Wexner Medical Center

Author’s note: occasionally in Columbus and especially by OSU football fans, I am alleged to be anti-OSU. Nothing could be farther than the truth—I strive since 2004 for students, faculty colleagues, and highly qualified staff, none of whom receive the respect and rewards they deserve. That remains my goal.

Part One

The president and the university: Who fails whom?

In a typically flawed effort at reporting or explaining Ohio State University president Kristina Johnson’s pseudo-sudden resignation under orders from the Board of Trustees (BOT), the Columbus Dispatch inexplicitly turned to two unknowledgeable right-wing Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University faculty members. They purport to study university presidents’ “contracts,” an odd field with no criteria or standards.

No higher education scholars I know have heard of Judith Wilde or James Finkelstein. Did the Dispatch find them by googling? Did they speak to the reporters in exchange for having their color photos posted on the e-edition, another oddity? (Sheridan Hendrix, “What did expensive search net Ohio State? A ‘failed presidency,’ experts say,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 1, 2022)

As it happens, the Dispatch reporter broke the story of Johnson’s unannounced and undated informing the BOT of her intentions to resign on Nov. 28, 2022 through a leak from an anonymous source in the university administration. (Hendrix, “Ohio State President Kristina Johnson expected to announced her resignation,” Nov. 28, 2022; followed by “Ohio State President Kristina Johnson had big plans. Now she’s stepping down,” Nov. 30, 32022)

The leak prompted Johnson immediately to confirm that she had told the BOT of her plan to resign at some point in the fall, preempting her annual review.

Johnson sent a contentless email to “Dear Buckeye Community” shortly thereafter. OSU’s boosterism Marketing and Communication Department replayed this not as her resignation but “Johnson to transition out of role of president at end of academic year”—a “leadership transition.” What clever marketing, not communication.

Unmentioned by either Johnson or the Board is the size of her “retirement bonus,” or payoff. Under public and internal pressure, Colorado State University finally announced that its forced-to-resign president received $1.6 million to leave. No one states: from what fund does this come?

Among these George Mason “experts’” claims is they have “amassed a database of more than 300 contracts and at least 100 presidential searches” over “more than two decades.” That comes to an unimpressive dozen per year.

Their lack of knowledge about universities and their presidents did not catch the eyes of the higher education reporter or the headline writer whose repetition of the confused category of “failed president” went viral. They declared Kristina Johnson “a failed president” not because of anything she did or did not do in office but because she resigned before she had served two full years. “Their definition of ‘failed’ does not necessarily account for a president’s accomplishments during a tenure.” This is contradictory nonsense.

There are several problems with this ludicrous terminology. First, Johnson had completed two years, a fact of no concern to these “experts.” Second and more important, time in office by itself in no way determines success or failure. By this standard, Rebecca Blank, Northwestern University’s incoming president who resigned immediately prior to taking office because of her cancer diagnosis “qualifies” as a “failed president.” So too those who were removed quickly or who removed themselves by choice. But this foolishness immediately became the new accepted status.

Not only fallacious, it is even more misleading when taken out of context. In Johnson’s and OSU’s rare moment of national as well as local attention beyond the goal posts, it distracts attention from both how the university and especially its Board of Trustees with little interest in the academic mission of the state’s land grant university, and the outgoing chief executive conducted—actually failed to conduct themselves—in her termination.

As I explain in this essay, the fundamental issue is at least as much OSU as a “failing institution” as Johnson as a “failed president.” I have examined some but not all of these elements in previous essays. I bring them together in a different context here.

As both a historian and university professor for almost 50 years—the final 13 as inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, I find the complete disregard for the well-being, status, and image of the university displayed by Johnson’s, the Board of Trustee’s, and the university’s (through its never forthcoming “spokesman” Ben Johnson) unwillingness, inability, and lack of concern in presenting an acceptable, understandable, and agreed-upon public narrative a mark of institutional failure. Collectively, they fail, and the entire university community suffers.

OSU is now an embarrassment and a source of confusion nationally. See for example, Eric Kelderman, “Ohio State President Leaves Plans Unfinished as She Steps Down,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 29, 2022; Josh Moody, “Ohio State President Mysteriously Resigns,” Inside Higher Education, Nov. 30, 2022; “A presidential exodus,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 3, 2022

For local confusion, see Judson L. Jeffries, “OSU operating in ‘opaque ways.’ Public deserves to know why president resigned,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 1, 2022; “Letter from The Lantern: Ohio State Deserves Answers on President Johnson’s Resignation: Here’s Why,” Dec. 1, 2022; Michael Lee, Megan Henry, and Micah Walker, “Community reacts to Ohio State University President Johnson’s resignation,” Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 29, 2022; “Voices Around the University React to, Express Shock About President Johnson’s Resignation,” The Lantern, Nov. 30, 2022. All are available online.

As readers of my reports on OSU know, I never considered Johnson an appropriate choice or a responsible leader. The result of a national search by an executive search firm for which OSU paid more than $420,000, as recently revealed, I do not believe that she should have been hired. She had never managed a large university. Her two previous positions in the provost’s office at Johns Hopkins University and then as chancellor for the State University of New York System each lasted less than two years. There is a clear pattern. But OSU wanted a STEM president and needed a second woman president given its shameful treatment of its first, Karen Holbrook, 2002-2007.

Like her predecessors for at least the last three decades, Johnson made no effort to learn about the overly large, disconnected mega-university. Instead she pontificated by purporting to lead through unusually poor and completely undeveloped slogans. (Among my writing on this, see for example, “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022; “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022; “The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022; “University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022)

Johnson never recognized that she was not pretending to lead the world’s largest STEM university. Her vision never embraced an extremely large, complicated institution. Behind her bromance with Intel’s head Patrick Gelsinger with whom she overlapped as BS and MS students, respectively, at Stanford, she ignored the aspects of OSU that I value most highly: its many excellent teaching and research faculty, students, and staff with whom I remain in close contact, and its lovely central campus. I do not include the College of Engineering which refuses to function as part of an integrated university.

Two of the most telling examples are Johnson’s “Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan,” which confused one and all. Constantly making simple arithmetic and logical errors, the Ph.D. in Engineering announced that she would create debt-free graduation for all within ten years without reducing costs. That is impossible. In addition, the entering class of 2026 included a total of 125 “covered” students of 7500. Do the arithmetic yourselves.

Why OSU did not follow Columbus State Community College’s highly responsible free tuition for Franklin County high school graduates can only derive from ignorance and neglect. Capital University, not the “model land grant university,” has now done that.

Her Innovation District, recently proclaimed to be “Carmenton,” meaning, I think, Carmen Town as in “Carmen, Ohio,” consists of one almost completed building and another in early construction. Neither of these slogans—not developed plans with consecutive steps, timetables, budgets, nor any measures of accomplishment— have any substance. Perhaps the only truthful one is that she “was born to be a Buckeye,” her most frequent utterance, because her staff unearthed a grandfather who attended OSU in the 1890s and is claimed to have been on the football team (of course).

There should be no doubt that Johnson’s resignation was ordered for cause. What is not clear is which cause. I doubt seriously that it was her failures to learn about or lead the university. Her predecessors shared in that. Her sloganeering was little worse than her immediate predecessor Michael Drake, whose signature contribution was ordering bulk purchase of toilet paper and double-sided color printing.

Nor her disdain for faculty and students. Nor her unprecedented penchant for giving herself awards, from the annual endowed Land Grant University, about which she proved repeatedly unknowledgeable about past and present, to the bogus Chadwick Arboretum Environmentalist award almost immediately halted by a group of articulate and brave environmentally activist students.

Strikingly, Johnson had absolutely nothing to say to them and could not even attempt “a teachable moment.” No wonder she seldom attended her own course on climate change about which she has no expertise. For a student to see her, required filling out an application, writing a brief essay, and then waiting. No one is aware of a single student that called to see her.

All the incomplete evidence suggests that the cause for the Board’s action was Johnson’s and her imported administrative team’s denigrating and derogatory treatment of long-serving staff in Bricker Hall administrative building. My own experience of this was that her office completely refused to even acknowledge receiving an email from me, let alone responding. I have learned about long-term employees resigning and numerous complaints. The most likely scenario is that these patterns of misconduct became too great for veteran Senior Vice Presidents who have the ear of the Board of Trustees to tolerate.

Regardless, it is shameful than none of the principals have either the honesty or regard for the institution to explain even in bare outline the causes and process(es). Was there an investigation by a law firm as one story insists?

If, in fact, Johnson did inform the Board of her intention to resign before the November meeting, why was there no diplomatically presented formal announcement at the regular meeting’s conclusion? Why was it revealed suddenly only after the newspaper broke the story, 48 hours after the equally poorly managed loss in the annual “The Game with That Team Up North.”

Compare any of these factors with Mike Wagner and Sheridan Hendrix, “‘I have no regrets’: Kristina Johns talks stepping down as Ohio State President,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 3, 2022, or the ridiculous Max Filby, “Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson one of many presidents quitting as rising job demands mount,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 5, 2022. Can Johnson really have no regrets? Are all presidencies—from OSU to OU and Missouri State—synonymous? Did universities presidents ever have easy, 40 hours a week jobs? No.

Football on and off the field of nightmares not dreams

Unfortunately, for the sake of The Ohio State University, the theme of “university failure” is inseparable from football. Not only has the university and city of Columbus-dominating team lost to “That Team” two years running, but the sixth highest paid head coach in the US—at an outrageous and wasteful $9.5 million per year, more than ten times the president’s salary—mismanaged the second half of the game and contributed directly to the shameful defeat.

I admit that I do not watch, or attend, OSU football games. Eighteen years in Columbus have soured by former interest in so-called “collegiate” sports. Unwilling to suffer once again the sanctioned mayhem in our University District home area, my wife and I fled to sane Pittsburgh for “The Game” (where both the Pitt Panthers and the Steelers had away games). I learned about Ryan Day’s miscalculations that led to the collapse of team morale in the third quarter, not in the unconstrained boosterish Columbus Dispatch, but in the New York Times sports pages. (Ari Wasserman, “How Ryan Day failed Ohio State in yet another loss to Michigan,” Nov. 26, 2022) 

Similarly, it was the national sport reporters who were adamant that the four “best teams” were not the ones selected for the playoffs that include the New Year’s Peach Bowl. OSU’s selection was based on its appeal to the television audience, not its prowess or coaching on the field. Its record of only one loss hides the weakness of its opponents, an OSU-styles strategy for “success.”

Not unrelatedly, the Dispatch reported on December 8 that “Ohio State football’s assistants salary pool largest in nation in 2022.” OSU’s ten on-field assistants are paid a combined $8.83 million. The relevant comparison here is the Big Ten (now 14)’s highest ratio of administrative to faculty salaries. Professors and staff do not count at the 49th ranked university in the US, tied with Georgia (in the scandal-plagued US News and World Report rankings, but lower in others).

Another mark of a “failing institution,” Ohio State’s domination and identification with (all but professional) football (and to a lesser extent men’s basketball) contrasts starkly with the ability of Michigan, Stanford, and UCLA, among a few others, to win championships without degrading and financially under-valuing both their academic “missions” and achievements, and student lives. Regardless of anyone’s sincere interest in (no longer) amateur, collegiate sports, OSU’s profiteering football promotion adds to the immaturity of a city lacking in identity and contradicts any serious “mission” of the overly larger, disconnected, and mismanaged university.

IT: Information Technology

Year after year, the failure of a huge technologically-oriented university’s IT shocks incoming—and also continuing—faculty, students, and staff. All its major elements, beyond its short-handed problem repairing on-campus staff, are out-sourced. Nothing is locally developer or maintained.

Is it surprising, then, that the out-of-date and inadequately maintained Carmen course management system has a habit of crashing during semester final exams and grading?

Provost’s Office aka Academic Affairs

With respect to the Office of Academic Affairs or Provost’s Office, I will be brief. I have discussed it in detail in “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022; “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022; “The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022; “University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022.

It spawns Associate Provosts and Vice Presidents like an uncontrolled infection for which there seem to be no vaccination. Few have comprehensive job descriptions or any measures of evaluation. They do not seem to communicate with one another or the disconnected parts of the too-large university. Increasingly, their uninformative titles include unhelpful, irrelevant terms like “strategic” and “initiative,” when their statements, for example, about enrollments, academic “plans,” or diversity and inclusion but seldom equity speak to neither. I see no concrete “initiatives” and nothing “strategic.” Together they serve to further divide rather than disconnect the mega-versity. They actively obstruct faculty efforts year after year to develop an integrated, university-wide, actively educational general education curriculum.

These qualities appear unmistakably in the recent dishonest report on admissions and enrollment that attempts but fails to camouflage OSU’s continuing inability to increase racial minority enrollments despite years of promises, poor slogans, and no programs, and the new “academic plan,” which is neither a plan nor academic, as I have explained. These are institutional embarrassments as well as both professional and public failures. They blatantly contradict the outgoing president’s unknowledgeable obsession with her fictitious “model land grant university for the 21st century,” based on ignorance of the historical origins of the Morrill Act and an appeal to the 1990s “digital cloud.”

Overall, Academic Affairs’ most salient quality is its numerical and salary excess, both absolutely and in comparison to other universities. Meanwhile, faculty numbers steadily decline as do faculty salaries in comparison to administrators. This is a rare instance where OSU is a national leader.

Wexner Medical Center

I recently wrote about scientific misconduct, and gender and age discrimination at the signature (that is, the largest signage and purchased naming rights at OSU) Wexner Medical Center at the request of researchers. (“The enterprise of scientific misconduct: Malpractice at Ohio State University,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 26, 2022)

That is the tip of the melting iceberg of a center for health and medicine that under the enforced but misguided direction of a formerly successful but now failed billionaire. This is Leslie (and wife Abigail) Wexner, best friend of sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein and enrich from selling women’s underwear through Victoria’s Secret.

Long the major force on the university Board of Trustees, Wexner was personally responsible for Gordon Gee’s “second coming” as OSU president just as Gee was facing termination at Vanderbilt University. For a promised $100 million—which my sources tell me has not yet been fully delivered—the Wexners bought naming rights to the medical center. This translates into the twin thrust of “Wexner” posted incessantly across the center in over-sized letters, and the now failed retailer’s domination of a medical institution about which he knows next to nothing, for which his out-of-date “business models” are inappropriate..

With its main campus on the south and west sides of OSU and its uncoordinated, apparently directionless spreading into certain middle class suburban areas, growth without focus on either human use or health, the center incessantly promotes itself as “nationally ranked,” but does not state actual rankings and fields. That contradicts the hype. The cancer hospital is the worst offender. It claims incessantly that each person’s cancer is “unique.” No one ever asserted the opposite.

Under Wexner’s iron fist, the quality of care has diminished, equipment is less often state-of-the-art, staffing levels have fallen, and the imperative is money-making. It is a “cash cow.” As a patient, I am spammed with alternating unnecessary telephone and online MyChart “reminders,” and requests for donations, as if the obscene overbilling of Medicare and my secondary insurance did not suffice.

Past and present medical researchers and physicians (some of whom have left the medical center by choice after decades of service) ask me to write about this and Wexner’s inappropriate direction and control. Quality of care and attention to patients has fallen in my 18 years as a patient despite the very best efforts of my excellent physicians. New buildings, from Jameson Crane Sports Medicine to New Albany and Dublin overbuilt regional large boxes are were designed with no involvement of medical providers and are unfit for human occupancy. My physicians and their staff work in mounting dissatisfaction and worsening conditions which I as a patient experience firsthand.

Neither the medical school nor the medical center focuses on the population of Columbus or Franklin County whose demographics are poor in national comparisons. One telling element is the medical school’s rush to announce a new program in rural medicine to appeal to Republic state leaders while ignoring the needs of the cities. Another is the uncontrolled, often dangerous growth and non-stop construction.

Relatedly, Leslie and Abigail Wexner established the Wexner Center for the Arts as a supposed “gateway” to the central campus. In typical fashion, this “gateway” stands as a physical roadblock to the university via High Street, not a gate. Its failure parallels the design and financial failure of the largely vacant South Campus Gateway buildings, one of Campus Partner’s unplanned, uncoordinated, and financial-loss “developments.”

What is distinctive, and revealing about the Center for Arts is that it has no collection of its own. The Wexners are world-renowned for their private art collection long sought, it is said, by great museums around the world. Only once did they display parts of it publically—a wide range of pieces from “great” artists but none of them the artists’ great works—but donate none of that. Yet another institutional failure and inexplicit OSU characteristic. OSU and the Wexners give naming-rights a new dimension.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.