Business attorney to be University of Wisconsin’s president

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System leaders on Friday chose Jay Rothman, a Milwaukee business attorney with no experience administrating higher education, as the next president running the 26-campus system.

The regents chose Rothman, chairman and CEO of the Foley & Lardner law firm, over the other finalist, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. The system said in a statement that Rothman has accepted the job and will begin June 1.

Rothman will make $550,000 annually as the system’s eighth president. Regent Karen Walsh, who led the system’s presidential search committee, called him a “servant leader” who builds consensus.

“I am humbled by the opportunity to lead the UW System and approach this role with profound respect for the unparalleled role public higher education plays in the lives of our students, alumni, and communities,” Rothman said in a statement. “I intend to lead by listening first, so that the experience I have gained over my lifetime in Wisconsin can help us build a great UW System together.

The move comes after the system went almost two years without a permanent president. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has been serving as interim president since Ray Cross retired in June 2020.

The regents offered the permanent president position to Jim Johnsen, then president of the University of Alaska, the month Cross retired, but Johnsen withdrew from consideration amid concerns about his spotty record in Alaska and massive backlash about the selection process in Wisconsin. Faculty, staff and students complained loudly that they weren’t involved on the search committee.

Multiple faculty groups have complained this time around, too, that regents never held any public forms where professors could question Rothman and Schmidt. Regent Karen Walsh, who led the search committee, countered that the panel didn’t need to hold forums because it received plenty of public input during listening sessions this past fall.

Thompson plans to step down on March 18. Regents President Edmund Manydeeds III said in the system statement that he has asked former regents President Mike Falbo to serve as interim president from that date until Rothman takes over June 1.

Rothman, 62, has been chairman and CEO of Foley & Lardner since 2011. He joined the law firm in 1986 and has been a partner since 1994. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and a law degree from Harvard.

He has no experience administrating higher education. He told reporters during a news conference earlier this month that his term as head of the law firm is ending and he’s looking to start a new chapter in his life.

Foley & Lardner is based in Milwaukee and has 1,100 attorneys and 22 offices nationwide. Rothman said his experience leading the firm has prepared him well for running the 26-campus, 165,000-student UW System.

Rothman inherits a system still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and suffering from strained relationships with Republican legislators.

Cross retired after a 2020 spring semester that saw all classes go virtual. Thompson pushed for a return to an in-person setting this fall but drew the ire of his fellow Republicans when he implemented mask and testing mandates. Sen. Steve Nass threatened to sue the system, but Thompson didn’t budget and the GOP ultimately backed down.

Rothman also will have to weigh whether to raise tuition, always a thorny issue. Thompson persuaded Republican lawmakers to lift an eight-year freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition last summer. The regents opted not to raise tuition this year out of consideration for families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, but Rothman will have revisit potential increase in the system’s next budget this summer.

Todd Richmond
Todd Richmond
Richmond covers Wisconsin government and breaking news.