U of Wisconsin system picks attorney with no higher ed background as president

Dive Brief:

  • The chief executive of a Wisconsin-based law firm will take over as president of the University of Wisconsin System beginning June 1, its regent board announced Friday
  • Attorney Jay Rothman, chair and CEO of the Milwaukee law firm Foley & Lardner, will helm one of the most prominent public higher education networks in the U.S. despite not having any experience in postsecondary administration. 
  • Rothman beat out the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the other finalist for the position, matching the trend of some institutions seeking to recruit leaders from outside academe.

Dive Insight:

Jay Rothman, incoming president of the University of Wisconsin System.

University of Wisconsin System


Rothman’s selection signals that the board of regents considers a business-savy attorney with no higher ed background to be the correct pick to steer the 160,000-plus-student system through a tumultuous period.

The system’s enrollment fell in the last two years or so, particularly among its two-year colleges. It faces other problems, including the pandemic and tensions between system officials and the legislature.

Governing boards nationwide have sometimes turned to presidents from nontraditional backgrounds to provide fresh solutions to perennial challenges — thinking a corporate-minded individual might be better positioned to correct financial woes, for instance. An American Council on Education review of college presidents found that in 2016, about 15% came from outside higher ed.  

However, these types of presidents haven’t always succeeded in their roles, sometimes stumbling with colleges’ shared governance model. 

Simon Newman, former president of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland, was a longtime businessman hired in 2015 to help the small Catholic institution set a stronger financial course. 

But his corporate attitude grated on faculty and students at the university. In 2016 he resigned following caustic comments in which he likened low-performing, first-year students to bunnies that should be shot and drowned. He’d also fired two faculty members who were critical of him, one of whom had tenure.

The Wisconsin system regent board cast Rothman as having deep knowledge of the problems plaguing it. Rothman has a Harvard Law School degree and guides the Foley law firm’s strategic planning as its CEO. He is also a practicing lawyer, specializing in such topics as mergers and acquisitions, capital markets and corporate governance. He will earn $550,000 a year. 

“He has the leadership and executive management skills our university system needs,” Karen Walsh, the regent board’s vice president, said in a statement. “He understands organizations. He builds consensus. He believes in the profound value of higher education.”

This closes a long-running and sometimes fraught presidential search.

After former system President Ray Cross announced his departure in 2019, the regents in 2020 named Jim Johnsen, then president of the University of Alaska System, as the sole finalist for the job. 

But Johnsen, citing “process issues,” abruptly withdrew from the search right before the Wisconsin system was due to make him a formal offer. 

Johnsen had endured significant criticism from students and faculty within the system. They questioned his record in Alaska, where he was the subject of two no-confidence votes over shared governance concerns. 

Johnsen, who resigned from the Alaska system in 2020, had decades in higher education administration, similar to the UW-Eau Claire chancellor, the regents’ other top pick for the job. 

Critics have also felt the search was far too opaque. 

“No public interview. Never worked in higher ed. Announced on a Friday afternoon,” Nicholas Fleisher, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee and president of the American Association of University Professors’ Wisconsin conference, posted to Twitter that day. 

“Not a good look for the Regents,” Fleisher wrote, adding that “we have to reserve judgment on Rothman.”

The system’s interim president, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, will step down effective March 18. Mike Falbo, a former president of the regents, will serve in the position until Rothman begins in June.

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