Wausau native reflects on first year as UW System President

Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 8:35 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WSAW) - ”It’s been a great year. It’s a privilege to have this job.”

A job that didn’t come without criticism for Jay Rothman. A lawyer who attended Marquette and Harvard, with no academic background, was charged with overseeing 161,000 students and 13 universities.

“My learning curve was going to be steeper, that’s absolutely correct,” Rothman said. “But I listened. I did my best. I did as much homework as I could to flatten that learning curve.”

“He didn’t graduate from a system school. But the instant he walked in the door there was that passion for the UW System and for higher ed in Wisconsin,” said Karen Walsh, President of the UW System Board of Regents. “And I think it comes out of every pore with him.”

“Bringing new ideas, bringing that private sector perspective to the University System, I think, is a benefit in my mind,” Rothman added.

Outgoing interim president and former Governor Tommy Thompson offered advice he takes to heart every day at work.

“He said, ‘Keep pounding. Keep going at it. Keep going at it. Don’t give up. The System is too important to this state to give up on.’”

Rothman had an understanding of the political nature of the position coming into it, but recently, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos threatened to cut $14 million if the system didn’t eliminate its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI offices.

“That ‘I’ in DEI needs to mean something. It needs to mean inclusivity, and inclusivity means everyone,” he said. “They have to feel welcomed. They have to feel that they belong here. Because if we’re going to achieve Wisconsin’s economic potential, we’re going to need to bring those students into our universities and educate them.”

During the day I spent with him, I could see Rothman relishes his position. One this Wausau West grad and career lawyer would’ve never imagined himself in.

“It started for me at Stettin Elementary School many years ago, and to John Muir and to Wausau West. Where I had teachers that impacted my life. Had confidence in me when I didn’t have confidence in myself. That’s the power of education.”

Rothman adds his favorite subject was history. That said, the historical success of the UW System isn’t lost on him, and wants to see it continue and go to greater heights.