Harvey Graff

The Ohio State University forces me to continue my series of public accounting for its series of leadership failures, threats to health and safety on and off campus, and irresponsibility to its neighbors—both homeowners and student renters. Slogans about safety and health proliferate. Actions do not.

Contrary to off-the-record comments by OSU’s Bricker Hall senior administration, my always-fact-based writing gives me no pleasure. (The President’s Office refuses even to acknowledge receipt of my efforts to communicate with Kristina Johnson when I ask them to do so, an overt discourtesy.) They do not understand that constructive criticism is not a contradiction in terms. This only reinforces their insularity and long-time disrespect to students, staff, faculty, neighbors, and the media—in other words, their public. OSU ignores legal Freedom of Information Act requests for public information; its “spokespersons” do not answer questions. This decades-old pattern should provoke widespread alarm and demands for reform.

I have written about OSU since 2010. My recent installments in the last half-year include, “The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District”; “Colleges can learn from sports figures about mental health”; “For Ohio State, bigger is not better”; “Columbus’ University District: Students and the institutions that fail them”; “OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis”; “Update to ‘Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis’”;“The Ohio State University promotes public health crises”; “The Banality of University Slogans”; “Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes”;“Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership”; “Academic collegiality is a contradictory, self-serving myth”; “The humanities are lost in a historical maze largely of our own making” (forthcoming).

This update and elaboration begins with Dec. 10, 2021. A 38-year-old man was shot in the campus area. OSU’s highly promoted Buckeye Safely Alert text and email system never reported it. They did not reply to my repeated questions to both the Alert email address and the head of Campus Security about that failure. On Friday, Jan. 21, An Alert about a stabbing near the South Campus parking garage was sent four times. Many Alerts come 8, 10, and 12 hours after the danger has passed. They are not helpful.

Despite my own and others’ complaints, these Alerts continue to include the statement that “the victim of a crime is never responsible….” That is untrue, misleading to students, and not required by law (as one Campus Safety staff member erroneously told me). It is not part of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The OSU text responds to complaints from the “mad mothers (of out-of-state students) of New Jersey” whose voices echo among the administration when those of students and residents of the University District do not.

During these and other reported (and unreported) crimes, where is the much-touted Buckeye Block Watch, who began to patrol in the fall only on Wednesdays through Saturdays, in limited evening hours—if it still exists? No one knows.

I have spoken with members of the Block Watch and some supervisors. They are unclear about their responsibilities, which consist of making reports to Columbus Police, not taking any action or speaking to students. They were not told to report noise violations, a major problem (and source of many complaints to CPD) in the University District. And they patrol overwhelmingly south of 15th Avenue to Chittenden, not in the major areas and sources of problems and complaints from 15th to Lane Avenue and beyond. No one knows why.

Where are the additional CPD patrols that OSU President Johnson also touts? It’s hard to say. Neither CPD nor City Hall can adequately answer. Students and homeowners often spot them standing in small groups on foot or beside bicycles under street lights, for example, on the Iuka Bridge on Indianola Ave. Or sitting in a stationary squad car for hours on end. Neither officers nor CPD commanders are able to answer my questions about actual patrolling—other, that is, than commenting that they are “being visible.”

OSU has no further word on the aspirational promise statements about private security officers patrolling on and off campus, or Johnson’s sweeping but neither planned nor budgeted $20 million investment in safety over 10 years. This new sloganeering was announced months ago. $2 million per year is in itself insufficient.

One of OSU’s first responses to complaints about an increase of crime in the University District was installing portable lamp posts at unannounced and unexplained locations. Despite Johnson’s repeated assertions that her symbolic portable lamp posts immediately resulted in 40 or 60 or 80 percent declines in crime, no one at OSU or CPD can present data. I checked with CPD and also asked Campus Security officers. There is no evidence of an arithmetic or causal connection. Johnson’s claims relate to single-digit numbers of offenses for which percentages carry no significance.

Officers, students, and homeowners all agree that the portable lamp posts do more harm than good. Most sit in well-lit areas, many under street lights. Their generators make loud, disturbing noises. In many cases their ultra-bright lights shine directly into nearby homes or blind oncoming drivers. (My household and our close neighbors had to have one moved.) This is out of control, a visible symbol of OSU’s fake safety slogan campaign.

Now, with no process, opportunity for public input, discussion with residents most affected, or visible public approval by the City of Columbus, OSU goes about replacing some of the portables. No public announcement is made; no explanation for the change; no explanations of decision-making; no data on effectiveness; no accounting for selection of locations or process of approval for the use of public space. It is unclear who owns the permanent structures. They do not meet area design commission historic standards. CampusPartners, whose field of operations does not include such actions, seems to be in charge. Of course, no one responds to questions.

My neighbors and I only learned about these secretive actions on Jan. 21, via an announcement to selected OSU administrators that was not sent to all on campus, in the University District, or homeowners. The replacement of the portables with permanent lamp posts had already begun. Whether illegal or not, this is reckless and fundamentally undemocratic. At least three of us immediately complained to City Council. Legislative aides are investigating.

On- and off-campus safety is only one dimension of OSU’s failures. So too are its continuing Covid-19 responses. In contrast with the hundreds of other universities and colleges that began the new semester in January fully online, OSU proudly committed to a “safe student experience” overwhelmingly in person. Even the state universities of much redder Texas and Florida and much of the Big Ten committed to at least 2-3 weeks of fully online courses in the face of the Omicron variant. But not OSU. Faculty, student, and staff requests and complaints elicited no response.

OSU’s answer was to mandate masks indoors, reiterate its vaccination (but unlike many other universities, not booster) requirement, and to require weekly testing of on-campus residential students and at first fraternities and sororities. That leaves a majority of students without a mandate for regular testing. In addition, OSU lacks sufficient numbers of tests for fraternity and sorority residents. Overall, there is no information on the enforcement of the limited requirement. The immediate result: The Covid testing after one week of classes recorded its pandemic high of more than 10 percent positive (with most students not required to test). No policy changes followed. (Sheridan Hendrix, “Ohio State reports its highest COVID-19 positivity rate, nearly 10%, after students return from winter break”; for a statewide perspective, see John McNay, “Ohio’s universities have ‘crippled’ educational progress during Covid.”)

OSU regularly touts its claim of a 92 percent vaccination rate, which strains credibility with any relevant comparison group or metric. But it is never clear if that rate includes only students resident on campus, faculty, and staff, all students, or who? How are those who claim exemptions, another murky area, counted? Are these persons partly or fully vaccinated? OSU’s nonresponsive spokespersons have no answers.

The rollout of in-person and a small percentage of online courses confound the murky with the bizarre. Some faculty were able to arrange in advance to teach online. Just days before the first classes, some faculty were informed that they had the option of beginning the semester online. But most were not given any choice. Members of the same department did not receive the same message. Students as well as faculty are very confused and concerned. There is no rationale for these unacceptable differences.

In the meantime, national news and higher education periodicals print report after report about out-of-control rapes on campuses, dorms, and especially fraternity houses. There is an active discussion of outlawing fraternities and sororities. But not at OSU, which almost silently admitted to at least 10 confirmed rapes in campus residence halls in a report in November 2021.

Finally, in solidarity with students across the nation and following Columbia University graduate student employees’ well-publicized, successful strike, OSU students protest their wages and demand higher minimum payments. OSU responds by denying its unacceptably lower starting salaries. Spokesman Ben Johnson tells the Columbus Dispatch, “The university offers competitive salaries and benefits to retain and support our critical student employees, and we value their contributions to our campus life and land grant mission.” As usual, this is not true; the salaries and benefits are not comparable or competitive by any metric (which OSU never cites). (Sheridan Hendrix, “Ohio State student workers organize protest, call for higher minimum wage.”) Of course, OSU has funds for portable and permanent lamp posts and a costly, unnecessary “investiture” for Kristina Johnson more than 15 months after beginning her presidency.

OSU’s one success in this period is to mislead the Columbus City Council into approving—without advance public announcement for testimony and no discussion—its proposal for a City TIF (tax increment financing) in which a percentage of the city income tax of employees in the district is directed to the university. This redirection of public tax revenues is for the university’s aspirational Innovation District on the western edge of campus. There is no concrete plan or timetable. So far one block has been designated, one building is under construction, and ground has been broken on a second. There is no “district.” A senior administrator at Wexner Medical Center and professor at the School of Medicine expressed disapproval and dismay to me about the former TIF for Medical Center expansion and the new TIF. Employees also disagree with the university’s appropriation of public tax monies away from truly public, documented needs.

On Feb. 1 and 2, ice and snow were predicted for Columbus and Central Ohio. By early afternoon Columbus City Schools and many other institutions canceled classes for Feb. 3. OSU? At 9:56 pm, without regard to students, staff, and faculty. Just before 8:00 pm on Feb. 3, OSU announced that it would reopen on Friday. Columbus City Schools and Columbus State Community College notified their students and staff by early afternoon that they would remain closed. OSU cited one weather report among many but did not acknowledge dangerous roadways or the faculty, staff, and students whose children would be home. OSU also left it completely up to faculty, without institutional support, to choose to provide hybrid online and in-person sessions for very confused students.

Meanwhile, not only does President Johnson brag on YouTube about “being born a Buckeye” based on her grandfather’s OSU attendance in the 1890s playing pre-conference football, but she also gives a Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast talk on OSU’s “land-grant mission,” ignoring the segregationist and racist history of public land-grant universities.

Go Bucks?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His  Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, and other outlets. He has taught and written about the past and present of literacy and education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.