Lantern article

Editor's Note: This article is in no way intended to trivialize the death of Chase Meola. We send our condolences to his friends and family and understand his murder and other campus crimes are critical issues that must be addressed. We appreciate the feedback from readers pointing out the misspelling of his name and that has been fixed.

If you ask OSU parents or students, or OSU itself on certain days of the week, you will be told that The Ohio State University, especially the off-campus University District, is having a crisis in crime and violence. Articles in the Columbus Dispatch and The Lantern student newspaper support that impression without quite saying so or presenting evidence.  

So does the outpouring of uninformed but heartfelt sentiment from the parents of off-campus students, especially the “mad [angry?] moms of New Jersey,” with their billboards in memory of the fall 2020 shooting death of fifth-year undergraduate Chase Meola. As tragic as that death was, it is completely unrelated to present patterns and concerns. The parent-led Buckeyes for a Safe Ohio State appear to have no relationship with OSU or the Columbus Police Department (CPD). No one counsels them. Yet they seem to have the university president’s  ear.  

They rally on private property without permission and campaign to “Light Up the Night” with “More lights! More cameras! More action!” They plant signs in other peoples’ yards before and after rallies. [

The facts, however, tell a different story. There is no crisis of crime. If you examine area-wide and city-wide crime reports, it is clear that the University District has experienced a blip, a modest increase in reported cases of robbery, assault, and violence, not a surge or spike. In contrast, Columbus as a city experiences a surge; the UD reflects the city-wide pattern. Either OSU does not recognize this or makes no effort to publicize it. 

There is a major crisis in university leadership, however. It is aided and abetted by CPD, the City of Columbus, and the OSU parents group. See my essays [ district] and other related articles here. [

As OSU’s slogan-ridden, band-aid practices reveal, “lighting up” not only ignores the basic problems of crime and reduces them to a simplistic solution, but it also makes the roads less safe by blinding drivers and shining into houses. My house was targeted by a lamp tower that was deployed without any discernable reason, according to the authorities. Being a well-connected squeaky wheel, I had it removed. Others lack my personal advantages.  

The lamp towers are noisy and very hard to move. The locations of President Kristina Johnson’s major PR effort of placing all of nine and then six additional portable lamp towers (and solar-powered cameras) are inexplicable and insufficient. No one seems to know who decides on these placements and how decisions are made, neither OSU nor CPD nor the City. Somehow the 15 or a rumored 20 are meant to cover the entire district. (See This is silly, inadequate, and offensive. So is the failure to consult UD residents at any point. []  

This “action” begins to frame Ohio State’s crisis of leadership and failed response. On one week Johnson stirs the flames of fear by emphasizing the rise in crime and danger to students. She then promotes portable lights and camera standards. Less than two weeks later, based on a mere handful of incidents, she alternatively proclaims either a 40% or 80% decline.  

These case numbers are far too small to assert percentage differences, as the former engineering professor should know. Equally importantly, there is absolutely no evidence—of any kind—of a causal relationship. There are only slogans and rhetoric, OSU’s long-standing approach to leadership. (See my forthcoming “Slogan U Revisited: The limits of university leadership,” Washington Monthly, 2021.) 

At press conferences, Johnson, head of Campus Safety Monica Moll, Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers, and city mayor Andrew Ginther stand together asserting at once a crisis and its rhetorical solution. In addition to the tiny number of portable lights, they repeatedly refer to the not-yet completely implemented recommendations of a Taskforce on Campus Safety and Well-Being. (  

This body was appointed in November 2020 following the Meola shooting. It reported in late winter 2021. At the time of the asserted surge of campus-area crime in August 2021, only two of its 16 recommendations had been enacted. 

Now OSU claims that all but two have been implemented. Reading the recommendations gives a different perspective. They are so vague and general as to be less than substantive or amount to a comprehensive policy. Much is made of increased police patrolling and cooperation between Campus Police and CPD. Yet the additional police presence after the purported crisis amounts to one police officer sitting in one patrol car in one spot for hours on end, or a group of bicycle-mounted police sitting on their cycles in the same location for hours, based on our own and our student neighbors’ observations. This is not patrolling or increased safety. 

Johnson and OSU also relentlessly promote short videos on the OSU website aimed at introducing students to self-defense techniques. They offer free small noise makers. But OSU fails to mention, or recognize, the questionable usefulness of these aids if a student is confronted with a gun or a gang, or in an isolated space. As “campus safety,” they are not a serious or comprehensive approach. 

Student Life’s response is to post signs in the University District, sometimes without asking the landowner for permission. The brightly colored but small and not particularly readable placards range from “Party Safely” and “WWBD”—what would Brutus, the OSU team mascot, do, or “Hey Siri, Play Carmen Ohio,” OSU’s theme song, to “80% of OSU students don’t have more than 5 drinks” and “87% of OSU students don’t drive after drinking.” Not more than five drinks? Do 87% of on-campus and University District residents have a car? This is neither thoughtful nor serious. It is a sad joke of coordinated irresponsibility. 

Contradictions, distortions, and ignorance dominate. The president promises to commit $20 million to campus safety over the next decade but cannot specify the targets or the sources of the funds. $2 million per year for more than 90,000 students, faculty, and staff is hardly a confidence-inducing expenditure. [

There is a major crisis in university leadership with many dimensions. It began at least three to four decades ago and has worsened in recent years. As the University District transformed from a mix of owner-occupiers often with student boarders, and smaller rooming houses, to a decline in the former and a radical shift to larger, corporate property owners and managers, neither OSU Student Life nor Campus Police noticed or at least reacted. Nor did City of Columbus Zoning, Code Enforcement, or the police. (See my essays cited above; 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). 

When my wife and I moved to Columbus for me to accept an endowed chair at OSU in 2004, we purchased an 89-year-old home in the UD. At that time, OSU feigned a modicum of responsibility that has disappeared. The result is what we confront today: not a crisis in crime, but a crisis in university and civic leadership and responsibility. 

Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His articles related to this essay are cited within it.