Search Committee Named To Find Next UW System President

UW Regent President Edmund Manydeeds Appoints 19 Members Including Students, Faculty, Staff And Regents

A street light shines as the sun sets on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Angela Major/WPR

University of Wisconsin Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds has named a 19-member search committee charged with selecting a new UW System president. The announcement comes just more than a year after a previous search failed, with the sole finalist withdrawing his candidacy citing “process issues.”

The naming of the search committee kicks off what is expected to be a 10- to 12- month process to find a new leader to replace interim President Tommy Thompson, who has held the job since July 1, 2020.

The committee is more than twice the size of the previous presidential search committee, which drew anger and multiple resolutions from campus employee and student government groups because it didn’t include faculty, staff or non-regent students.

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Regent Vice President Karen Walsh will chair the search committee, which includes four other board members, two former regents, three chancellors, two provosts and a campus vice chancellor along with professors and staff members from multiple UW campuses.

Walsh said the search committee members come from “all different walks of life and duties across the system and all share a passion for higher education.” She said the search committee makeup is similar to the ones used to hire former UW System Presidents Kevin Riley and Ray Cross.

“What we have is a 19-member search committee who will work through the first pool of applicants, interview approximately 10 to 14 people, and then forward a list of finalists to the special regent committee,” said Walsh.

Walsh said that committee will be made up of around six regents and will be announced this fall.

“And that’s the committee that will narrow down that group and bring a candidate or two to the state to meet folks, to give a presentation,” she said. “And then the board will choose the final candidate from that group.”

On June 2, 2020, the UW System announced former University of Alaska System President Jim Johnson would be the only finalist for the top UW leadership job. The statement said, “Several candidates removed their names from consideration near the end of the process, with some expressing concern over being named publicly as a finalist during the pandemic.”

Emails obtained by WPR through a state open records request showed that two people told a consultant hired to recruit candidates that they could only participate in the search if “naming one finalist is a viable option.”

Former Regent Vice President Michael Grebe, who chaired the 2020 president search, said the committee never promised any candidate they could be a sole finalist. He said the committee was prepared to announce three finalists, but one pulled out at the end of the process due to personal reasons and the other didn’t feel comfortable being named as anything other than the sole finalist.

Walsh said she expects to have a strong pool of candidates willing to take the helm of the UW System and she hopes there will be multiple finalists who will make for a “hard decision” for the full board.

“We can’t guarantee that there is going to be more than one,” Walsh said. “I think the committee last year wanted there to be more than one as well. And factors got in the way and they didn’t end up having that. I’d like this committee to have as much flexibility as possible, determined by the quality of candidates that we get.”

There were many challenges faced by the previous UW president search committee, said Walsh, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit just as candidate interviews were getting underway. She said that was a disadvantage because candidates could only meet with regents and campus stakeholder groups virtually.

“I think having a broader search committee, being able to do those meetings in person, to bring finalists here to Wisconsin, all of that, I think gives us a distinct advantage this time around,” said Walsh.

In the wake of the failed 2020 search, Walsh said the system was lucky to have Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin, step into the role on an interim basis last summer. She said it was a “very dark time” with the failed search and unknowns brought by the pandemic, but Thompson showed that the UW is capable of working through difficult situations with a strong leader.

“So, I think the best way we can honor Tommy’s service to the system is to hire someone who is going to carry on where he left off,” said Walsh.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.