Kristina Johnson

Dear President Kristina Johnson:

I am writing to urge you to change the "Buckeye Ways" that are harming the relationship between Ohio's flagship university and its most important constituents, the 11.7 million Ohioans.

First, I must persuade you that the university is not supposed to be a playground for its well-connected trustees -- who come from the upper strata of society  and are hardly representative of Ohioans --, the rich and influential, the athletic department, and the Ohio political class.

Rather, OSU should be reflecting the needs and wants of the state's residents. It is the past and present Ohio taxpayers who put up the lion's share of the money and credit to build and maintain this colossus of higher education, yet many of the sons and daughters of those taxpayers have been getting the shaft because they cannot gain admission to the main campus as freshmen.

Nearly two decades ago, OSU raised admission standards that required most entering freshmen to have a 28 or better on the ACT admission exam in order attend the main campus. Otherwise, many were admitted, but were bucked to a branch campus. Many children of OSU grads were prevented from following in their parents' footsteps. This is hardly in the best interests of and hardly fair to thousands of Ohio families.

President Johnson, it is time to reopen the doors of the main campus to more Ohioans with ACTs in 22-27 range.

Second, let us turn to the athletic department and its leader Gene Smith, who gets immense power from his ability to put a national championship contending football team on the field most years and to pull in $150 million or so annually in ticket sales, parking fees, concession and merchandise sales, donations, booster club fees and broadcast rights.

Up until this year, the large revenue stream had enabled Smith to claim that the athletic department is self-sustaining and should be autonomous, as in do what it pleases with little or no oversight from the President. The pandemic that is forcing the football team to play in an empty stadium knocked a giant $100 million hole in the athletic budget. Now Smith wants an interest-free loan from the university to fill the budget hole. He has laid off some folks, but refuses to eliminate costly minor sports such as men's fencing and wrestling, women's fencing and rowing and co-ed shooting,  that drain the coffers and attract crowds of only friends and family. OSU has 30 intercollegiate sports, the most in the nation.

President Johnson, it is time to downsize the athletic department, curb its heretofore spendthrift ways, such as the garish gaming and recreation center for the football players, and put more money into the academic program.

Third, secrecy is the bane of OSU's existence. The university's clandestine ways  regarding releasing information to the media and the public and regarding allowing employees and athletes to talk to the media and the public need to be ended.

The taxpayers of Ohio, the source of OSU's fortune, deserve to know what is going on at their flagship university in real time. Information about injured players is covered up. Information about players sick from COVID-19 was covered up though more of the latter has been released recently. Information about campus crime is often hard to come by. Information about the university's budget and how it spends its money is hard to come by. Policy papers are kept secret. And the massive cover-up of the alleged molestation of athletes by a team doctor was kept under wraps for decades and some it still remains largely in the shadows in spite of millions of dollars of settlements paid to victims.

Almost daily a Columbus news organization, usually the Columbus Dispatch, has to file a Freedom of Information request and go through the clunky Bureau of Secrecy to get public records of what has happened. It takes days and weeks for the records to be produced and they are sometimes unintelligible because of multiple redactions.

And while we are on the subject of news organizations, it is time for you to completely separate  WOSU's  television and radio journalists from the mother  ship and allow them to do investigative reporting and editorializing about OSU and the state government that sorely needs to be done. Holding the state government and its flagship university accountable is desperately needed as the Dispatch and other newspapers shrink their staffs and shrink from their duties to investigate wrongdoing. How did former Speaker Larry Householder and his GOP allies pull off their "bag operation" that has resulted in his and other criminal indictments without being detected by Ohio's newspapers?

President Johnson, please instruct the OSU Bureau of Secrecy, a made-up name for your public information operation, to end this shameful behavior. It is profoundly disrespectful to the source of OSU's fortune, Ohio residents. Since you took over in late August,  you have come across as an accessible, stand-up leader giving the press and public straightforward answers on key matters such as the COVID-19 outbreak and the possible resumption of the football season. You need to do more.

Fourth, OSU has undertaken some slimy business deals in recent years that were not in the best interests of students, faculty, staff, alumni and Ohio residents. The "sale" of the parking lots to a private firm has resulted in much higher fees and much less convenience. The recently utility plans align OSU with the fossil fuel industry rather than the cause of clean energy that students and other environmentally conscious Ohioans want.

President Johnson, please undo these horrible deals and go green.

Fifth, two mishandled personnel controversies kept your predecessor Michael Drake on the defensive for most of his short tenure. Initially,  he fired the marching band director Jonathan Waters for allowing some dubious behavior by band members to occur. Waters was a genius, putting on the most creative halftime shows in the country. Since then, shows have been average at best. Later Drake allegedly tried to fire a football coach Urban Meyer for covering up grievous behavior of an assistant coach, but let him off with a 3-week suspension after some trustees intervened. The head coach left, mad, after the season. His successor Ryan Day had one excellent season, but the jury is out on his ability to contend for the national championship every year like Meyer did. Both incidents involved the football program and athletic department.

President Johnson, suffice it except to say that your time at OSU will be defined more by what happens on your watch in football and athletics than any other campus realm.

But do us one favor. Show some class and do not start nearly every campus speech like Drake did by shouting "O-H" and cupping your ear for the "I-O" response. Better to cup your ear every day and listen very closely to the wants and needs of the 11.7 million Ohioans whose largesse underwrites the university and who are trusting you to steer the gigantic academic ship in the best interests of their sons and daughters.

(Please send your comments and suggestions for future columns to John K. Hartman,  

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