YOUNGSTOWN — Against a backdrop of increased anti-Palestinian sentiment and anti-Semitism, Tala Alsharif fears for her safety and that of others who look like her if a key decision the board of trustees made to fill Youngstown State University’s top post is realized.
“Members of my group are immigrants. I think of how we would feel knowing the president is against us,” Alsharif, president of YSU’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization, said. “I would not feel safe knowing he would not stand with us if we were threatened.”
Alsharif was referring to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, who was offered the position of university president Thursday by the YSU Board of Trustees in an 8-1 vote. Trustee Molly Seals was the lone dissenter.
Alsharif also was among an estimated 100 students, staff, faculty members, community activists and others who took part in a peaceful protest Monday afternoon in front of Tod Hall to denounce what they feel is Johnson’s lack of credentials for the post. Many of them also were angry at what they contend was the absence of transparency and stakeholder input in making the decision, as well as some of Johnson’s political positions.
YSU has nearly 1,000 international students, so it’s anathema to the university to hire someone who opposes diversity, equity and inclusion, Alsharif said. It is hoped the trustees will reconsider their choice and listen to what students and others with a vested interest in YSU have to say about the selection of Johnson as leader, she continued.
Also vehemently opposing Johnson’s hiring — and the closed-door process many say was used to select him — is the YSU-Ohio Education Association, which said the usual four-part process of campus visits, open forums with candidates and feedback from university stakeholders, then making a final hiring decision was circumvented.
“What happened here at YSU shortchanges faculty, staff, students and members of the Youngstown community who deserve the opportunity to meet and ask questions of our prospective leaders, particularly leaders of public institutions. This undermines a lot of progress we’ve made,” Mark Vopat, YSU-OEA president, said in a statement.
Vopat and other union members added that they hope the board will reconsider its decision, resume the presidential search and fully vet candidates via introducing them to community members beforehand.
The Community Concerned for the Future of YSU organization also issued a statement condemning what it says are some of Johnson’s extremist views.
“Bill Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated hostility to the rights of women and protected classes of minorities, two populations that constitute the majority of our student body,” the statement reads in part. “Johnson also has demonstrated animus towards religious pluralism, which means he will threaten YSU’s diverse religious community and academic freedom.”
YSU student Elise Williams told protesters she was blindsided by the trustees’ decision to offer Johnson the top post. Williams also said that if he accepts the position, the longtime congressman and U.S. Air Force veteran likely will do so more to promote himself than what’s best for YSU.
“Politics aside, we do not want him here,” she added.
Expounding on that view was Lynn Anderson, a community activist and former YSU adjunct professor who said Johnson likely would heavily push a profit-motivated agenda supported by businesses that, in turn, would use the university as an added means for making money.
“He is a very bad choice because he is not qualified,” Anderson added. “He would not further the interests of academic excellence at YSU.”
She also noted that Johnson has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit organization of state legislators and private-sector representatives who draft and share legislation to be distributed to state governments. The Center for Media and Democracy and other groups, however, accuse ALEC members of voting secretly to rewrite state laws that almost always benefit large corporations at the expense of individual rights.
Sarah Lowry, a YSU alumni member who earned degrees in English and American studies, said she spoke out to ensure that trustees listen to stakeholders’ voices and realize the university also is a place for community engagement. In addition, she demanded the board rescind its offer to Johnson largely because of the lack of transparency and find someone for president who will uphold YSU’s mission and values.
Lowry added she hopes faculty members and others see the importance of working together to make YSU and the Mahoning Valley “a place where we all can be proud.”
“I know that everything that happens on this campus affects the entire Valley,” Daphne Carr, a community activist, said.
A better, more inclusive process must be incorporated to select a president for a university that’s multicultural, multiracial and filled with international students, she added.
Another student blasted some of Johnson’s political stances and accused him of denigrating and debasing immigrants, saying that his views paint a false and damaging picture of those who came from foreign countries and, in turn, can lead to many of them being targeted and marginalized.
Also during the one-hour gathering, participants chanted in a call-and-response manner, “YSU trustees, do over!” and “We do not accept this process!”
The board is scheduled to conduct a special meeting at 2 p.m. today in Tod Hall. Many of those who participated in Monday’s protest are expected to be at the session.