Harvey Graff

I continue my examination of The Ohio State University. In this essay, I focus on several dimensions of public health. Ohio State has a large medical center and various public health programs. Yet they are not involved with the university’s public health endeavors. See my previous essays: “Colleges can learn from sports figures about mental health,”Inside Higher EducationSept. 13, 2021; “For Ohio State, bigger is not better,” Columbus Free Press, Sept. 16, 2021; “The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District,” Columbus Free Press, Sept 14, 2021; “Columbus’ University District: Students and the institutions that fail them,” Columbus Free Press,Oct. 8, 2021;“OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov 2, 2021; “‘Update’ to Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2021.

The media and internal commentators have not addressed a series of public health incidents in relationship to each other. Some are relatively well-known; others are not. I point to a continuing, unacknowledged pattern of neglect and overt failures over several decades. Together, they constitute public health crises. I begin with the scandal over deceased Dr. Richard Strauss’s sex abuse of male student athletes and continue to the university’s response to mental health problems among its students; its response to the Covid-19 pandemic; and the misunderstood crime “problem” of the campus area.

The Strauss scandal is the best known but not best understood of these incidents. It now has its own Wikipedia entry. The case involves hundreds of credible allegations of sexual abuse that occurred between 1978 and 1998, while Richard Strauss was employed as a physician in Ohio State’s Athletics Department and Student Health Center. An independent investigation announced in April 2018 into the allegations, conducted by Perkins Coie law firm, concluded that Strauss abused at least 177 male student-patientsand that OSU was aware of the abuse as early as 1979. In 1996, Strauss was suspended. He continued to abuse OSU students at an off-campus clinic until his retirement from the university in 1998. The report faulted OSU for failing to report Strauss’s conduct to law enforcement or take action.

The 2019 admittedly incomplete report acknowledged the allegations of hundreds of other victims of abuse. Accusations and investigations also implicated assistant wrestling coaches including now Congressman Jim Jordan who denies complicity.

In May 2020, the university made settlements of approximately $250,000 to fewer than 200 of the 500 or more students who claimed abuse. Two points are salient. First, OSU refused to respond to direct allegations literally for two decades. When it tardily responded in the late 2010s, it dragged its feet and allowed the statute of limitations to expire without responding to hundreds of claimants. Second, the settlements that OSU made pale in comparison with those of other major universities faced with similar but smaller numbers of sexual abuse offenses. Most notable are Michigan State’s physician’s abuse of female gymnasts and Penn State’s football coach’s child abuse victims, who were paid settlements of several million dollars each.

In mid-November 2021, OSU President Kristina Johnson offered her own “apology” at a regular meeting of the Board of Trustees. That governing body did not join her. Civil litigation continues; it is far from concluded.

OSU has a well-known practice of refusing to respond to requests for information from individuals, the legitimate media, and attorneys, and ignoring Freedom of Information Act FOIA requests for which it is legally obligated. I had to suspend my own university-funded research into Campus Partners’ selling properties at a loss to developers along High Street.

The second major example is less known publicly but no less disturbing. In the wake of the early 2000s national waves of documented reports of regular mental health “problems” among students, with most other universities, OSU expanded student health consulting services. Reputable persons report that over a period of years, local mental health providers reached out to the university about its incidence of cases.

Led by female graduate students, a number of my students attempted to secure the much-touted aid. Admitted but not publicized: The average waiting time for a first appointment was a full two years. No comparable programs exist for faculty or staff. [See in general, “Colleges can learn from sports figures about mental health,” Inside Higher Education, Sept. 13, 2021; regular reports in the New York Times, Inside Higher Education; Chronicle of Higher Education.]

More recently, the university responded inadequately and without acknowledgement to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2020-21 academic year when the campus was officially closed, OSU reported both tests and cases tardily and incompletely. It often confused—whether by design or through ignorance—data for on-campus, off-campus, and all tests and cases. Regardless of methods or motivations, the results maximized the incidence of testing while minimizing the frequency of cases. It is no surprise that OSU’s case reports are not credible in comparison with other universities and localities. See reports in national media including New York Times and Washington Post; CDC, Johns Hopkins University; Inside Higher Education; Chronicle of Higher Education.

As universities planned for Autumn 2021 re-openings and hybrid programs, OSU was late in comparison with hundreds of other universities, including many in its own Big 10 conference, to require masks at least indoors on campus and vaccinations. Both came only after repeated, increasingly urgent demands by faculty, staff, and students, including the Wexner Medical Center. When the president finally followed other public universities, some in even redder states politically than Ohio, she allowed three full months for initiation, let alone completion of vaccinations. These actions promoted unnecessary disease risk on campus and among the university’s populations.

To promote vaccination among students, OSU imitated in almost a caricatured way Ohio governor Mike DeWine’s failed VAX-A-MILLION lottery. Constituting what I termed “VAX-A-NICKEL” in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper The Lantern Aug. 16, 2021, like the state’s flawed program, OSU did not target the unvaccinated specifically, nor did it promote full rather than partial vaccination. To the best of my knowledge, the prizes were never defined, nor were more than a few of the winners announced. On the Ohio program, see my essay and letter.

After I had drafted this essay OSU’s student newspaper The Lantern Dec. 1, 2021 reported that “Ohio State does not plan to enforce testing requirement for individuals who are exempt from the university COVID-19 vaccine requirement.” Parroting Gov. Mike DeWine, OSU’s “spokesperson” Ben Johnson states that “the university is focused on encouraging vaccination and voluntary testing rather than requiring . . . .” This is a dangerously false dichotomy that contradicts public health and basic logic. [See my “Gov. DeWine abandons science and the public,”Busting Myths, Columbus Free, Press, Dec. 1, 2021; “Governor Mike DeWine’s Continuing Covid Failures: The Ohio Tragedy,” Columbus Fress Press, Oct. 13, 2021; “DeWine’s covid blunders and the failure of VAX-A-MILLION,”Columbus Dispatch, June 25, 2021.

With the Buckeye football season, Ohio State launched Covid super-spreader events at the 104,000-seat Ohio Stadium. This is best exemplified by the Sept. 11, 2021, game against Oregon. First, in contrast with other universities and professional teams, OSU did not require proof of either vaccination or a negative Covid test for admission. As with other inactions, the university feared the negative response of fans and state Republican officials. Second, it permitted open tailgating, an invitation to the surging Delta variant. Third, unanticipated and unprepared, the entry to the stadium’s electronic scanning system for tickets on cell phones failed due to system failure and a “lack of education” resulting in packed entryways and near violence—and the need for police intervention.

My next example is best known to readers and ongoing: the crime “crisis” on- and especially off-campus in the University District. See my essays cited earlier. To summarize, the dramatically misunderstood situation remains confused and problematic because of OSU’s refusal to admit and respond to facts with responsible policies.

First, there is no crisis of crime. There is a modest uptick or blip in long-term patterns of regularly reported crime in the area as a result of a much larger, city-wide wave. It largely continues trends temporarily interrupted by a 2020 decline due to the absence of students when in-person classes were suspended. A handful of assaults in July and August 2021 received exaggerated coverage in the local media. Without any real connection, they were linked with the November 2020 shooting of one student. Both OSU and the Columbus Police Department failed to respond immediately with facts to clarify the situation.

Second, for its own unclear purposes, OSU promoted the false notion of a “crisis” in order to present a largely rhetorical response of non-fact-based, undeveloped, disconnected, and flawed actions that do not amount to a coherent policy. Without data or explanation, OSU claims success for its substantial inactions. The much-repeated assertion of a decline in reported cases amounts to a numerically and statistically insignificant handful. No evidence connects that tiny change to OSU and City of Columbus actions. OSU misled extremely worried parents across the state and the country, concerned students, and the media. The actual data have always been clear to anyone who looked.

Third, OSU’s typically tardy response derived first from its slow implementation of a campus safety taskforce established late in 2020 after one student’s fatal shooting. The taskforce reported in late winter-early spring 2021, but at the time of the unnecessary furor over the assaults, only two of its recommendations were implemented by August. By mid- to late-September, OSU claimed that all but two had been enacted. Almost no one paused to read the task force recommendations. Overwhelmingly, they are exceedingly general and vague. Together, they do not constitute a comprehensive or integrated course of action.

The same is the case with the university president’s announcement of a $20 million fund-raising effort to support safety over 10 years. There is no plan for developing the fund and no plan for expending the resources should they be raised. Moreover, $2 million per year for a campus with almost 90,000 students, faculty, and staff is itself insufficient.

The OSU President and Office of Campus Safety most frequently cite the distribution first of nine, then six more, and, it is said but not confirmed, an additional five for a total of 20 portable lamp posts and a smaller number of surveillance camera stands in the University District. See repetitive statements from OSU and their reporting in the Columbus Dispatch and other local media.

They are physical symbols symptomatic of a public relations promotion campaign, not a public safety effort. No one at OSU or the Columbus Police admits to knowing why they are stationed where they are. Most are in relatively well-lit spots. Typically, they blind drivers on the roads and shine into the homes of nearby dwellers. They are also very noisy. These facts are stated repeatedly. OSU all but ignores them.

Instead President Johnson and her lieutenants insist on claiming with no evidence that the lamp posts are responsible for the undocumented “decline” in crime. They are not. Nor are the lesser-touted “additional” patrols by the Columbus Police and the part-time, paid Buckeye Crime Watchers. These units do not patrol but literally spend hours standing beside bicycles in groups or alone in cars in the same location in well-lit spots. There is no evidence that they respond to actual occurrences or telephone reports of noise and other violations to the Police Nonemergency system. Like the lamp posts, they are rhetorical or public relations gestures.

Unsurprisingly, OSU follows its deeply rooted pattern of leading through slogans, and in the off-campus area placing signs sometimes illegally on unauthorized private property with slogans printed on them. Examples range from “Party Smart” to “WWBD” what would Brutus, OSU’s athletic team mascot, do?; “80% of OSU students have only 5 drinks” only 5?; and “78% of OSU students don’t drive when drunk” the greatest number of students do not have cars, but 22% do drive when drunk!. [Graff, “An Education in Sloganeering: The school where I teach is a study in institutional puffery,”Wall Street Journal, Sept. 30, 2015; “Slogan U Revisited: The limits of university leadership,” Washington Monthly, forthcoming]

Finally, OSU allows the largest, worst-rated, and most-often-sued landlord in the University District to promote himself on its website, falsely proclaiming that he and his NorthSteppe Reality are “Ohio State Student Housing.” This is his return for donations of at least $5 million. In this spirit, OSU neither lobbies the landlords of its off-campus students to obey the law or enforce their tenants’ legal obligations, nor cooperates closely with community members and the agencies of the City of Columbus.

A final note and another dimension. Only publicized on Dec. 1, 2021 by WCMH NBC 4 is the rise in on- and off-campus reported rapes in dormatories and fraternity houses. This is expected given the well-publicized national trends widely reported in Inside Higher Education, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, etc. and increasing calls for the elimination of university fraternities and sororities. OSU has been conspicuously silent about this, The newly announced data show a regular increase in reported always an undercount rapes in 2018, 2019, 2020, and a rise in September and October as students returned to campus.

How many symptoms does it take to prescribe cures for OSU’s public health crises? How many interventions to respond knowledgeably? Slogans do not promote a heathier university.


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 including The Literacy Mythand The Dallas Myth. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.