UW System taps law firm CEO for next president

Jay. O. Rothman is selected to be the next UW System President.
Jay. O. Rothman is selected to be the next UW System President.(The University of Wisconsin System)
Published: Jan. 21, 2022 at 3:23 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 21, 2022 at 10:26 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents selected the chairman and CEO of a Milwaukee law firm to lead the state’s public universities into the future. On Friday, regents voted unanimously to offer the system’s top job to Jay O. Rothman after the 62-year-old received the recommendation of their Special Regent Committee.

In the statement announcing Rothman’s selection, the 62-year-old was quoted as saying he was “humbled by the opportunity” and would “approach this role with profound respect for the unparalleled role public higher education plays in the lives of our students, alumni, and communities.”

When he steps into the president’s office on June 1, Rothman will be only the eighth president in UW System history. The System reports his starting salary will be $550,000 per year.

“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” he continued. “This is not an original sentiment, but I want to say it because I believe it: the UW System is our state’s crown jewel, and a vibrant UW System builds a strong Wisconsin.”

Rothman, who is currently with the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, will take the reins of the UW System, which oversees 13 public universities across 26 campuses, at the beginning of June. His predecessor, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, is set to step down in mid-March after nearly two years of serving in the role of interim president. Former regent president Mike Falbo will fill the president’s seat between Thompson’s departure and Rothman’s arrival.

Shortly after the announcement, UW-Madison’s outgoing chancellor Rebecca Blank offered her congratulations to Rothman, saying his experience in the business community and his relationships with state and local leaders will serve as an asset.

“Jay will bring a fresh perspective to higher education and I look forward to collaborating with him on making the UW System even better,” she added.

Mike Knetter, CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, said, “We’re going to need someone who is a great relationship builder, great strategic thinker, person of high integrity, and Jay Rothman is certainly all that.”

His group is an independent nonprofit, which raises money to support UW-Madison.

“We just want to have an effective and constructive partnership with the leader of the UW System so that our efforts can advance Madison and through that help the rest of the System as well,” he said.

While some students at UW-Madison said they were not familiar with the role of System president, Josh Thiry, who graduated in May, said he expects Rothman to be clear about his mission.

“A good leader is important,” Thiry said. ”Whatever may be going on, politically, socially, economically, [we need] someone who is going to lead the schools and the system to be a better place for tomorrow.”

According to details provided by UW System, Rothman is both the son of and the parent to UW alumni. Both his parents attended UW-Stevens Point, while one of his two children earned a degree in Madison. Rothman himself went to Marquette before earning his law degree from Harvard Law School. He joined Foley and Lardner in 1986 and worked his way to the chairman and CEO role over the next quarter-century. His resume shows no experience in higher education.

Rothman beat out UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James C. Schmidt for the position. Last Friday, the Special Regent Committee had revealed it narrowed its presidential search to those two finalists with their final interviews set for the following Tuesday. The sit-downs would include shared governance representatives, chancellors, and UW System executive leaders. Regent President Edmund Manydeeds III, chair of the Special Regent Committee, said the committee opted to forgo a public session with the finalists because of the large amount of public input it had received.

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