Van Hise Hall, where UW System administration is housed.
The UW Board of Regents will choose between a Milwaukee law firm leader and one of its own chancellors to be the next president of the University of Wisconsin System.
Jay Rothman, chair and CEO of Foley & Lardner, and UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt were announced Friday as the finalists for the job leading the state’s public university system, its more than 160,000 students, 39,000 employees, 26 campuses and $6.6 billion budget.
Rothman and Schmidt offer two very different backgrounds. One has spent his career in the private sector, while the other has worked almost exclusively in higher education administration.
The next System president will face an avalanche of competing pressures from lawmakers, faculty and staff, students, community members and Regents. State funding for higher education continues to decline, the COVID-19 pandemic marches on, and a growing share of the public questions the value and affordability of a college degree. Many campuses are grappling with enrollment decline and the Republican-controlled Legislature isn’t shy in sending demands about how it believes campuses should be run.
The finalists named Friday emerged from a search that yielded 44 applications, according to System data provided in response to a public records request. More than three-quarters of the applicants were men. Just seven were women. Ten of the 44 applicants did not report their race while 23 identified as white and 11 identified as a person of color.
This is the System’s second try in hiring a permanent successor to Ray Cross, who led the System from 2014 through the first half of 2020. The Regents’ previous search failed when the sole finalist, University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen, withdrew his name from consideration because of “process issues” that many attribute to the absence of faculty and staff serving on the search committee.
Former four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, 80, has been serving as interim president though he recently announced he will resign March 18.
The finalists will interview Tuesday with a Regent committee and some others, including chancellors and System executive leaders. Because of the “extraordinary” public input in the process, with more than 30 listening sessions held, there will be no public session with the finalists.
The board expects to vote on the new president by the end of the month.
Rothman, 62, has worked in the private sector for decades. He joined Foley & Lardner in 1986, became a partner in 1994 and has served as chair and CEO since 2011. The international firm employs more than 1,100 attorneys and 1,000 staff.
Rothman has lived in Wisconsin his entire life, except for the few years he attended Harvard Law School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University.
Rothman, in a Friday interview with reporters, touted his connections to the state’s business community and fundraising experience while serving on the board for Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. He said his skill set in overseeing information technology, talent recruitment, legal affairs, finance and other aspects of the firm would translate well in leading the System.
The System invited the Wisconsin State Journal and other news outlets to submit questions in advance of sharing the names of the finalists. The media’s questions were not shared with the candidates, System officials said, and candidates were largely asked the same questions to ensure impartiality.
Rothman described a non-hierarchical structure to his firm, which depends on the entrepreneurial skills of its partners.
“I suspect the same is very much true of leading the System, that you think about shared governance, and that’s an important component of the System as I understand it,” he said. “I have functioned in that environment.”
Whether to increase tuition, and by how much, will be one of the next president’s biggest recommendations to the Regents. The Legislature froze rates for in-state undergraduates in 2013 and just lifted the freeze last summer, though Thompson and the board decided against an increase this school year.
Rothman suggested looking at who has the means to pay for tuition but also said he would need to look at it with the System’s finance team.
Asked how he would navigate the Legislature’s sometimes hostile relationship with the System, he said he would meet lawmakers in their districts, continually share the System’s value with the public and foster relationships based on trust, transparency and honesty.
Federal campaign finance records show Rothman has donated to politicians from both political parties. State campaign finance records show about $77,350 in donations mostly to Republicans but also to some Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers.
Rothman’s term as chair at Foley is coming to a close, and he said he is ineligible for reelection. He said it was an “opportune time” to think about his next chapter.
“I have a passion for this state,” he said. “This is home for me. I want to see Wisconsin flourish.”
Hiring Schmidt as president would continue a trend of turning to internal candidates with academic backgrounds. The last two presidents, Cross and Kevin Reilly, led UW Colleges and Extension before their promotions.
Schmidt, 57, took over as chancellor of UW-Eau Claire in 2013. The school enrolls about 10,000 students and employs about 1,300 staff. He spent the first half of his career in various administrative positions at Minnesota institutions, including a technical college.
Nearly 40 years ago, Schmidt said he stood on the steps of the Minnesota state Capitol protesting a plan that would shift college costs from the state onto students. In his four years as an undergraduate at Winona State, he said tuition increased 146%.
Students deserve an affordable education and, Schmidt said, he did not support massive tuition increases, but keeping in-state, undergraduate tuition frozen is “unsustainable.”
“Access without quality is no bargain,” he told reporters.
Finding a funding solution is the “biggest conversation” Schmidt said he would need to have with the Legislature, governor and Regents.
If hired, Schmidt also plans to “barnstorm” the state to meet with civic and business leaders in his first 100 days, in a move similar to his pledge of meeting 50 CEOs in the Chippewa Valley region in his first 50 days at UW-Eau Claire.
Schmidt, who has an MBA from the University of St. Thomas and a Ph.D. in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota, emphasized giving campuses more decision-making power, such as when to cut programs. He was one of the only chancellors to publicly push back against Cross’s 2020 “blueprint” plan to cut some programs that are available at many campuses.
“The problem with the blueprint: it was top-down,” he said. “It’s interesting, I’m seeking to be UW president and one of the main things I want to accomplish is re-empowering the campuses to make these decisions.”
The approach maybe wouldn’t make sense decades ago when Wisconsin covered 90% of campuses’ costs, he said, but now, when the state kicks in between 10% and 20% of an institution’s budget, schools need more flexibility to focus on leveraging partnerships with local employers.
Still, Schmidt recognized campuses need accountability. And he’s accustomed to the reality of painful budget cuts, pointing to a voluntary separation incentive program he started, the first within the System that other campuses adopted in response to a $250 million budget cut. The move ended up eliminating 15% of the full-time positions on his campus.
“I know the UW System,” he said. “I have strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. … I think I can hit the ground running.”
Regents President Edmund Manydeeds, who leads the committee that will interview both Rothman and Schmidt, said in a statement that either “would be an outstanding leader for our university system.”
Jennifer Mallon guides eight dogs along a walkway adjacent to Warner Park during an outing with the pets of clients of the Ruff Trails canine hiking and training enterprise in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Along for the outing are Penny, Bo, Greta, Coconut, Torks, Baxter, Toby and Rishi. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Genevieve Faucher kisses her son, Atlas, 5, who was diagnosed with Pompe disease, a rare disorder, at the age of four months, at their home in Oshkosh, Wis., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Wisconsin has approved adding Pompe to its newborn screening program but hasn’t started testing for the condition yet. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
A group of friends sing and play following the Eid Al-Fitr prayer held at Olin Park in Madison, Wis., Thursday, May 13, 2021. Eid Al-Fitr is a Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Jase Frost-Ohlsen, 12, uses a rope swing he made with his brother to dangle over the Yahara River in Madison, Wis., Monday, May 3, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Artist Angele Nyberg assembles elements of her environmental art installation, “To Hold You,” at James Madison Park in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. The piece was commissioned through the Madison Arts Commission’s BLINK program and will offer visitors to the opening the opportunity to weave reclaimed, naturally dyed strips of fabric into the upright hammock wall. An interactive work, the assemblage tilts back slightly, allowing participants to lean into the weaving while gazing along the shores of Lake Mendota. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Peyton Hein, left, a senior at Waunakee High School, and Jacky Duarte, a senior at Sun Prairie High School, watch Sun Prairie’s season-opening spring football game against Verona from a parking lot outside the new Bank of Sun Prairie Stadium at Ashley Field in Sun Prairie, Wis., Friday, March 26, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Visitors to Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ GLEAM nighttime art exhibit explore “Tesseract,” a light and sound installation by Madison, Wis. artists Brett Adams and Bo Raasch Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. The annual event features large scale light installations created by local, regional, and international designers displayed throughout the gardens’ 16 acres. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
As hot, humid weather settles into the region, Ilona Steigerzat, 14, generates their own breeze during a swing at Yahara Place Park Madison, Wis., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Members of DanzTrad, including Yuriza Leonperalta, at right, perform traditional Mexican dance during the Shifting Gears Bike Path Dance Festival at Olin Park in Madison, Wis., Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Storybook Ballet founder Meredith Mast makes adjustments to the form and posture of the ballerinas during class in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Two-year-old triplets, from left, Aiya, Blaire and Charlotte Cahoon, from Madison, feast on strawberries as their mom, Autumn, grandma, Julie Stough, of Seattle, at left, and sister, Grace, 4, fill the basket with their pickings during a visit to Carandale Fruit Farm in Oregon, Wis., Wednesday, June 16, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Francesca Hong kisses her son George Morris goodbye on his first day of kindergarten at Lapham Elementary School in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Jen Korz, executive director at Heartland Farm Sanctuary, tries to get the attention of Maxwell, a Yorkshire pig, on the farm in Verona, Wis., Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Brothers Tom and Mike Duerst harvest corn on their farm off of Schaller Road in Verona, Wis., Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The United States Department of Agriculture reports harvest of corn for grain across the state is 61 percent complete, which is 10 days ahead of the 5-year average. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Kari Oates, right, and her husband Donald walk through what was the entryway of their home before an F-3 tornado swept through Boscobel, Wis., Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Amber Dolphin reads a book to her daughters, Ivy Moechnig, 1, and Maya Moechnig, 5 (not pictured), in the children’s section of the newly reopened Pinney Library in Madison, Wis., Monday, May 24, 2021. Madison’s libraries reopened Monday after being closed to in-person visits for 15 months. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Members of UW-Madison’s Class of 2021 revel in the chance to do one last “jump around” during the 2021 Spring Commencement at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Saturday, May 8, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Jill Uhe attends a Memorial Day service with her children, Brianna, 8, and Benny, 11, at right, at the Wells – Davis – Young – Neal American Legion Post 209 Memorial Park in Orfordville, Wis., Monday, May 31, 2021. Many residents of the small village remembered Cpl. Benjamin Neal, a 21-year-old Orfordville resident who died in Afghanistan in 2012 when he was 21. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Madison firefighter Bree Bower, left, shows Sienna Tadych, 8, of Madison, how to work a fire hose for CampHERO, a partnership between Madison Area Technical College and Wisconsin Badgerland Girl Scouts to give girls in kindergarten through high school hands-on experience in protective services at the college’s Protective Services Building in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 30, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Nurse Teeney Beidel, center, puts on personal protective equipment to assist a team of nurses rotating a patient on a ventilator at the Aspirus Medford Hospital in Medford, Wis., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Numbered swatches of fabric, each representing a death from COVID-19 in the state, hang as part of a memorial display at Trinity Methodist Church in Madison, Wis. Thursday, March 4, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Friends of three senior high school students killed in a vehicle crash grieve at the site along Mineral Point Road in Veronal, Wis., Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. The students, Simon Bilessi, 17, Evan Kratochwill, 18, and Jack Miller, 17, were killed when their vehicle was struck from behind by a motorist who is facing charges of multiple counts of homicide in the incident. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
UW-Madison sophomore and Army ROTC cadet Sydney Bobolz plants an American flag on the lawn of Bascom Hill as part of a Veterans Day program held by the Wisconsin Union and University Veteran Services in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Oregon and Sun Prairie line up to sing the national anthem under a rainbow at the Bank of Sun Prairie Stadium at Ashley Field in Sun Prairie, Wis., Thursday, May 6, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Confetti falls from the ceiling as Wisconsin players celebrate after defeating Nebraska to clinch share of the Big Ten volleyball title at the UW Field House in Madison, Wis., Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Fans of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate during the fourth quarter in the “Deer District” outside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The team earned a 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns to win their first NBA Championship title since 1971. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Milwaukee Bucks Grand Dancer Juju Gramms hands out “Fear the Deer” towels to fans gathered at the Deer District in Milwaukee, Wis., Wednesday, July 14, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Waunakee’s Sarah Bova, left, and Chloe Larsen, right cross the finish line of the girls 400 meter dash as the event’s winner, Brooklyn Sandvig of Chippewa Falls falls to a first place finish in the event during the WIAA Division 1 state track and field championships at UW-La Crosse in La Crosse, Wis., Saturday, June 26, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Lions running back D’Andre Swift (32) jumps over Packers cornerback Kevin King (20) during the second half at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Wisconsin Badgers running back Jalen Berger (8) is brought down by Eastern Michigan Eagles defensive back T.J. Peavy (8) and Eastern Michigan Eagles defensive back Mark Lee Jr. (17) during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Wisconsin forward Maddi Wheeler (28) celebrates her goal with teammate defenseman Grace Bowlby (13) and defenseman Mayson Toft (14), at left, in the second period of a women’s hockey game against St. Cloud St. at LaBahn Arena in Madison, Wis., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
New Glarus-Monticello’s Darris Schuett (13) is tackled by Belleville’s J Jay Wenger (3) and Tyler Fahey (5) during the first half of a game between the teams at New Glarus High School in New Glarus, Wis. Friday, May 7, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
DeForest’s Jocelyn Pickhardt hugs teammate, Alexys Scheuerell, front, after crossing the finish line and qualifying for state in the girls 800 meter relay during the WIAA Division 1 track and field sectional at Mansfield Stadium in Madison, Wis., Thursday, June 17, 2021. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Waunakee’s Max Brud celebrates with his coach, Betsy Zadra, after holing a 98-yard shot for an eagle on the 13th hole of the WIAA Division 1 state golf championship in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Tuesday, June 15, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Snow and frost hold to the branches of trees along University Bay Drive on the campus of UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
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Kelly Meyerhofer covers higher education for the Wisconsin State Journal. She can be reached at 608-252-6106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The committee announced Friday includes five regents, three chancellors, three professors, two provosts, three staff, one university foundation officer and two former regents.
Faculty, graduate assistants and staff make up 96% of the UW System’s workforce, but none of them have a seat on the System’s presidential search committee.
Van Hise Hall, where UW System administration is housed.
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