Harvey J Graff

Part One

The proximity of “Buckeyes” and “America’s Opportunity--for a Few--City” is partly historical accident. Although main campuses of some American state universities originated in their states’ capitals, OSU was sited outside developed Columbus on land stolen from Indigenous Peoples following passage of the segregationist agriculture, manufacturing, and mining-focused Morrill Land Grant Act.

In the twentieth century, the city steadily expanded to surround the large, rural-landscaped campus. OSU never adapted to its home town or became an urban university. It never routinized more than superficial connections with the city or pursued excellence in urban studies despite now having many uncoordinated, competing “centers,” “schools,” “colleges,” and departments. These have never been campus strengths.

For the past three decades, OSU actively if quietly collaborates with developers—at financial loss and public contradictions—to build a brick wall of overpriced, unaesthetic, often substantially underpopulated apartment buildings around the university. In the process and never acknowledged, it recklessly destroyed campus-area haunts and adjacent historic neighborhoods instead of working to maintain or enhance valued landmarks. Alumni regularly repeat their sense of loss.

Homeowners, many of them of decades’ persistence, are threatened, never supported or reassured meaningfully. Great opportunities, demonstrated by other urban public universities, are dismissed. Both the President’s office and Off-Campus Student Life are unresponsive. Their services have declined over the 18 years that I have lived here; promises made over the same period never met.

Regular slogans about “partnerships” and “neighbors” are empty rhetoric, contradicted daily in brick and mortar, by university and City. OSU actively and passively damages its environment and environs, especially the historic University District, Weinland Park, and now west campus. As student environmentalists’ repeated protests underscore, this includes OSU’s anachronistic, environmental damaging sources of  campus power.

These actions contradict the president’s slogans. OSU takes responsibility for nothing. It can’t even decide on the location of its “gateway(s)” or its fictitious “arts district.” This would be comedic if it were not tragic.

City and university conflict in one major respect: OSU has its now trademarked “The” along with symbolic mascot Brutus Buckeye and theme song “Carmen, Ohio.” Columbus has no urban emblems, symbols, or songs. While OSU’s badges of identity are superficial sales-pitches, always for sale or rental, the city lacks relevant or accepted slogans, symbols, and identity.

Both share an exceptional disinterest in recorded history and historical memory. OSU’s history department, along with city institutions, share responsibility for that. Local history is somehow “beneath” the department, but not those at Harvard, Columbia, Penn, Chicago, or UC-Berkeley, among others.

Columbus has no institutions with a commitment to serious historical research and writing. The Columbus Dispatch’s occasional “historical” essays are amateur antiquarian footnotes with no substance or sense oof historical significance. Two of the city’s three statues of Christopher Columbus remain in storage. OSU’s Thompson Library is punctuated with a large statue of arch-segregationist former president William Oxley Thompson (despite many continuing protests).

As I have documented in many essays but bring together here, university and City share unusual degrees of similarities amid fundamental separation. They include disorganization and mismanagement, lack of communication, dishonesty and lack of accountability, failure to serve their tax-and tuition-paying constituencies, and unqualified leadership administering predominantly through weak sloganeering.

Two peas in a pod: the 14th largest city in the US and only city of any note with a mid-19th century at-large, unreformed city council and no city manager; and 49th ranked US university (tied with University of Georgia) just surpassed in in-state rankings by the University of Cincinnati. For both, pretensions exceed both prominence and promise. Yet promises rain and reign.

Columbus is more than 220 years old; OSU more than 150. Neither has a learning curve: the ability, or the interest, to learn from its own experience and history. Among the firm signs: the city is always named as Columbus, Ohio, never Columbus; the university cumbersomely repeats its chartered nominative The Ohio State University. In 2022, it went so far as to copyright “The” (shared with a commercial product) as a marketing, not an identification measure. It generated more ridicule than praise. And a few dollars.

Equally revealingly, only in the late 20th century did either university or city begin to aspire, and clamor for more than local and statewide recognition. The city was almost 200 years old, and the university almost a century and a quarter. One mayor in the 1990s declared that Columbus was no longer “Cow Town,” which no one claimed it to be. And only in the mid- 1980s and 1990s did OSU look beyond athletic notoriety (remember Woody Hayes’s Buckeyes, and Hayes’ scandals) and Ohio’s borders. Late bloomers? Or (re)tardy?

Five disconnected but inseparable “town and gown” parallels

Although I am not certain about all underlying reasons, gown and town share the same defining characteristics. Explicating the causes is an important task for future research. I suggest beginning with the interchange of personnel over more than a century including City representatives and staff with OSU degrees, the relations of both to the state of Ohio and major private interests, and the Buckeye state’s pretenses and insecurities which often impinge on the formal and informal disrespect and denial of the rights of constituents and enrollees both of whom pay required fees of different kinds.

Unqualified, unresponsible leadership  

The City and The OSU share strong traditions of unqualified leaders who know little about their responsibilities, domains, or the knowledge and skills required to accomplish their jobs. Columbus mayors and city councilors rise step-by-step within the system by patronage, appointment, and waiting-in-line through the party system. That network puts no emphasis on knowledge or skills, including the ability to communicate meaningfully and effectively, let alone make policy or govern.

Mayor, City Council, and city staff do not know the meaning of or the relevant laws about conflict of interest, or the contents of the 1914 City Charter. Similarly, Ohio State refuses to accept that it is legally obligated to honor formal Public Information Act requests, respect applicable laws and written agreements, and respond to employee or student complaints as well as litigation and reporters. Allowing statutes of limitation to expire and union-breaking are specialties, along with alternatively repeating falsehoods and maintaining silence.

The lawlessness of both City and university is under-reported by loyal local media but remains rife. This includes corruption as well as conflicts of interest. President Gordon Gee once threatened to fire a student newspaper editor for accurate reporting on the university. Since that time, The Lantern, supervised by faculty and staff, is rarely inquisitive and sticks to sports. For its part, the now-USA Today/Gannett-owned, no-longer daily or edited Columbus Dispatch, always a major city booster (and long a real estate developer), permits only one of its declining number of reporters to write critically about the city.

None of OSU presidents or provosts in the past 25 years—I have known most of them personally—had any interest in learning about the overly large and disconnected university. None of them was or is well-qualified for their position. The current president never oversaw an individual campus; the provost’s professional experience consists of relatively small, highly selective private institutions and positions in health and diversity, not cross-disciplinary academics.

The president is an engineer; the provost a medical doctor. Despite the president’s conceptions of “the model 21st century land grant university” as a subsidiary to computer chip manufacturer Intel and a medical center, those are only two parts or colleges of the 65,000 student main campus. Her anachronistic notion of the “21st century” centers on the digital “cloud” of the early 21st century. Her conceptions of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness bear no relationship to reality. When added to the incessant addition of largely undefined and repetitive senior vice presidents and vice presidents, disorganization, disconnection, and either or both mismanagement or lack of management are accentuated to unrivalled heights. No other American or even worldwide university compares to The Ohio State University.

Proliferating numbers of undefined and duplicative vice presidents and vice provosts only add to the problems. Overpaid and uncoordinated, they alienate faculty, staff, and students. They grossly waste resources that are urgently needed by others. Relevant expertise is equally rare at the levels of vice-, associate-, or assistant- this, that, and the other thing. The university’s lack of publically accessible organizational charts and job descriptions is revealing.

Administrators are overpaid, while faculty and staff are underpaid, absolutely and comparatively, the data show. The football coach’s salary rises to $9.5 million, while none of the athletic department’s revenues accrue to academic or student service needs. (The president is paid about $900,000 with unexplained bonuses. Her predecessor negotiated his substantial “bonus” at the same time he negotiated his next position in California.)

The City is dramatically disorganized and unusually bereft of expertise, leadership, and responsibility. Inexplicably, not only is the unrepresentative, at-large elected-City Council a remnant of the mid-19th century, there is no city manager and no qualified city planners.

The few department or division directors who are both knowledgeable and responsible lack sufficient resources and the ears of their supervisors. A number have contacted me directly to ask for ideas, information—including the policies and practices of other cities--and patience about their services. They lack the resources to do their jobs. One actually cried over the telephone because they lack the human and financial resources needed to do a job that serves the entire city. I have personally given walking tours of the University District to Neighborhoods staff. Most personnel and offices, however, are unresponsive and uncommunicable. That begins at the top and ends at the bottom.

Almost no one in City government knows much about the city of Columbus or cities more generally. City councilors know little, but give away millions of dollars without coordination; connection; developed proposals, complete budgets, timetables, or measures of accountability. There is no interest, or knowledge, of either undefined constituencies or the city as a whole, including public services, health and welfare, standards of living, housing, sanitation, or safety.

Comparatively and by all available data (city, county, state, or national), Columbus is failing. But no such admission comes from the sloppy sloganeering mayor or city councilors without constituencies or defined responsibilities. Visitors comment on the filth, potholes, broken pavement (on which I broke my leg on Memorial Day—the property owner responded responsibility; the city with silence), unplanned and confusing roadways, out of control and unpoliced traffic and parking, unregulated scooters and bicycles, poor public transit, rudeness, pollution, poverty, and homelessness.

Others across the US see reports of crime and murders, including the continuing series of fatal shootings especially of unarmed young black men by police. I am questioned by colleagues, friends, and members of the media across the world.

Almost never mentioned is the years-long continuing probe of systemic racism in the Columbus Police Department by the US Department of Justice. Still, the Mayor and President of the City Council fund lucrative, indiscriminate early retirement programs, weakening an already short-staffed and uncoordinated force. Mayor and City Council, as well as Chief of Police, respond by repeating old, weak slogans, rather than instituting and tracking basic changes.

The roots of both City and university failure are complicated and contradictory. Understanding begins with following the tracks of disorganization and mismanagement, poor communications, exchange of money, and broad disinterest in serving the relevant, tax and tuition paying publics. Both join, first and last, in leadership by poor slogans.

Disorganization and mismanagement

City and university rival each other in their unpredictable, almost unique degrees of disorganization. That problem is inseparable from mismanagement. Or is it lack of management? It is hard to discern the difference. On some levels, it doesn’t matter. But with respect to knowledge, leadership, responsibility, and especially accountability, it matters a great deal.

In theory, the mayor is responsible to the public. It fact, he marches to the beat of private, not public interests. He closely follows his predecessor and continuing mentor, now an even more influential advocate for developers as head of the Downtown Development Commission non-profit, for-profit self-appointed group. Private interests, sometimes masquerading “in the interest of the [undefined] public” play—and pay for--the tune of the piper to which a succession of mayors awkwardly and inarticulately dances.

Incessant slogans of “my fellow Buckeyes” and “Born to be a Buckeye” to the contrary, like her predecessors, the university president follows the dictates of the substantially self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, communicated through a long-serving senior vice president who has no interest or knowledge of academics. Disinterest in the work of faculty, students, and staff—outside of Athletic Director and head coaches, and to a lesser extent deans of engineering and medicine--is all but written into the job description.

For both institutional entities, lack of organization, coordination, relationships between parts and whole, along with illogic and irrationality stain the muddy life bloods. Residents and students pay the bills but never come first. Neither City nor university is in any sense democratic, not even rhetorically or metaphorically.

Chief executives neither lead nor coordinate. They sloganeer, seldom effectively. The parts remain disconnected. The sum of the components is never a coherent, functioning whole. The sheer degree of disconnection, lack of coordination, absence of communication, duplication, and internal competition is staggering, against all odds. Quite literally, no one is in charge. Except, perhaps, in their imaginations.

For the City, this translates into an out-of-date, disconnected and dysfunctional limited departmental structure that neither makes logical sense nor even pretends to meet the needs of almost one diverse million people. Glaringly, public services are underfunded and understaffed, unable to meet the publics’ daily needs. Professional expertise is far from the norm; it is the exception.

Not only is there no central department of urban planning, but the lack of qualified and credentialed planners and planning shows itself on almost every street and intersection: from design to traffic, sanitation and cleanliness, mass transit, and safety.  In my own neighborhood, I personally connect young student tenant neighbors to the appropriate city services when neither their landlords nor OSU Student Life meets their needs.

City Council is non-representative; committee assignments make little sense; committees are inadequately staffed and unknowledgeable. There is almost no unrestricted, open time to exchange views with residents, despite email subscribers’ bombardment with notices of show-and-not-tell minor political theatre. Pretenses to the contrary abound.

With no professional city manager, the City simply does not function as a living, breathing, growing set of communities with real urban probelm. Mayor and Council neglect city services as they award tens of millions of dollars to unqualified for-profit and not-for-profit favorite organizations without full proposals, timetables, budgets, and measures of accountability. The contradictions visibly litter the streets, pavements, and built environment. The litter is material as well as metaphorical. This is the Columbus Way: pay for play; no vision of the city; no urban policies. There is no recognized real city, as I have detailed in other essays.

Not only are public services and public interests—that is, publics, plural--ignored. But mayor’s and Council’s kneejerk response to their contributors’ and favorites’ incessant requests for tax abatements in one form of another materially weakens the budgets of the already overstressed, underfunded, and understaffed public schools and police departments among other basic city functions. The City, and the media in general, show little unawareness of the vicious cycles the City perpetuates.

Overly large but geographically contained, the university parallels its surrounding city. Very large relative to other institutions, it otherwise parallels its physically containing context. On one hand, the 65,000 student main campus is much too large. But on the other, none of the countless proposals to reduce the size functionally and organizationally, socially and educationally by enhancing cooperation, communication, shared interests, and promoting coordination, organization, and communication made since I joined the faculty in 2004 has been adopted. The parts proliferate; compete, and grow farther apart. A great many students and faculty resent and reject this assault on the worlds of learning, preparation, and growth they seek in too many ways to count.

Destructive competition and distancing increase steadily against the interests of students, and the public that the separate as well as the central elements of the university purport to serve. Different colleges and schools—and within them, departments—compete for admissions and enrollments, which in turn determine budgets, numbers of faculty, and course  offerings, in a bitterly-fought escalating cycles.

At Ohio State, within the last decade, the then director of admissions (who quickly moved on), with no faculty discussion, unilaterally decided to begin over-admitting STEM undergraduates and under-admitting all others. This includes the sciences and social sciences as well as the hand-wringing arts and humanities.

The underlying, and overarching, question is often simple arithmetic, not advanced mathematics. Faculty accurately predicted the obvious consequences: with too few students, budgets fall; new hiring and replacement of departing and retiring faculty cease, numbers of courses decline, enrollments and numbers fall…. The unbalance tilts ever more radically. But basic arithmetic is not a strength of the “model land grant university for the 21st century.”

Of course, no one listens to faculty. The influence of trustees, legislators, and ignorant “reading” of cultural issues is too strong. Ironically, with no self-awareness, STEM fields have the temerity to complain that the sciences, in particular, no longer offer sufficient numbers of basic courses for their students. Many of the over-admitted STEM students drop out, change majors, or fail out. Unfortunately, as across the nation and the world, the arts, humanities, social sciences, and basic sciences themselves complain and compete rather than uniting.

Even more contradictorily, despite t years of former president Michael Drake’s sloganeering about promoting minority undergraduate enrollments especially in STEM, their percentages actually fell. This story only appears in the fine print. Drake’s notions of budgeting pivots on bulk orders of toilet paper and double-sided color printing. Seriously.

Many of the STEM students long for a more foundational and integrating education and relationships with a wider array of fellow students. Preexisting divisions and disconnections widen. Today’s students struggle both inside and outside their classrooms. Without romanticizing earlier forms of modern universities, the core of higher education is gone, unlikely to return. Campus, society, culture, polity, and economy all show this as does the city of Columbus, Ohio.

*Readers Note: For elaboration, more examples, and documentation, see my continuing series of essays especially in Columbus Free Press, Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; and newspapers. See also Kevin Cox, Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way (Ohio State University Press, 2021) and Ellen Manovich, “‘Time and Change Will Surely Show’: Contested Urban Development in Ohio State’s University District, 1920-2015,” Journal of Social History, 51 (2018), 1069-1099.


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 on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary conditions 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 is 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.