Harvey J Graff

You won’t read this in the Columbus Dispatch or hear it on WOSU. NBC Channel 4 misreported this story on Oct. 17, either purposefully or ignorantly by their “investigative reporter, who doesn’t’ actually investigate. But as usual, truth speaks far more loudly and clearly than either than silence or distortion.

The issue in question is important to all Ohio taxpayer, students and supporters of public higher education, and to at least some Buckeyes. This compelling matter is the tricky question of six-year university graduation rates, what drives them, and what they mean. A more complicated problem than the seemingly simple percentages appear to signify, understanding them is like peeling a piece of fruit’s layers of skin.

OSU and Channel 4 brashly celebrate the rather old news (a February 2022 report on 2020 from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics—that is, early pandemic) that Ohio State University’s six year enrollees’ rate of graduate was a superficially impressive 83%. They compare this to a national average across all institutions of 64%. Both fuss that OSU is the highest in Ohio, of course, just as the new tower of the Convention Center Hilton gives Columbus the largest hotel in Ohio. Only is its final seconds—but not in its online written report—does Channel mention only a few of the majority of the Big Ten (plus plus) universities with a higher graduation rate. Of course, that includes “that school up north,” aka the University of Michigan.

Hidden by Channel 4 and OSU is that nationally, OSU ranks number 63 (lower than its recent US News and World Report ranking of 49 in US, tied with the University of Georgia but higher than its international ranking by Times Higher  Education of 139).

Among all US universities, five small colleges graduate 100%; Harvard and Yale 98 and 97% respectively; Notre Dame 97%. Among major public universities, University of Virginia 93%;University of California at Berkeley 92%; UCLA 91%; North Carolina 90%; Florida 87%; Georgia 85%; Washington 84%.

Among the Big Ten, Northwestern 95%; Michigan 90%; Maryland 86%; Penn State 86%; Illinois 85%; Wisconsin 85%. That places OSU 7th in the Conference. What would anyone, especially in Ohio or Michigan, say if their football team were ranked seventh in the conference?

OSU’s administration’s response either did not know these comparisons or the context of the data. Charlene Gilbert, a professor of special education and Senior Vice Provost for (undefined) Student Academic Excellence, blurted, “We have a deep commitment to being the model 21st century land grant university.” Gilbert is one of OSU’s literally countless and increasing number of vice provosts who lack a clear job description.

She repeats one of President Kristina Johnson’s many slogans. Unaware of the segregationist and narrow economic focus of the original land grant colleges, the closest that Johnson comes to an explanation or description is a muddled reference to the “digital cloud,” a late 20th century development, not a “model” for the 21st century.

Ignoring the well-documented realities of 65,000 student OSU, Gilbert continues baselessly and awkwardly, “I think we owe it [63 in US, sixth in Big Ten] to a real deep commitment at OSU to supporting our students, and making sure that they have the resources and the infrastructure so they can succeed in their classwork, succeed outside the classroom, and eventually go on to graduate.” From “real deep” or “eventually,” I must ask if she is actually speaking with no sense of irony or contradiction.

Channel 4 and Gilbert leap to scholarships and financial aid on which OSU also ranks low. They end with a rhetorical nod to Johnson’s new Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan. No, not a mileage plan or a credit card, with no full proposal, timetable, or budget, it aims to reduce student indebtedness without reducing costs. That’s a real challenge to the engineer president. The unfunded plan serves 125 of 7500 incoming students in the class of 2026. This simply cannot be taken seriously, at least not yet.

Finally, again with no knowledge, or sense of irony or contradiction, Gilbert slides on to “On top of mental health, peer support, and academic resources, Gilbert said OSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (but not Equity, as in DEI) is growing [sic] more than 30 targeted programs to keep students on track.” (Do they also provide running shoes?)

Channel 4 notes, “The NCES data shows [sic] slightly lower graduation rates among Black, Hispanic, and Native American students.” Unmentioned is OSU’s declining rate of Black admissions and enrollment in STEM fields despite former president Drake’s sloganeering without policies or programs. Despite lots of noise, African Americans remain are grossly underrepresented; 12% of Ohio’s population, to approximately 6% of OSU’s. Analogously, average family income along with percentage of higher-paying out-of-state students steadily mounts.

With regard to student well-being, mental health, and either or both academic and “student life,” and on-campus and off-campus support systems, OSU fails. First, examine the actual programs; second, speak to the often depressed, distressed, advisor-less students who long for more active and positive peer and adult relationships.

Gilbert admits none of this as she waxes on, free of content and context: “We’re thinking big. We’re trying to think and scale. We’re trying to think of ways that we can address these issues. And we recognize that if we are able to figure these things out and share them with others, that that will have an even greater impact across the nation. And that’s both an honor and an obligation—a responsibility to do what we can do.”

I’m sitting down and shaking my head in bewilderment. Not only does she cast everything in an undefined future tense. But, shockingly, she seems more concerned with “hav[ing] an even greater impact across the nation” than in meeting the needs of OSU’s own students with whom OSU’s administration is shockingly unfamiliar.

On this note, I turn to OSU’s many hatted Vice President for Health Promotion [not Health], University Chief Wellness Officer, Dean of the College of Nursing, and Helene Fuld Health Trust Professor of Evidence-Based Practice, Bernadette Melnyk. She opines on student mental health in the Opinion page of the Columbus Dispatch on Oct. 17, 2022, “66 percent of OSU students feeling burnout. Mental health strained on all levels.”

Far too busy, juggling her hats, to know much about students, Melnyk uses terms like “burn out” and “mental health” carelessly; she makes no effort to discern pandemic and long-developing patterns. Even defined colloquially, undefined, “burn out” among students long predates the pandemic. Her “surveys” bear no relationship to reality. The “condition” is nearly universal.

Ohio State has never responded to endemic student or faculty and staff mental health problems. That is, with more than slogans. The problems have been ubiquitous. When my own students in the mid-2010s sought counseling, they were told there was a two-year waiting list. A recent graduate told me that when he checked, OSU had two full-time psychiatrists for its 65,000 students.

Melnyk waxes emptily when she writes, “That’s why we—university leaders, parents and educators across all levels—must be proactive in not only anticipating the difficulties our students face, but also prepared with resources and tactics to help them recover, rejuvenate and thrive

Proactive? Is that in the plan for the “model land grant university” for the 22nd century?

References: See my “Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022; “The Fallacies of ‘the Shadow Curriculum,’” Academe Blog, July 1, 2022;  “How Young People Have Changed,” Letter to the Editor, Inside Higher Education, Aug. 4, 2022; “Recreating universities for the 21st century without repeating the errors and myths of the 20th century?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 7, 2022; “Universities Must Help the New ‘Lost Generation,’” Academe Blog, Sept. 16, 2022’ “Growing up was always hard to do. It’s getting harder, and universities are doing little to help,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 26, 2022;  “Colleges can learn from sports figures about mental health,” Inside Higher Education, Sept. 13, 2021. All available on publications’ websites.


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 August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.