Big O logo of OSU

As a retired Ohio State University professor and 17-year homeowner in Columbus’ University District, I have encountered the steadily increasing numbers of undergraduate and graduate student renters for years. This year, my wife and I interact with our student neighbors and other students (especially those walking their friendly pandemic dogs) we encounter on our regular evening walks. When we wear our matching “Octo-Hug” T-shirts, many students express their enthusiasm and compliments! These interactions create powerful impressions. (This essay follows and is supported by my 

Beginning with the eight young women who live next door, all science and engineering majors, and a similar group directly across the street, we often chat. They are responsible young citizens, serious students, who delight in learning that their neighbors are retired from OSU. They are pleased to learn that one of us is a former professor of history and English, and both of us are interested in their activities, supportive, and ready to help if needed.  

OSU does not prepare them for their off-campus rentals and their location. Underscoring OSU’s long-term irresponsibility, they have many questions about relevant laws, tenants’ rights, landlords’ legal responsibilities, and expectations for their own civic and civil conduct. They are both surprised and unsurprised when we tell them that long-time residents have asked the university for years to provide basic education rather than meaningless slogans about “the Residential Experience” and “One University District.” 

Two days after our first conversation with one next door student while she and her mother were moving her belongings in, three of them knocked on our door with a platter of brownies they baked for us. They wanted to know the rules about trash pick-up days and what can go in the recycle bins. We share extra space in our trash bins with them; eight have much more garbage than two.  

We advise students about Columbus’ laws and ordinances regarding safety, parking, noise and crowd limits, drinking, bicycles, scooters, and the like. We inform them about their landlords’ responsibilities and liabilities, and their rights. Despite requests from remaining owner-occupiers and students themselves for decades, OSU’s Office of Student Life does not address these issues.  

OSU’s own ratings by students of their landlords and property management companies regularly document the largest companies (NorthSteppe, Hometeam, and Buckeye) having the lowest ratings; online sites list the many complaints filed and declared. Student Life does not communicate these facts. However, it touts on its website the owner of the worst of these companies, Michael Stickney of NorthSteppe Realty, as a valued asset. Stickney, in turn, presents himself as if his properties are a part of the university. OSU makes no effort to correct that misrepresentation, perhaps because he has donated at least $5 million dollars to the university. 

Our encounters with these young people reinforce my sense that there are three types of off-campus (and probably on-campus) students. The first are maturing, responsible, dedicated, and neighborly, who are eager to make acquaintances, welcome assistance, and appreciate our thanks for keeping their parties under control and picking up trash afterward. They are the far largest proportion. And they desire information and relevant education. 

The second, much smaller group is the less responsible but not malevolent students who lack self-awareness and basic common sense. I call them “the clueless.” A house across the street exemplifies this category. When asked, they lower the level of their music, pick up the empty beer cans and red paper cups from their front yard, and on July 4 stop shooting fireworks into our front yard. It simply does not occur to them to do this in the first place. 

The final group, I believe, is the smallest but the most problematic. They are the most reckless and dangerous. Scattered throughout the University District, at least four houses rented by them (from the large landlords) are within a half-block of my house. They regularly and with impunity violate noise, crowd, alcohol, and obscene signage laws. Ignorant, arrogant, and disrespectful responses greet requests to honor regulations and laws from both neighbors and the Columbus Police Department. Often offshoots of fraternities and from out-of-state (with parents who complain to OSU about crime and the like), they think that people like my wife and me do not belong in the University District. They tell us “to move to where we belong” and/or “to f**k ourselves.”  

Unfortunately, some members of the Columbus Police Department agree with this view and show no respect to us. Other CPD officers tell us that they are unable to enforce noise ordinances and police large, illegal gatherings. On one hand, they fear that any effort to intervene will provoke escalation and potential violence. This prevented a responsible law enforcement response to the violent property destruction of the “Chittfest student riot” in March 2021 despite more than sixty 911 calls requesting action. 

On the other hand, conscientious officers tell us that they are under-resourced and lacking sufficient personnel in the area. Poorer and minority-dominated areas of the city receive much greater law enforcement attention than the overwhelmingly middle-class and white University District. This is an example of racism and reverse discrimination intertwined that the city of Columbus must recognize and address. 

Added to this is a fundamental misapprehension by some officers that OSU owns most properties in the district and is or should be accountable. Many students share this misunderstanding, which property owners and managers like NorthSteppe reinforce by promoting themselves as if they are part of the university. The officers and students are surprised to learn that OSU owns almost no off-campus buildings. (OSU’s general failure as a property developer is a separate subject.)  

The university does nothing to clarify this inaccuracy or to take responsibility. This is even more the case today than it was 10-15 years ago. 

As to OSU, there is little to report. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the university offered the pretense of awareness and a limited degree of responsibility. It had a telephone hotline for reporting problems, occasional campus police patrols, and photo-op appearances in the University District by President Gordon Gee, some senior administrators, and Student Life representative Willie Young. That stopped by 2010, replaced by an online reporting site that, in our experience, never sent an acknowledgement for a report, let alone a response.  

Safety in the area became a major concern during the summer of 2021. A small spike in reported crimes received excessive attention because of the city-wide crime wave, and OSU was slow to voice concern. The Office of Student Life is a very large and disconnected operation with many of its leaders new to the university with little experience in neighborhood relationships. It is not well integrated with Campus Safety or the planning offices.  

When OSU did respond, after a series of robberies and assaults within a few days, it pointed to its safety alerts that are dispatched 8-12 hours after a reported incident, to largely vague and not-yet-enacted safety taskforce recommendations from last February, and to general comments of concern aimed at parents, especially out-of-state parents who were calling repeatedly. 

Repeated statements by OSU and the city result in portable light and camera standards placed at questionable locations and a bit more patrolling, often by CPD officers in patrol cars or on bicycles for lengthy periods in one location.  

Neither the city police nor the city’s neighborhood enforcement divisions actively enforce existing laws or respond consistently to non-emergency calls and 311 reports. Code and ordinance violations especially by the large companies continue unimpeded and unregulated.  

This is clearly insufficient—for both long-time owner/occupiers, most of us with lengthy associations with OSU, or the off-campus student population. I am now cooperating with the Columbus Dispatch, The Lantern, and NBC4 News. I have appealed directly to Columbus City Council and the City Attorney. In preliminary conversations, their acknowledgement of the problems and their responsiveness exceed OSU’s. We shall see….