she said. "I want to believe that he will work with us to recruit more students from a wider geographical area."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.