Harvey J Graff

Part One


Faculty, staff, and students are OSU’s greatest assets. But the university’s leaders by sloganeering rarely acknowledge that. Students, staff, and faculty do not share President Kristina Johnson’s incessant personal identification and embrace of “My Fellow Buckeyes” or “Born to be a Buckeye.” They are demoralized. Faculty and staff in particular, but also many students, with due cause, feel locked out of OSU decision-making and communications structures. Disaffection is high.

But senior administrators, awash in their sea of slogans, excessive numbers, and overpayment, do not see this. There is no evidence that they know or care. If Johnson was “born to be a Buckeye,” and both President and Provost adhere to a dramatically incomplete and distorted notion of “land-grant mission,” what else matters? In her mind, OSU is the world’s largest STEM University. Johnson has no time to look up between giving herself awards, giggling and showing selfies to Columbus Dispatch reporters, or watching the Board of Trustees over her shoulders.

Until recently, despite my well-known position as the university’s most public and always fact-based, constructive critic, several senior administrators asked for my advice and responses. They presented themselves as my colleagues and friends. At the same time, the current president’s office will not even acknowledge receiving a communication from me. But since late winter, without notice or explanation, the Provost, an Associate Vice President, a program manager, and University Communications have gone silent, that is, been silenced. Nothing in my writing or input changed. That is one OSU thread to follow.

Dysfunction and disjunction

Over the years since I joined the OSU faculty in 2004 as the inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and Professor of English and History, I vacillate between concluding that the university is the worst-managed large public university in the U.S., or that no one is in charge. The latter seems to be the case on Feb. 3 and 4, 2022 when in the face of snow storms, OSU was the last institution in the region to announce cancellation of in-person classes on Thursday, and the last one to announce its reopening under worse driving conditions on Friday. This shocked and confused students, faculty, and staff, and clashed with all other public and many private educational operations.

Conflicting with U.S., state, and local governments, the U.S.P.S., and the City schools, OSU did not respect President’s Day. Feb. 21. Students, staff, and faculty are again confused, and scrambling to meet their childcare and other scheduling needs. The university removed its Covid mask mandate so that students returned from Spring Breaks travels—1000s from southern beaches--and frolics with no precautions in force. For Autumn 2022, OSU begins classes the day before the Columbus City Schools, ignoring the needs of 1000s of faculty, staff, and students.

And in mid-May, when within less than two days, the university announced that the football coach would now receive almost $10 million per year (about 10 times the president’s) and the basketball coach $3.75 million. And then raised in-tax student tuition by almost 5 per cent.

Functionally, practically, and in day-to-day lives of students, staff, faculty, and the community, mismanagement and non-management play out the same. Neither accords with the nineteenth or the twenty-first century “land-grant mission” on campus or “in the Cloud.” OSU was not a “model” in the nineteenth or the twentieth centuries, and so far, not in the twenty-first.

Anyone who worked or studied at The Ohio State University will not be surprised by my conclusions. Anyone familiar with my essays about The Ohio State University since 2014 will not be surprised that OSU is among the most disorganized, dysfunctional, and leaderless large universities in the United States. As both an insider and an outsider, I demonstrate that one of the United States’ largest public university’s day-to-day practical slogans are the “5½ D’s”: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonesty, and undisciplined.

Leadership: here, there, nowhere

OSU is now led by President Kristina Johnson, who never managed a large campus before her 2020 appointment. Newer Provost Melissa Gilliam has no large or public university experience. Johnson followed predecessor Michael Drake’s fake retirement. He accepted a large “retirement” payoff from OSU at the same moment that he negotiated his appointment as Chancellor of the University of California System. Drake accomplished nothing in his seven years, and never took stock of the complicated, disconnected university. I once had to walk him back to his office from a meeting in the building next door, about 10-15 feet. He did not know the way.

An engineer by training, Johnson is challenged by simple arithmetic: from Covid cases on- and off-campus and vaccinations to campus-area crimes, effectiveness of her sloganeering portable lamp posts, and the reach among students of her Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan to reduce student debt levels. Her expensive and self-promoting “investiture” 16 months after taking office was the occasion for a dizzying number of slogans without substance. Not one has a plan or program, a revenue source, a budget, or a timetable. Nor does OSU’s falsely promoted as interdisciplinary “innovation district” on the western edge of campus, which the City of Columbus was prompted to name as a city income tax rebate area (TID).

Following the well-worn OSU tradition of substituting slogans for leadership, “Born to be a Buckeye” Johnson lowers the bar from the heights of E. Gordon Gee and the decline of Drake. (She states repeatedly that her grandfather was on the OSU football team in the pre-conference 1890s, but I am unable to verify if he actually played.).

As I begin to write, she issues one of her frequent “Note from a Fellow Buckeye,” proclaiming once again that the “values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are fundamental to Ohio State and our land-grant mission.” No one at OSU speaks for non-inclusive diversity or equity or against diversity or equity, at least not out loud. More recently after unpopular, very likely unconstitutional Supreme Court decisions, she announced OSU support for the First Amendment. Apparently, she is not aware of radical differences and great controversies in interpretations of free speech in the United States. Reality has little bearing in Bricker Hall administration building.

These are not historically “the values” of either Ohio State or land-grant institutions. Johnson bizarrely touted the “land-grant mission” at her Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast speech, unaware of either the land grants’ segregationist and racist origins, or the actual terms of mid-nineteenth-century federal land-grant legislation that seized the land of Indigenous Peoples for agricultural, mining, and manufacturing “missions.” OSU makes no effort to reframe its “mission” for the 21st century. OSU’s historical neglect of its home city of Columbus contradicts any easy slogan segues. The University Library retains the name of its extreme segregationist president William Oxley Thompson despite protests from many corners of the community.

As to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” OSU’s slogans especially under its first African American president Drake resulted in no discernable shift in undergraduate enrollments and a decline in Black students in the promoted, heavily-invested, no actually over-invested STEM fields. Racial, ethnic, and other minorities remain underrepresented at all corners and ranks of the university from hourly staff to full-time faculty.

At least as revealing, Johnson took months to respond to repeated requests from Ohio’s education, free speech, civil rights, and minority communities to make a strong statement to the right-wing Republican-dominated state legislature about free speech and inclusive education in schools. When she finally did, she did not mention race even once. Her examples of aspects of American and European history that might, hypothetically, be excluded by threatened legislative action were false and inappropriate. Her latest statement incorrectly praises Gov. DeWine and the State Higher Education Chancellor who are not fans of diversity, inclusion, or equity.

Paralleling her slogans without substance, the President of a university that has more Associate Vice Presidents and Vice Provosts for diversity and inclusion than I can count, cannot name a single ongoing or new program with specific plans, funding sources and budget, or timetable. Curiously OSU duplicative and uncoordinated Vice Presidents and Vice Provosts are typically named Diversity and Inclusion with Equity left out.

Johnson can only repeat a phrase that remains undefined and disassociated from realities, “Our Shared Values Initiative” which “reinforces our culture of care here at Ohio State—advancing our efforts to make us the absolute model of the 21st century land-grant university.” But there are “no shared values,” “culture of care” (whatever that is), “efforts to make us the absolute model” (what is an “absolute model”?), or “21st century land-grant university.” This parallels the almost obscene “Buckeye Love” marketing campaign. University Marketing and University Communications are a single office, disconnected from the daily life of the university.

OSU’s 5 ½ Ds

Among OSU’s countless examples of its “5½ D’s” of disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonesty, and undisciplined; inclusion, diversity, and equity stand out in practice if not in rhetoric. That absence contradicts the rhetoric of presidential sloganeering. It also intersects with the combined explicit and implicit conflicts in many elements of OSU’s actual and aspirational functions: from academics, student lives on and off campus, health and wellness, and its signature but financially draining, unprofitable sports teams and coaches. Despite passing its 150th birthday, OSU remains an immature institution, unable to learn from its own experiences, or plan concretely for its future(s).

Administrative job titles are slogans, not descriptions. The Office of Academic Affairs or Provost’s Office provides a revealing window on the overall problems of OSU’s “5½ D’s.” OAA, as it is known, inexplicably includes the co-interim directors of the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Interim Vice President of Student Academic Success also known as Vice Provost and Dean of University Libraries. It also includes the Vice President and Chief Information Officer, and Vice Provost for Global Strategies and International Affairs. It is not clear why all these Vice Presidents and Vice Provosts are part of the Provost’s Office or why there are so many, and without identifiable job descriptions, at inappropriately high salaries.

As to inclusion et al., Academic Affairs also contains both the Associate Vice President of Institutional Equity, and the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer. Where one’s sphere ends and the other’s begins is nowhere stated or evident. Clarity and organization are not among OSU’s “values of inclusion.”

Nor is the distinction between the Interim Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs; Vice President for Academic Programs; or Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs clarified. Nowhere is there an explanatory organizational chart.

Why are the following all part of the Provost’s “leadership team” and not located elsewhere, if they are actually needed: Assistant Vice President for Administration and Planning; President/CEO, The Ohio State University Alumni Association, Inc.; Assistant Vice President & Senior Associate, Office of Legal Affairs; Associate Vice President for Governmental Affairs and Executive Director of Policy; Sr. Assistant Vice President, Strategic Issues Management, University Communications; Vice President and Chief Information Officer; Senior Associate Vice President, Marketing; Deputy Direct of Athletics; Vice President, Development; Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Office of Human Resources; Assistant Vice President, Chief of Staff, and Sr. Director of Communications; Treasurer & VP of Financial Services & Innovation; and a handful of deans who also carry the title of Vice President all part of the Provost’s Office/Academic Affairs?

There are also Vice Provosts who are not listed in any official summaries. If so many duplicative positions are actually needed, there are other locations that make much greater institutional and operational sense. Yet the Provost is hiring more. Statements of both qualifications and duties are rare.

“Academic Affairs”: Management vs. Mismanagement

This is simultaneously a guaranteed blueprint for dysfunction and duplication, an unworkable organization for operations and communication, and a gross waste of human and financial resources. A Faculty Senate subcommittee report in 2020-2021 demonstrated conclusively that OSU leads the Big Ten and is a national leader in the ratio of administrators to faculty, and in the size of the gap in average salaries between faculty and administration. This sits extremely poorly outside administrative offices among staff and faculty.

Despite overflowing administrators, OSU lags significantly behind other major universities in providing regular, responsible, and up-to-date training and retraining of department chairs, deans, and others; or supervision of academic personnel matters. Both formal and informal, internal and external communications are poor. Neither decisions nor basic exchange of information are satisfactory.

This failure shows itself daily, weekly, monthly, annually. It marks personnel reviews, tenure and promotion, and hiring. Catastrophically, no one in the Provost’s Office intervened when in the early 2010s, with no research or review, but responding to ignorant politics and business, media, and parental noise—and aspirational job predictions—that demanded more STEM student admissions. The unchecked Office of Admissions and Enrollment radically redefined admissions. They recklessly over-enrolled the STEM fields. In doing so, they did irreparable damage to the arts and humanities and also social sciences and natural sciences. Faculty objected and accurately predicted the consequences. That was a matter of simple arithmetic and common sense. We were ignored. Contrary to unexamined fictions, applications in the arts and humanities, and across the arts and sciences were then rising, not declining.

Admissions and enrollment have a direct causal impact on enrollments, and in turn, budgets, faculty and graduate student numbers, and course offerings across the university. The uninformed Admissions actions without oversight of Academic Affairs or the President damaged the heart of the university for decades to come. OSU never acknowledged this, although the Admissions Office perpetrators soon departed for even greener pastures.

One predicted, logical, but unexpected by the many administrators consequence was: the sciences are no longer able to provide sufficient lower-division courses required for aspiring engineers and others in technology fields. Black students remain under-admitted and under-enrolled despite presidential promises and slogans. High rates of admitted students drop out of STEM well before graduation. The complicit STEM fields dare to complain, crying in their beer, while laughing on their way to their proverbial banks.

When student admissions declined in arts and humanities, and also in social and natural sciences, course enrollments fell, fewer courses are offered, numbers of majors decline, and faculty numbers fall. Unscrutinized, but predictable, changes in admissions damage the entire university. In response to the undefined and concrete plan-free promises of chip-manufacturer Intel, OSU (and other central Ohio universities) further unbalance their conceptions of higher education.

Inseparable from unusually poor faculty, staff, and student communication with senior administrators in general—and its dispiriting, disenfranchising impact, this dysfunction has a pronounced depressive impact on the entire campus. The very large but internally disconnected and divided faculty has neither voice nor audience at the top. The functioning of the university shows this daily. The unending supply of administrators does not respond to these problems. The contradictions are multiple.

Faculty hiring and reviews are not supervised centrally, despite frequent complaints by professors at all levels. Even worse is the scandalous inequities of spousal/partner hiring. Unlike an increasing number of universities, OSU has no central guidelines, coordination, or oversight. Hiring falls to the leverage of individual departments, penalizing highly-qualified partners, most often younger women, , not surprisingly. Where are all the Vice Provosts and insurers of inclusion, diversity, and equity? No one knows.

OSU’s slogans about raising numbers and percentages of minority students, and minority and women faculty remain aspirational. There are few and insufficient concrete programs, with funding sources, budgets, and timetables. The present Diversity Hires do not meet the needs created by retiring baby-boom faculty, some retiring early because of mounting demands and stress, a national matter.. Only when such issues are confronted openly and honestly may the President blog and tweet about an inclusive, diverse, and equitable university.

Almost none of these highly-paid and duplicative vice presidents and vice provosts have records of scholarly achievement. Their qualifications for office are unclear. Many lack relevant knowledge and experience, or communications skills.

Yet at this moment, the Provost searches for new senior administrators including an undefined Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Eminence and a Vice President for Inclusive Excellence. Eminence? Excellence? Inclusive? Hirings are occurring as I edit. The result is an unmanageable collection that demands radical reorganization and streamlining if it is ever to oversee Academic Affairs for an integrated university.

References by Harvey J. Graff

Throwing the Baby Out With the Interdisciplinarity Bath Water,” letter to the editor, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2014 

Early-college programs lack many benefits of the real thing,” Commentary, with Steve Rissing, Columbus Dispatch, June 7, 2015 

An Education in Sloganeering,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2015 

How misguided university policies are harming the humanities, arts and sciences,” Inside Higher Education, December, 18, 2015 

The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District,” Columbus Free Press. Sept 14, 2021 

For Ohio State, bigger is not better,” Columbus Free Press , Sept. 16, 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 Ohio State University promotes public health crises,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 6, 2021 

The Banality of University Slogans,” Washington Monthly, Jan. 10, 2021 

Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes,” Times Higher Education, Jan. 17, 2022 

Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership,” Academe Blog, Jan. 19, 2022 

Academic collegiality is a contradictory self-serving myth,” Times Higher Education, Feb. 10. 2022 

OSU Falters Once Again, a continuing tragedy,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 28, 2022 

Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022 

Should colleges make anti-racism part of their mission?” Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 22, 2022 

Ignore the books: there is no single Big Problem with higher education,” Times Higher Education, Apr. 2, 2022 

“Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press,  Part One, Apr. 26, 2022; Part Two, April 29, 2022; “A continuity legacy,” May 2, 2022  

Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022

How Young People Have Changed,” 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  

“Disconnecting Gown and Town: Campus Partners for Urban Community Development, Ohio State University,” forthcoming.


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. Palgrave Macmillan published his Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian is forthcoming. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, and other outlets. 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.