Kristina Johnson

On the occasion of the Board of Trustee’s February 2023 meeting, Ohio State’s shortest serving, and soon-to-be unemployed ex-president, millionaire Kristina Johnson broke two-and-a-half months of ignoring repeated calls from faculty, students, and the community by launching an anti-factual and myth-making campaign for face-saving and rehabilitation. (In general, see my “The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 7, 2023. See also my “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022; “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022: “The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022; “University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022)

As it did relentlessly with ex-presidents Gordon Gee and Michael Drake, the non-daily, non-news, and unedited Columbus Dispatch steps forward as her press agent. The higher education reporter does not remember what she wrote in late November; publishes lengthy articles based on contradictory anonymous sources; never fact-checks, and repeatedly contradicts herself. She does not understand that the Board-ordered resignation resulted from multiple factors and personalities. (See Mike Wagner, Jennifer Smola Shaffer, and Sheridan Hendrix, “Power struggle: Sources vary on clash between Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson and Les Wexner” and “Four things to know about Kristina Johnson’s departure from Ohio State,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 15, 2023; compare with Hendrix, “Ohio State President Kristina Johnson expected to announce her resignation,” Nov. 28, 2022; “Ohio State President Kristina Johnson confirms she’s made ‘difficult decision’ to resign,” Nov. 29, 2022; “Here are five things to know about outgoing Ohio State President Kristina Johnson,” Nov. 29, 2022; Michael Lee, Megan Henry, and Micah Walker, “Community reacts to Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson’s resignation,” Nov. 29, 2022; Hendrix, “Ohio State President Kristina Johnson had big plans. Now she’s stepping down,” Nov. 29, 2022; Hendrix, “What did expensive search net Ohio State? A ’failed presidency,’ experts say,” Dec. 1, 2022; Judson L Jeffries, “OSU operating in ‘opaque ways.’ Public deserves to know why president resigned,” Dec. 1, 2022; Wagner and Hendrix, “’I have no regrets’: Kristina Johnson talks stepping down as Ohio State president,” Dec. 3, 2022; Ma Filby, “Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson one of many presidents quitting as rising job demands mount,” Dec. 5, 2022. 

(See also Johnson, “Dear Buckeye Community,” Nov. 28, 2022; OSU News, “Kristina M. Johnson announces leadership transition,” Nov. 28, 2022; Gaurav Law, “Voices Around the University React to, Express Shock about President Johnson’s Resignation,” The Lantern, Nov. 30, 2022; “Letter from The Lantern: Ohio State Deserves Answers on President Johnson’s Resignation. Here’s Why,” Dec. 1, 2022

(For national notices, Eric Kelderman, “Ohio State president Leaves Big Plans Unfinished as She Steps Down,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 29, 2022; Josh Moody, “Ohio State President Mysteriously Resigns,” Inside Higher Education, Nov. 30, 2022)

Johnson’s seemingly abrupt, but to close observers unsurprising withdrawal stems from many failures of which bullying staff in Bricker Hall; refusing to work with faculty, students, or the (plural) communities; poor management and communications; neglect of the university as a whole; lack of policies but overflowing poor slogans; and likely clashes with long-serving and influential trustee and head of the Medical Center Board Les Wexner (for which he has no qualifications and is detested by the professional medical staff for prioritizing income above healthcare and over-expanding physical plants without commensurate staff). (My sources report that the Wexners have not yet fulfilled their $100 million contribution for naming rights and his name in oversized letters.) Needless to say, there was unhappiness and resistance from the onset with the appointment of OSU’s second woman and first openly gay or lesbian president.

Relatedly, due in part to the limits of local media and OSU’s administrative complicity, the narrow, controlling, conservative, private interest, and anti-intellectual orientation of the Board of Trustees is not well-known or understood. Not in at least the last three decades, if ever, has an OSU President attempted seriously to educate the Board. And it shows at every turn.

Amelia Robinson’s unchecked and so often partisan Columbus Dispatch Opinion page published Johnson’s self-serving, largely untrue, and ungrammatical declaration, “’I won’t apologize for pushing us all to achieve’ levels deserved…. ‘In October, I realized my relentless pursuit of the agenda we’d set was no longer in step with what the majority of the trustees wanted” (Feb. 15, 2023).

Of course, OSU-owned WOSU—the worst NPR affiliate in the US--chimed in, as usual uninformatively slip-sliding in broken English all over High St.

The most comical non-reporting unsurprisingly came from the USA Today/Gannett’s color advertising rag or mag, Columbus Monthly. Far from his usual beat, Dave Ghose fell on his face with ridiculous “The Dazzling Rise and Stunning Fall of Ohio State University Press Kristina Johnson” (Jan. 24, 2023) There was no “dazzling rise.” To the knowledgeable, there was no “Stunning Fall.” Only in the poor eyesight of those mislead by the unrelenting self-praise and promotion of Dr. “Born to Be a Buckeye” and promoter of “Buckeye Love”….

Let’s evaluate Johnson’s “‘I won’t apologize.’” Can anyone explain the revealing phrasing? Who has asked her to apologize? To whom?  For what? None of that matters to Johnson.

Johnson was ordered to tender her resignation by the Board of Trustees most likely in October following a charade “review” by extraordinarily overpaid, conservative, non-scholar Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus-consultant Richard Chait. He was paid $250,000 plus a chauffeured limousine while in Columbus. That is established. (See Darrel Rowland, “Consultant paid $250K for Ohio State’s president’s evaluation, other duties,” ABC Channel 6, Dec. 28, 2022, among other reports.)

A favorite of OSU’s Board of Trustees since at least 2006, Chait identified both Michael Drake and Johnson as presidential candidates. In addition to Chait, the Board paid a national search firm, who do not specialize in university administrators, almost $500,000 to review Johnson. As usual at OSU and many but not all other universities, there was minimal student and especially faculty involvement in these searches. (Some quoted members of the University Senate do not know this.)

Among the persisting questions is why the Board, OSU spokesmen, and Johnson herself did not make a shared public statement at the time of the November Trustees’ meeting. None of them have sufficient regard for the needs and rights of Ohioans; university faculty, students, and staff; or OSU’s national reputation to coordinate their efforts and attempt to display orderliness and control over the narrative. So much for “My Fellow Buckeyes.”

Is that part of a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which no doubt includes an agreement about how many millions of dollars Johnson was paid to resign without a public fight, as is the norm in these situations. Neither the Dispatch’s higher education reporter nor either the Ohio University or George Mason University non-experts mentioned that. None of them are knowledgeable about higher education especially “over work” or “failed presidency,” Why their ignorance is privileged is unclear.

Johnson’s self-promotion is almost completely false. There was no “agenda” to “pursue [sic] relentlessly.” She pushed no one to “achieve,” certainly not herself and her “cabinet” who mainly increased their overpaid, redundant, and unnecessary numbers of senior and mid-level administrators during her brief tenure. OSU is a national leader in ratio of administrators to faculty and administrators’ salaries to faculty salaries.

Johnson indirectly maintains that she resigned by her own choice. We know that is not true. She refuses to discuss “circumstances.” Of course, that would not reflect well, and it would violate the terms of her buy-out. Nor will she directly engage her “critics,” or document her “supporters’” praise.

She did not “ask for excellence from every member of the faculty, staff, and my cabinet.” The evidence is clear. Her treatment of staff was among the several major reasons that her resignation was demanded.

She cannot define “excellence.” Or “leadership” especially after holding her own “leadership” positions at Johns Hopkins and SUNY for less than two years each, and OSU for only 2 ½ years before resigning. She never before led an individual let alone a mega-campus before her OSU appointment. She should never have been hired.

She does not “address questions about my agenda and leadership” honestly. She was emphatically not “a change-agent,” whatever she might think that hackneyed phrase might mean. She did not “work tirelessly to enact a sweeping agenda, despite the pandemic challenge....”

In fact, OSU mismanaged its pandemic responses, repeatedly confusing faculty, students, and staff with inconsistent, incomplete, shifting actions and inactions. OSU purposedly confused testing requirements and especially its reporting of cases and vaccinations among on-and off-campus students. Football games were super-spreaders. The needs of staff and faculty, especially with children are never considered (not even in planning the academic and university calendars). (“The Ohio State University promotes public health crises,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 6, 2021; “OSU Falters Once Again, a continuing tragedy,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 28, 2022)

Johnson does not specify exactly who “thrived” or what that imprecise language means. She gained a $238,000 “bonus” after one year; the non-championship winning head football coach is now paid $9.5 million each year, sixth highest in the US. And the overflowing number of Associate, Vice, and Assistant Provosts and Presidents are paid well above national standards. Do they “thrive,” unlike faculty and staff? Students do not.

Like her predecessors, Johnson made no effort to inform herself about the huge, disconnected, and disorganized university. She did nothing to improve organization, communication, or morale. She acted as if she were head of the world’s largest engineering college, not a mega- or multi-versity.

How ignorant, insulting, and dismissive of the university community, and self-serving for her to state in print: “Perhaps others thought the agenda too challenging or too demanding personally, but I won’t apologizing for pushing us all to achieve the levels of performance our students and community deserve.” She never articulated an “agenda,” “levels of performance,” or what “students and community deserve.” “Deserve” is outright patronizing. She had not one development goal with specified program, policy, details, timetable, and budget. Not one.

Part and parcel of the problems are her disinterest in and dismissal of faculty, staff, and students. It is all but impossible for a student to speak with her. That impossible dream requires a formal application with essay. Students tell me that no one has ever been called in. I speak with student who have tried.

Her much-touted course in Spring 2022 was outside her field of expertise, conducted through student project groups, with the instructor often absent, a senior Vice President of Resources and Operations substituting. She informed the prestigious faculty President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee in Autumn 2022 that she had no need to speak with distinguished and eminent scholars—unlike all her predecessors.

She was speechless when a group of environmental activist students confronted her directly during a sham presentation of a “environmental” award presented to her by the small on-campus Chadwick Arboretum (which has not such authority). One of her handlers yelled at the brave, articulate young people: “why didn’t you contact her through regular channels?” They responded together: we tried for six months. All the administrators stood dumbly.

Johnson also claims emptily that “I have fought for academic freedom….” Public education, free speech, and civil liberties groups throughout Ohio asked her repeatedly to make a strong public statement in the face of the actions of the State Broad of Education and State Legislature. After months of nonresponse, she finally issued an overly vague, indirect, and unspecific statement. I have seen the document. It was shamefully inadequate.

Similarly, she made one vague statement supporting the First Amendment on campus but either does not know or ignored the complexities and conflicts inherent in discussions and interpretation of free speech in general and on university campuses specifically. To the best of my knowledge, she has made no public statements directly endorsing inclusive, factual history and instruction more generally. Slogans. Slogans. Lack of knowledge. Her Feb. 15 self-promotion shows an unacceptable distance from local and national campus issues.

Look at what she purports to be her signature accomplishments summarized briefly in the Dispatch Opinion piece, elaborated performatively and ceremonially at the Board meeting and in her frequent, repetitive less than honest “MY Fellow Buckeyes” spams to faculty, staff, and students. (Sheridan Hendrix, “Here’s what Ohio State President Kristina Johnson said at her last board meeting,” Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 16, 2023)

Bragging about research funding in 2022 ignores the simple fact that those monies do not reflect any actions of a president whose term began in mid-2020. All proposals and awards were well underway before her arrival. She can claim no responsibility. She radically exaggerates in asserting, “We focused on winning large, interdisciplinary research programs… focused on research critical to shaping our society.” Who is “we”? This is baselessly claiming responsibility and causation by the coincidence of time.

OSU functions with the most limited conception and function of “interdisciplinary” in higher education today. It centers almost exclusively on technology with only a bit of science. That barely qualifies for the term or the hype. There is no room for the great expanse of the university in the sloganeering one block with 1 ½ buildings under construction on the Upper Arlington-West Campus border. My colleagues in science and medicine join those in social science, humanities, the arts, and law in testifying to their exclusion from “interdisciplinarity” and “innovation” OSU-style. (For background, see my Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015, among the literature.)

I am all but certain that OSU “Marketing and Communications” (note the order of words) intended to name the almost completely imitative and aspirational area “Carmen Town,” not “Carmenton,” but blundered. But why not call it Brutus-ville or Buckeye-ville or BV-BV? OSU fooled the Columbus City Council into passing a self-serving income tax rebate districting, thus harming all basic public services in the city, including the public schools. Senior Medical Center personnel tell me that the tax reversion for their expansion was unnecessary.

Then there is Johnson’s ridiculously named Scarlet and Gray Advantage plan. Not only have most student never heard of it—for good reason. When hearing the words, most people ask: is it a credit card or a mileage program?

No one imagines that the “plan” purports to end student indebtedness without reducing costs, a logical, numerical, and financial impossibility. As of this date, there is no developed plan, timetable, or budget. Fund-raising proceeds, led by the departing president’s spouse. Of the first class of students to enter the “program” in Fall 2023: a grand total of 126 of 7500 were included. Can the Ph.D. in Engineering do simple arithmetic? Yet another slogan.

OSU aims to hire about 38 (not 50) new minority (not necessarily or only “racial inequities” researchers) faculty this year to replace more than 500 who have retired, left, or lost positions since the mid-to-late 2010s. That is nothing to boast about.

Furthermore, Johnson’s emphasis on hiring “scholars who research racial inequities in education, healthcare, economics, arts, leadership, and the environment”—but apparently not in technology or engineering--contrasts strikingly with the university’s emphasis on Diversity & Inclusion, rather than Diversity-Equity-and-Inclusion, one of the right-wing and libertarian current attack ads on higher education. Diversity hiring across campus and in students admissions is very unsuccessful, and “OSU is far from inclusive in any sense of the word.

I have long sought to discover if OSU’s obsession with hiring DI officers for almost every floor of every campus building signifies an inability to remember the E inclusively or another incomplete slogan. Or is it an ideological issue? Does anyone know?

What has President Johnson failed to do? We begin a lengthy list with:

  1. Follow Columbus State Community College in offering full tuition scholarships to all qualified Franklin County high school graduates, at least for their 3rd and 4th years. This is a colossal strategic, substantive, and public relationships failure.
  2. Follow Columbus State in building a new, much needed, and appropriate child day care center on campus. Campus facilities have diminished over the last 15 years.
  3. Actively promote student physical and mental health. Second year students are escaping the dorms because the two towers are falling apart, and rape and exposure are rife, as they are off campus as well. Students are warned too late about dangerous drugs. Mental health services are inadequate. Slogan substitute for services throughout the university. (See my “How universities fail their students: The president may be ‘born to be a Buckeye,’ but the students are not. A call to eliminate Offices of Student Life and invest directly in students’ lives,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 10, 2022; “The Ohio State University promotes public health crises,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 6, 2021; “OSU Falters Once Again, a continuing tragedy,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 28, 2022)
  4. In September 2022, Johnson responded to a relatively minor increase in campus and off-campus crime by first grossly exaggerating it—worsening the situation—then extralegally installing portable lamp posts—a physical slogan—that blinded drivers and shined into homes. They had no real impact on crime despite her failed creative arithmetic and specifically ordered report by an unqualified local firm.

Security is inadequate both on- and off-campus. Both are dangerous places. There is little or no policing by Campus Security or CPD despite the hype and slogans. Touted joint patrols do not enforce the law. Block Watchers have no authority. Off-Campus Student Life and Greek Life and Parent Relations do almost nothing. Little noise makers do not stop guns and gangs. Nothing was done to reduce rampant car thefts for almost two years. (See my “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, 202;1 “Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022)

  1. Neither Johnson nor the Vice President or any of the eleven Associate and Assistant Vice Presidents of Student Life (but not student lives) has responded to reports that “Ohio State Leads Big Ten in Hate Crimes” (The Lantern, Feb. 8, 2023) That’s a rare leadership role.
  2. OSU remains the largest land grant institution occupying dispossessed Native American Indigenous lands that has not made a major public statement, apology, and some form reparations.

Johnson likes to ramble about OSU’s land grant origins and its “future as the model land grant university.” She has no understanding of the racial and gender segregation origins of the 1862 legislation or the limits of agriculture, mining, and manufacturing training centers. They were not universities as we recognize them, including their almost completely white and male populations. Her notion of a 21st century “model” is rooted in the 1990s “digital cloud.” Yes, she is an engineer not a historian or educator.

  1. Johnson herself made a weak apology to the victims of Dr. Richard Strauss’ more than 600 victims of sexual abuse over decades as OSU athletes’ doctor. The Trustees have not followed.

But OSU unethically and illegally refuses to make responsible settlements with all known victims, unlike Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, UCLA, USC, among others. The actions of the Legal Affairs Office in court filings, stalling to have their own version of the statute of limitation expire, lying, and neglect are unconscionable. Their courtroom shenanigans are shameful.

  1. OSU takes no steps to withdraw from fallacious US News & World Report rankings, unlike more and more major universities. It boosts about its rankings without ever acknowledging the scandals and limits. It manipulates its own data. (See my “The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022; “University bragging rights: OSU whimpers but doesn’t bite or swallow,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 27, 2022; and the OSU reports cited there. See most recently, OSU News, “Ohio State sets new record with $1.38 billion in annual research expenditures,” Feb. 17, 2023, for a telling example.)

Points 5, 6, 7 directly contradict Johnson’s weak statements about students’ rights. OSU- promoting Columbus Dispatch does not report them or campus safety, housing, and the criminal large landlords who give millions of dollars and about whom OSU does not warn its students.

President Kristina Johnson accomplished very little in her short term. Perhaps she should apologize to all concerned.

Her association with Intel’s coming to Licking County lies primarily in her mutual admiration relationship and fraternization with CEO Patrick Gelsinger, well-known for making up words and phrases. Reports of the May 2022 Spring Commencement where Johnson sycophantically promoted and honored Gelsinger and Intel while they competed for longest, most repetitive, and boring 45 minute speeches were underwhelming. A great many among the students and their families and friends spent the three hours on their cell phones talking to each other.

Because of the outsized OSU College of Engineering, barely an integrated part of the university itself, and a federal technology board appointment, Johnson was invited to the White House signing of the CHIPS acts. She took selfies. Returning to Columbus, she spammed the local newspaper, TV and radio stations, and campus communications with her photos, giggling all the while. It was quite a presidential performance.

I end by admitting that a few of my OSU colleagues do not agree completely with my critical assessment. Why? They believe that Kristina Johnson mentioned words like “academic” and “excellence” more often than Gee or Drake. We agree to disagree about that.

I rest my case with dim hopes for Johnson’s successor. He will be a more mature, better mannered, white, male, heterosexual sexual engineer, in all likelihood.

Her term ends in early May. The Board of Trustees makes no comments about a presidential search. Time marches on but OSU—aside from the Best Damn Band in the Land (TBDBITL)—does not. Go Bucks, as the departing president would conclude.


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, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics 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 was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. His new book project is “reconstructing the new ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity.’”