University Hall

The Ohio State University is Columbus’s most well-known landmark. Its national prominence stems primarily from its major, largely male sports teams, with Wexner Medical Center a distant second. Beyond the sports news, one of the nation’s half-dozen largest public universities attracts little attention.  

The Dr. Richard Strauss sexual abuse scandal and alleged misuse of endowment funds at Moritz College of Law – and OSU’s responses – begin to shed light on the unusually opaque institution. This essay is a call for much-needed scrutiny and transparency. After all, OSU is a public university. 

Athletics – and the unbridled quest for championships – dominate all other aspects of OSU, despite its declining revenues. It does not benefit the academic domain. Regardless of financial strains, salaries and perks of the athletic director and head football and basketball coaches only grow, outpacing faculty and staff rates of increase. Passionate Buckeye fans have little interest in OSU as a teaching and research center.  

If athletics are the zenith, university leadership and academic distinction are the nadir. Only in the waning years of the 20th century did OSU begin to seek national scholastic recognition. Although student and faculty recruitment advanced, greater emphasis fell on overstated rhetorical claims and sloganeering. Excessive compensation; limited ability to coordinate a huge, disconnected campus; inadequate knowledge of the institution; and over-attention to public relations characterize leadership. 

Despite his popularity with undergraduates, Gordon Gee is the most notorious example. Twice OSU’s president, he left in disgrace when his rhetoric proved to be objectionable. He coupled distortion with self-promotion. Michael Drake never took the measure of the university; his rhetoric about racial equity did not lead to change.  

The latest slogans are repetitions of the long-touted but undeveloped “interdisciplinary,” “innovation district,” and “public-private partnership.” None are original to OSU and the result so far is a block of buildings under construction on West Campus. Despite its penchant for imitation, so far OSU fails to do that with covid vaccination and mask mandates. So far, Kristina Johnson leads mostly by repeating slogans, although she has suggested, but not yet implemented, a few new initiatives. 

OSU remains a deeply divided institution where the parts compete for resources and cooperation is rare. Its increasing budget surpluses are not shared with the arts and sciences or with the faculty more generally. More than peer institutions, they benefit administrators. 

OSU’s size is more often a liability than strength. The often-touted “land grant mission” of public service is seldom realized, especially in relationships with the Columbus community. Its responsiveness to the University District, home to many students, has receded noticeably. 

The uncontrolled competition on campus benefits the STEM fields and harms the arts, humanities, basic sciences, social sciences, and other core fields. Ironically, that actually limits the development of STEM. This imbalance includes budgets, admissions, enrollments, hiring, faculty numbers and strengths, and more. The result is an unbalanced university – not only less than the sum of its parts, but with a hollow center. Scholarship and teaching are undervalued. Commitments to professors are not kept.  

Despite its self-hype of high rankings, OSU’s standing as a research and teaching institution is middling at best. All reputable measures agree on that and one major index, the Shanghai, shows significant recent decline, especially in STEM.  

Its size, admissions policies, and student aid do not benefit enough students, and certainly not equally. Interest in recruiting minority students – and faculty, including women – is relatively recent and inconsistent. Despite Drake’s rhetoric, the student population, especially in the STEM fields, is only slightly less white and male, and only very recently. Admissions continues to favor STEM and harm, directly and indirectly, the core academic areas. Attracting high-scoring, higher-tuition paying out-of-state students to boost rankings and revenue conflicts with minority recruitment. 

OSU is notably not transparent. OSU rarely responds adequately to inquiries, including Freedom of Information Act requests. The long-delayed lawsuits regarding Dr. Strauss, for example, illustrate OSU’s denials, failure to negotiate in good faith, and inadequate settlement offers when compared to other universities. Investigations of professorial sexual and research misconduct are tardy and opaque. 

Current battles over the use of endowment funds are also symptomatic. The alleged misuse of the Moritz Law School endowment is best known, but not alone. If these suits are sustained, that would constitute a damning indictment of a major public university, a breach of trust and contract, and a failure in leadership. 

As Ohio’s major public university, Ohio State has enormous responsibilities to its many constituencies. Throughout its history and today, it has not met those obligations or approached its promise. OSU can only meet these challenges by admitting and confronting them directly and publicly. 


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University. He was an Ohio Eminent Scholar and founding Director of LiteracyStudies@OSU. A comparative social historian, he is author of many books on social history.