Harvey J Graff

Part Two

Failure of internal and external communication

Part and parcel of the foregoing is the lack of effective communications systems and open, integrating, and supporting cultures that modern institutions require. The City of Columbus admits that its comms systems are a disaster, from website to online to telephone. When I first attempted to communicate with both staff and Council, one legislative aide came to my home to explain how I might try to contact appropriate parties for different issues and problems. They began by stating “it’s impossible to learn this from our website.”

I share what they taught me as widely as possible. Everyone I have spoken or written to within the City agrees: all City of Columbus communications systems need to be scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up. I have proposed that they publish a guide or handbook to the City. All agree.

But nothing happens except repetitive slogans and self-promotion. For example, rather than give the 311 complaint- and problem-reporting system the necessary resources to do its important work, including maintaining service 24/7 as urgently needed, the City’s Department of Private (aka Public) Service purchased a new website from a private vendor. It has never functioned successfully. This matters because some requests for police action require reporting through 311 while the latter is only open on Monday-Friday business hours. Problems do not follow business hours. Regular lag-time for responses is several days if ever.

Columbus Police communications are slightly better. Persistence sometimes pays off but responses to non-emergency calls are a crap-shot. Not only is the telephone system constantly changing and far too cumbersome, the basic knowledge of both operators and the police officers they may or may not dispatch is inconsistent and contradictory.

Every CPD commander and Internal Affairs inspector to whom I have spoken admits that police training and coordination are inadequate. I am extremely tired of trying to explain to the inconsistently responding officers what the laws of the City are and that the University District is a historic residentially zoned neighborhood. It is not a university-owned late juveniles’ playground with no rules.

It does not help that CPD has among the highest percentage of officers residing outside the city among larger department in the US. Analogously, a great many city employees live outside the city, and the donated OSU president’s mansion is in Bexley, east of the city and miles from the university.

My former CPD district commander urged me to file Internal Affairs complaints about these and other problems. I have done so. Despite the efforts of serious, responsible agents who sometimes spent hours talking to me, all were dismissed without investigation. Changes in leadership lead to no serious changes in organization, response, or service. Both IA and commanders are transferred randomly.

As to OSU, the first clue is that university communications is titled University Marketing and Communication. Communication is decidedly secondary to marketing. Even the daily notices about research are self-promotional 100 word sketches by faculty or college public relations staff with no regard for salience, significance, or importance. I note that after the President’s Office forbid the Provost, Assistant Vice Presidents, and managers who had been seeking my professional advice from communicating with me, University Marketing and Communications stopped as well.

Among their “contributions” are incessant repetition of “My Fellow Buckeyes,” “Born to be a Buckeye,” the almost obscene “Buckeye Love” campaign, Brutus Buckeye, and Carmen, Ohio. Almost none of their, or Student Life’s, self-promotional slogans are correct. For example, 60,000 students do not live in the University District. Brutus does not answer questions—audibly or knowledgeably, at least….

Internal communications range from poor to nonexistent, mirroring the disorganization and lack of coordination across the mega-versity. Unlike other major universities, OSU’s publications from the once proud but now sports-dominated student The Lantern to campus-wide, alumni, or scholarly publications are slim.

Honesty and accountability

Neither the City of Columbus, Ohio nor The Ohio State University functions honestly or accountably, not to its supporters and donors, nor its residents and taxpayers and students. Neither  serves its plural communities responsibly. At least as importantly, neither accepts criticism, however well documented, or complaints. No criticism can be constructive in the eyes of both City and OSU. That is the Columbus and the OSU Way.

The City’s contradictions begin and end with its mid-19th century elected at-large City Council with no professional city manager. This stands high among Columbus’ very few claims to exceptionality. Undemocratic is not a proud badge even in the US in 2022. Lack of accountability begins here. It continues with the City functioning poorly within the terms of its only slightly updated and amended 1914 City Charter.

As I have detailed in the experience of the substantially destroyed historic University District, a homeowners’ residential area was transformed by the City’s all but automatic granting of code variances to larger and larger landlords, property-owners, and developers. Laws about number of properties owned and unrelated persons living together have been all but ignored as well as new building; everyday code strictures about building and property maintenance, cleanliness, sanitation, parking and traffic; and much more.

OSU could easily have been a major force for neighborhood stabilization and preservation, though either or both serious (and well publicized) mortgage assistance to faculty and staff to promote high levels of homeownership, and university purchase of larger houses for use as student theme houses. Both have been done very successfully at many other large and small, public and private universities that are committed to their university districts and are true “Campus Partners,” not aids to private developers.

Instead, OSU ignored the fact that the UD had housed almost all it students until the first dorms were built after World War II and that its neighbor is a historic homeowners’ residential district. Neither university nor City appreciated the area’s history any more than their own.

The City continues actively and passively to neglect other older neighbors from Weinland Park to Franklinton, Linden, Bronzeville-King-Lincoln, and the Hilltop. There is no sense of a city with diverse publics. Never in its more than 200 year history have Columbus’ residents, property-owners, taxpayers, and voters stood as priorities. Instead  the City responds to the voices, dollars, and power of larger developers, property owners, and corporations. That is the Columbus Way.

Geographer Kevin Cox traces the shaping of the city’s growth and its limits through annexation in Boomtown Columbus. Wealthier suburban areas held their limits through incorporation. They surround the city. The result is a pockmark of the propertied and prosperous with good quality schools, healthcare, and goods and services, and their absence. Of course, it is color-coded.

OSU has its parallels, gradually expanding its munificent land grant of dispossessed Indigenous land. Always supported by the City, it conducted is own forms of annexation north and west of the Oval, devouring older residential streets in part to build student dormitories, then expand the swelling for-profit medical center, and now constructs a so-called, undefined “Innovation District,” with the partial underwriting of income tax transfers (TIFFs) by the City of Columbus.

Playing lose with the law is long a university modus operandi. The secretive, never really public OSU will never allow the writing of a documented legal history. If it did, it might well begin with the shaping and reshaping of its endowments from land to buildings to cash; its secrecy despite public records requirements and legal obligations of a public, state-supported institution; administration and faculty misconduct from research to sexual harassment and abuse; athletic scandals; the 30 year failure to recognize and respond to the Dr. Richard Strauss sexual abuse of male student athletes; the current litigation over the alleged misuse of the Moritz College of Law endowment by the naming family; thwarting faculty and staff labor organizing campaigns; and threatening student government officers.

To this ugly roster, we add largely unadmitted, ongoing crises of hazing in fraternities and sororities; and sexual harassment, abuse, rape rampant in dormitories and fraternities. A “suspended” fraternity happily is the wildest in the University District and somehow is permitted to rent six different houses. Not only not admitting that it shares in sweeping national patterns, OSU remains largely silent. The power of alumni and the Board of Trustees far exceeds the importance of student as well as female and trans-gender faculty and staff well-being and legal rights.

For the past decade, the central administration makes much noise about mental health, campus and off-campus safety, public health during Covid, and student debt. For all the overflowing verbiage and endless self-promoting sloganeering, very little has been done concretely. Mental health problems expand dramatically with much less change in resources. Waiting times are excessive, and counselor competence often low.

Covid responses have been muddled, too often shifting and unclear. Mask, testing, and quarantine requirements changed too often, with requirements for on-campus and off-campus resident students conflicting. Both case and vaccination reports confused more favorable on more favorable levels with uncounted off-campus and overall experiences. Was this accidental or purposeful? The greatest single failure was removing the campus mask requirement in spring 2022 just as 1000s of students headed to crowded southern beaches for spring break.

Much like the City of Columbus, the campus area is unsafe, regardless of the President’s and Campus Safety’s contradictory announcements. Area policing has never been adequate; students rarely well advised; neither risk factors nor city laws and best practices clearly and systematically communicated. No one—city or university—inspects rental properties for basic security. Students have died as a result.

Several of the largest landlords’ houses are identifiable by broken front doors and windows, and lack of working doorbells and security cameras. There are fewer regular city and campus police patrols, comprehensive reporting, and 24-hour reporting systems today than 18 years ago despite a rise in crime and rising student and parental fears. In 2022, OSU simply gave up on its own reporting of on- and off-campus crime, never reporting that its system was always late and incomplete. It now depends on the unreliable and even less complete, once-a-day LexisNexis digital system. No one admits that that system almost never reports the robberies, car and catalytic converter thefts, and break-ins about which that OSU sends out its own tardy warnings..

Take one recent, revealing example. In August and early September 2021, a relatively minor increase in reported crime with some violence took place in the campus area. Both reflected citywide trends, a seldom noted fact. This prompted a dramatic overreaction by university administration, broadcast by the president, and by out-of-town parents.  Shrieking and sloganeering proliferated instead of studies and development of policies and plans to enact them. That is the OSU and the Columbus Way.

Proudly proclaimed by OSU’s president, the university’s major response, for which one still unidentified city Public Safety officer was bullied into signing off, was the installation of a shifting but small number of portable lamp posts on public, and sometimes private, land in the University District.

I call this physically symbolic sloganeering. The president much too quickly claimed a dramatic reversal in the incidence of reported crime of any kind within a few weeks. In the span of just a few days, she claimed contradictorily 40, 80, and 60% declines.

Inspection of the data immediately reveals that her grand assertions were based on single digits. Citation of percentages is irrelevant and misleading. Did the Ph.D. in Engineering know this? At the same time, I spoke with CPD officers and a district commander, and Campus Safety officers. They all dismissed the small numbers at useless, and noted that it was far too soon to make any judgments.

Evidence on the ground tells a dramatically different story. The lamp posts were actually planted without full public vetting or complete formal approval, my City sources tell me. Almost all were located extremely close to permanent lighting. They did more harm than good: blinding drivers on the roads and shining brightly into private homes’ windows. Some were located on private property without permission. No one in either City or OSU offices of Public Safety knew or knows the reasons for their location.

The President next flogged the still undeveloped and unimplemented notion of committing an insufficient but repeatedly touted sum of $2 million per year for up to 10 years for additional campus-area safety. A year later, there is no developed proposal, budget, funding source, timetable, or any metrics for assessing impact and accountability. In the meantime, she commissioned a local consulting company with no relevant qualifications to produce a report that attempted to applaud her inaction with no new data. OSU surrenders to campus area crime.

That, we know well, is both the OSU and the Columbus Way. The City often actually spends the millions without developed plans, budget, timetable, and terms of assessment. The university usually stops with the slogans.

In sum, Columbus, Ohio and The Ohio State University refuse to serve their residents, tax-payers, and voters, and tuition-paying constituencies. Neither accepts responsibilities regardless of their formal or informal, externally or self-imposed commitments. To an astonishing degree, both public institutions are lawless. Both violate their charters and their slogans.

Substituting slogans for service or leadership

Finally, as I have noted before, both City and OSU govern poorly largely through weak and poorly enunciated slogans. Although this is a common practice among universities and cities, both Columbus institutions are outliers on that spectrum. Neither—especially the city--has a strong identity or a documented history. The major slogans are trite, silly, misleading, and intentionally distracting.

The city mayor runs on about “Opportunity City” aka “Opportunity—for a Few—City.” He is the only person on the record to exclaim that. His response to record-setting violent crime and murder is to declare “Violent Crime is a Health Crisis,” take no meaningful action other than to weaken the already inadequate police force, institute early evening teenage basketball games, and assign police to parks where murders are rare.

He leads in the well-established Columbus Way of ignoring the publics’ interests for paying private interests and in conflicting interests. The Short North with its expanding developers and developments, is now the City’s favorite child. The needs of the city as a whole matter little when compared to special interests.

Led by the walking caricature of Brutus Buckeye marching with the BDBITL—The Best Damn Band in the Land— Buckeye Nation does no more than spout the university’s slogans. These days, they are dominated by “model land grant university for the 21st century,” which contains more anachronisms and contradictions than I can enumerate.

Diverse and Inclusive without Equity, never with a plan, timetable, budget, or metrics for assessment. Spectacularly, the new Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan. No, not a free miles plan or a credit card: it is a slogan to reduce student debt without lowering the costs of college, a magic trick. In its first year, 2022 for the graduating class of 2026, it enrolls a grand total of 125 of 7500 incoming students. The president’s wife leads the fund-raising campaign. Engineering professor president: please explain your arithmetic? We are eager to learn your new “New Math.”

Uncertain futures

The likely futures of both town and gown are not bright.

*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.