Two Wisconsin men have been shortlisted in the search for the next president of the University of Wisconsin system. A special panel of the University of Washington Board of Regents referred Chancellor Jim Schmidt and Jay Rothman, CEO of UW-Eau Claire Chancellor and CEO of Milwaukee Law Firm, from 44 field applicants.
Rothman has been president and CEO of Milwaukee-based law firm Foley & Lardner since 2011 and has been a partner since 1994. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. A biography on Rothman, provided by the UW System Communications staff, said he was responsible for developing and implementing the law firm’s strategic plan and overseeing administrative functions — including recruitment, retention, and development.
Rothman also serves as a principal for Quad/Graphics and Mayville Engineering Co. He is the director of Junior Achievement in Wisconsin and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
During Friday’s interview, in which UW System communications staff required reporters to ask each candidate the same two questions, Rothman said he was honored to have been chosen as a final candidate and said his decision to apply for the job was based in part on him. Nearing the end of his tenure as president at Foley & Lardner. This provides “a good time for me to think about my next class,” he said.
Rothman described the UW system as Wisconsin’s crown jewel and said his 11 years of leading a large international law firm matched well with his passion for helping the university and Wisconsin thrive.
“We rely on the individual entrepreneurial and leadership skills of our partners, of which there are nearly 500,” Rothman said of the company. “They’re smart and independent. And I think pretty much the same goes for the leadership of the system when you think about shared governance.”
Rothman said the UW system needs to address the pay gaps between the system’s faculty and those at peer institutions, though he said he had no immediate answers on how to do so. Rothman said the campus also needs to work with public K-12 schools to create additional pathways for students to receive a college education.
Rothman was asked when, if this happens, the UW system would need to consider closing campuses in light of low enrollment, particularly at two-year affiliates. Hard choices may be necessary, he said, but not until all other options have been exhausted.
“So, I think we have to be careful about how we approach the shutdowns,” Rothman said. “But first I would say, ‘What can we do to build the vitality and sustainability of those universities before we look at saying we should close. “
Schmidt has served as an advisor at UW-Eau Claire since 2013. Prior to that he was vice president for undergraduate advancement at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, and vice president for student affairs at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota. Schmidt holds a BA in Political Science from Winona State University, an MBA from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, and a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Management from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
The UW Schmidt System biography cites the research collaboration between the university, Mayo Clinic and the Center for Supercomputing on the UW-Eau Claire campus through a partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Schmidt also oversaw a major public-private partnership involving the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, private developers and local governments to build a new performing arts center in downtown Eau Claire, which opened in 2018.
Schmidt and the foundation are laying the groundwork this summer for a $100 million sports and events complex that will include the Mayo Clinic Center for Sports Medicine.
System biography also stated that Schmidt helped raise nearly $200 million for UW-Eau Claire.
In a later interview on Friday, Schmidt praised his experience working in colleges in multiple roles including government relations.
“I have built a reputation for innovation, community engagement, strategic partnerships and successful fundraising, and have always been an ardent advocate for students who deserve at least as good a chance as each of us,” Schmidt said.
He said the biggest challenge facing Wisconsin is the need to attract new talent to drive the state’s economy.
“As the UW system, we need to meet students wherever they are and remove barriers to success so that everyone can fulfill their potential,” Schmidt said. “Wisconsin’s success is tied to the success of its people.”
Schmidt said the UW system should “squeeze every ounce of the value of every dollar” the state provides. He said he’s become “very experienced at cutting budgets” since becoming a consultant at UW-Eau Claire.
“What I have to do if I’m the head of the system is to make sure that we respond to Wisconsinans to make sure, in our communities, that we work with our cities, and we work with businesses to meet their needs,” Schmidt said. “And I think that by doing the right things with them, I will be counting on them to do the right things for us and advocating with the governor and the legislature on making new investments in Wisconsin.”
Schmidt suggested pooling system resources to learn how to provide students with online or in-person classes with business support that suits the students.
Schmidt was asked about a “blueprint” for former UW system chief Ray Cross that proposed creating specialized university missions and having UW system administrators identify and potentially eliminate duplicate degree programs across the state.
“I think the chart has some interesting ideas, but the biggest problem with it is that it focuses on a top-down model,” Schmidt said. “I think I want to change that.”
In December, Wisconsin Public Radio submitted an open application asking how many candidates applied for the top job in the UW system and what demographic information the candidates had self-submitted. In an email sent on December 16, the system said 44 individuals had applied as of December 10. Of those who self-reported their race, 23 were white, 11 were colored, and 10 applicants were unreported. Seven of the applicants were women and three of them said they were veterans.
The last search to find the next permanent president of the UW system began in July 2021 when a 19-member search committee was appointed by UW Board of Regents chair Emund Manydeeds. The committee included the referees, administrators, and student guardian, along with faculty and staff from public university campuses.
That was more than twice the size of the previous search committee that had worked unsuccessfully in late 2019 and early 2020 to find a replacement for Cross, who announced his retirement in 2019. In November 2019, former Governors Board Chairman Andrew Petersen announced an eight-individual committee. which included university presidents, custodians, dean and student guardian – but did not include faculty or other students.
The exclusion of faculty and staff has drawn criticism from regime employees. At the time, Petersen said the smaller committee would be able to choose Cross’s successor faster than previous searches that included dozens of members.
On June 2, 2020, the Petersen Committee named former University of Alaska President Jim Johnson as the only final candidate for the position. That research collapsed when Johnson pulled out after 10 days and said the governors “have important practical problems to solve”.
After the search failed, the UW regime announced that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson would step in as interim president until a successor was found. Thompson announced last week that he would resign from the position effective March 18.
A press release identifying Rothman and Schmidt as the finalists said the Special Regents Committee would forward their recommendations to the full Board of Trustees. A final decision is expected by the end of January, according to the statement.
Editor’s Note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Council.