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Bill Johnson Begins YSU Presidency with Impressive Credentials

Plain Dealer ignores response by senator refuting character assassination
By Jerry C. Cirino
February 9, 2024
On The Record

Editor’s note: We submitted Senator Cirino’s column to the Plain Dealer more than two weeks ago. Crickets.

Senate Bill 83 is intended to reform Ohio’s higher education system to make it the best in the nation. In the years of research and consultations I spent designing this legislation it became clear that top leaders are essential to the success of this endeavor. 

So I was puzzled to read the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Brent Larkin make such malicious accusations against the new president of Youngstown State University, a man of true character with a remarkable résumé.

By an eight-to-one vote in November, the YSU board of trustees voted to hire U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta as their next president. Larkin screamed bloody murder and insisted the governor intervene. Wisely, the governor did not, and Johnson took office on January 22.

It’s instructive, however, to consider Larkin’s objections. He has three complaints – two are outright false. The third is either ignorant or disingenuous: Johnson’s lack of professional “experience in education.” 

Did Larkin object when Janet Napolitano was given the top post at the University of California? Or when Erskine Bowles was hired to run the University of North Carolina? David Boren at the University of Oklahoma? None of these Democrats had “experience in education.” They are among hundreds of politicians who have run colleges or universities.

This “lack” of experience is actually an asset. We need a new wave of leaders from outside academia to fix our higher education system. Now more than ever, it is important to embrace leaders not indoctrinated and ordained by the existing establishment of academia.

Johnson has the right credentials – the organizational abilities, intelligence, track record of successful leadership, and a commitment to public service  – needed to install effective change. 

During his highly decorated military career of more than 26 years, Johnson served as the Director of the Air Force’s Chief Information Officer Staff at U.S. Special Operations Command, working directly with top members of the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and Congress. After retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Johnson launched a pair of successful IT consulting companies. He then was elected to seven terms in Congress.

Jim Tressel, who retired as the university’s president last year, said Johnson’s “leadership experiences will serve him well at YSU.”

As for Larkin’s other charges against Johnson – as usual, he’s got it all backwards. He testily characterized Johnson as “a breathtakingly unfit man” who engages in “the politics of extremism” and “someone who trafficked in the biggest lie in the history of this nation’s government.”

The specific gripes are trustees “disgraced themselves” by selecting a man who is “outspokenly anti-gay and a 2020 election denier.” 

Both of those claims are lies. Which is why Larkin was unable to support those accusations with any evidence, quotes, or sources.

Where’s his evidence that Johnson is “outspokenly anti-gay?” The former journalist can’t cite any because there appears to be none. 

Larkin seems to make that libelous accusation based upon the fact that Johnson criticized the U.S. Supreme Court 10 years ago for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. (That would make Bill Clinton anti-gay by Larkin’s standards, but I’m sure Larkin would welcome the Clintons to campus.) Johnson also voted against the Respect for Marriage Act two years ago, which codified same-sex marriage into law. 

As for the other red herring, Larkin calls Johnson an “election denier” and “someone who trafficked in the biggest lie in the history of this nation’s government -- that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.”

Again, Larkin can’t be bothered to cite any evidence, quotes, or sources. The dishonest accusation appears to be based upon Johnson’s vote against the 2021 Electoral College Certification, along with 146 other members of Congress who first wanted to investigate legitimate questions about the anomalies of the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania and other states. 

If Larkin wants to target a genuine election denier, how about Hillary Clinton? She merely said the 2016 election was “stolen” from her and that Trump was an “illegitimate” president. Remember Russiagate? Talk about a debunked election-conspiracy theory pushed by radical extremists, including every single prominent Democrat.

Al Gore was such a determined denier he took the 2000 presidential election results to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was promptly slapped down. Even the New York Times conceded Gore was wrong.

Election denial has become a time-honored Democratic tradition after every GOP win.

As Johnson said in 2021, “I’m not interested in hearing lectures from Democrats after they’ve objected to the certification of every Republican presidential win this century.”

He recently stated, “My history in politics will not be reflected in the decisions that I make for Youngstown State University or its students.” Johnson added, “I am committed to an inclusive and respectful environment at the university regardless of politics, religion or personal affiliations.”

Still, Larkin fantasizes that Youngstown State would suffer under Johnson’s leadership because, “Talented faculty members will look elsewhere. Enrollment will decline. Donations from the wealthy and powerful families that still wield enormous influence in Youngstown will almost certainly dwindle.”

That’s exactly backwards, as recent events at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania so clearly demonstrate. They are hemorrhaging donations and suffering intense backlash because of their unwavering allegiance to the DEI ideology that caused their presidents to effectively endorse antisemitism and genocide. 

Larkin is afraid a university will be run by someone promoting the “politics of extremism?” That’s exactly what happened at Harvard, the nation’s flagship university, where it cost the president her job. This woke dysfunction is running rampant at universities across America.

Most institutions are resistant to change and require an outside impetus to overcome bureaucratic inertia and reform how they do business. And the business of higher education will only become more challenging with fewer people willing to pay ever-increasing tuition costs for degrees often unsuited to our rapidly changing job market.

That’s why we must welcome highly qualified outsiders who can  make the dramatic changes needed to put our institutions of higher learning on a dynamic new track. We need new and fresh thinking, not more provosts as presidents. We need presidents who will be allies of the trustees, not rubber stampers for the faculty and woke status quo.

That is precisely why I introduced Senate Bill 83 – to eliminate the mandatory indoctrination of students and staff with radical leftist ideology and to restore true intellectual diversity and free speech on campus at Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

That bill is currently awaiting a vote in the House before becoming law. Once it passes, I look forward to working with Bill Johnson and all of our university presidents in pursuing our common goal of making Ohio’s  institutions of higher education the finest in the land.  

Jerry Cirino represents Ohio Senate District 18