Brutus Buckeye

In a continuing series of explorations, I probe US universities and especially the example of The Ohio State University’s sloganeering, marketing, and self-promotion, most recently in “The OSU Way: Slogans Over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well-Being” (Oct. 27, 2022) Let me repeat, I am not on a singular campaign to tarnish the mixed images of the local mega-university. Rather I explore the largest case at hand.

This chapter’s update progresses chronologically over the past month or two. I begin with new (one of countless cohorts) Vice Provost James Earl Orr, Jr.’s undated “Enrollment Report 2022.” Orr is Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management which must be different from nonstrategic Enrollment Management.

His principal points—presented with charts, graphs, and maps, but never with complete data—are an increase in “total minority enrollment at all campuses”; Columbus campus “new first-year students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class”; Columbus campus “new first-year students who graduated in the top 25 percent”; and “average ACT for the new first-year students class at Columbus increased to 28.9.” That’s “up” from 28.6 in 2021.

Note the strategic shifting from all campuses to Columbus main campus; the absence of meaningful, indeed necessary categorical breakdowns (i.e., differentiation and comparisons among minorities in particular); inattention to meaningful change or lack thereof over time; and no discussion of numerical let alone statistical, contextual, or interpretive significance.

Unmentioned is the overall acceptance and enrollment levels of 71, 343 applicants, 34,341 accepted (48.4  percent), and 7,966 admitted (11.17 percent). This is not mentioned because it is very unimpressive.

The strategic vice provost, following the PhD in engineering president, does not understand simple arithmetic (with Johnson, it is crime, student debt, fossil and non-renewable energy sources).

Also camouflaged is the critical question of in-state compared to out-of-state new enrollees as OSU admits an increasing percentage of out-of-state students for the combined impact of higher U.S. News & World Report rankings and tuition revenue. Of course, the scandal of college ratings grows daily as more leading universities drop out.

In addition to failing to distinguish in- and out-state-students, the pseudo-report’s greatest fraudulent action is hiding the lack of rising in-state Black enrollments just a few years after President Michael Drake’s empty slogans about Black student enrollments without policies, timetables, or specific goals. This contrasts dramatically with increasing Asian, especially Chinese students, who are aggressively recruited but poorly prepared and ill-advised, because the Chinese government and other institutions pay higher tuition and fees. The technical term here is “cash cow.” Their numbers fell during the pandemic but are rising again. Note that the purposely misleading charts include illegible shading by subgroupings only for 2022 but not for earlier years. Lack of change over time is hidden.

Overall, this is unacademic and unprofessional—and astoundingly superficial—manipulation and distortion. The actual data in no way support the Vice Provost’s self-promoting: “Overall, our strong numbers are the result of university-wide efforts to enroll well-prepared students, to focus on student success through targeted programming and to provide our Buckeyes with a tremendous academic experience.” A disingenuous portrayal of first-year enrollment has no relationship to this egregious, irrelevant, and disconnected self-promotion.

From enrollment, we step sideways or down the hallway to the November 2022 much touted by President and Provost Academic Plan, with a color photo of graduating (not continuing students potentially affected by any plan) acting out the “O” in Ohio. The photo is followed by a very brief note by the Executive Vice President and Provost’s “A Sheared Academic Vision,” which never states who shares what.

I must be frank: since I was an undergraduate beginning in 1967 and a graduate student in 1970-1975, and a professor for more than 40 years at three public universities in two states, I have never read such an empty few pages. First, it is not a plan. There is no proposed program or set of anticipated actions. There is no timetable. There is no consideration of needs, resources, or opportunities. There is no budget.

Eighteen illustrated pages’ list but do not define, clarify, or discuss “Goal 1 Advance Faculty Eminence” (eminence not excellence? what does “advance” mean?); “Goal 2 Accelerate Student Success” (“accelerate”? “success”?); “Goal 3 Enhance Impact Through External Engagement” (“enhance impact” of what? how? to what end?  “external engagement” with what, how, why?); “Goal 4 Strengthen Talent, Culture, and Inclusive Excellence”: “Goal 5 Improve Technological Innovation”; “Goal 6 Achieve Operational Excellence”; “Next Steps.” 

The unidentified writer only used their online thesaurus for adjectives but not nouns. I have never seen such a university document. It ends by redefining itself as “a vision.” But “a vision” is not synonymous with a “plan.” Office of Academic Affairs, please purchase and use the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam Webster.

This exceptional document was preceded a few weeks earlier with the equally empty jargon-driven Provost’s Blog “Investing in our faculty.” In 2022, few responsible investments return a profit, and there is no academic marketplace. Isn’t that the preserve of the Business School or Department of Economics, not the Provost’s office and its innumerable associate vice provosts.

We may pass quickly over the President’s early November unknowing comments on campus and off-campus safety, drug and alcohol training for students, student athletes’ name-image-and-likeness (NIL) highly differential and selective opportunities, “digital flagship,” and university energy sources. In a continuing series of distortions, regularly interrupted and corrected by brave, articulate, knowledgeable students, Johnson fantasizes about “a green future.” She does not clearly “envision” any such thing.

The public reports of the university Board of Trustees’ November final 2022 meetings continue the untied, loose and contradictory threads. A contentless (at least publicly) “affordability and efficiency report” dusted their large table. The university CEO presented a series of garbled gibberish from “developing stackable certificates” to “textbook affordability” based on open access, not on students’ learning needs or the relevance and quality of materials.

University Marketing and Communication’s report on one part of the meeting declares, “Research wins propel excellent year at Ohio State.” Review of the actual “growth in strategic areas” reveals almost exclusively internal transfers of resources and titles, and “filings,” not “research wins” or “excellent year.”

Like the associate provost with whom we began, the CEO) manipulates incomplete, unexamined data to declare falsely that “fewer Ohio State undergraduates are graduating with debt.” We recall that this is The university whose president is committed to “debt-free” college education without reducing costs and whose “Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan” includes a whopping 125 of 7500 first year students.

The only problem publicly admitted at this meeting, not surprisingly, is that in current economic conditions, “Overall giving to the university is down across the board,” including corporate fundraising.” So much for “investing in the faculty” or anything but the football coach’s $9.5 million annual salary, sixth highest in the US and more than ten times the president’s. A surcharge of $2 per football ticket (for newly renovated Ohio Stadium “preservation”) was added, as was an 8 percent increase in membership dues for the “semi-private” Ohio State University Golf Club in Upper Arlington (fees range from $770 for students, $2931 for faculty, $3661 for alumni and Buckeye Club members).

Not surprisingly, paralleling the President’s self-award and self-designated lectures in Spring 2022, student environmental and climate action protesters--members of Ohio Youth for Climate Justice--chanted, “What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!” The Columbus Dispatch reported, “Student protesters also attended the morning’s Finance & Investment Committee meeting and tried to talk with trustees and President Johnson, but they were ignored.” Isn’t that surprising? The OSU administration and BOT has never heard of a “teachable moment.”

Finally, also associated with protests at Trustees’ meeting, is the more than three decades of hanging university complicity and liabilities concerning Dr. Richard Strauss’ well-documented abuse of male student athletes while “I don’t remember” Jim Jordan looked on as an assistant wrestling coach.

OSU hid its knowledge for more than two decades. When it had no choice, it made paltry (in comparison with Penn State, Michigan State, that School Up North aka Michigan, USC, and others) settlements, with fewer than one-half of the victims.

When in late summer 2022, an appeals court finally rules that a statute of limitations on which OSU depended and delayed actions awaiting its taking effect, OSU’s often unconstitutional lawyers screamed and danced against the “statute of limitations” ruling because this one did not favor them. OSU’s lawyers launched into dizzying, irrational, and nonsensical arguments. Anything to save a buck and deny responsibility.

Former student athletes also appeared at the trustee’s meeting. “Your apologies are hollow while you fight us in court,” a former wrestler and 1991 graduate declared during a public comment session. In usual fashions, OSU’s never forthcoming or truthful chief spokesperson Ben Johnson distracted irrelevantly, Ohio State “is developing a new forum to allow survivors who have already settled to engage in dialogue with university officials,” as an alternative to addressing trustees publicly during board meetings. In other words, never, despite the simple legal fact that their settlements do not prohibit them from speaking publicly about their abuse or the university’s failure to respond.

As the Board of Trustees prepared to meet, racist and anti-Semitic wall graffiti was found in Hitchcock Hall engineering building on Monday, November 14. According to a police report, an employee found a red Swastika with “Heil Hitler” and a crossed-out Star of David beneath it, along with “White Power Zone” spray- painted on basement walls. “Whites Only” was sprayed on stairs leading to another floor, along with “a racial slur” on the stairwell’s third floor landing. No cameras were in the stairwell. The words were “quickly removed after being discovered.”

The president reacted strongly with words but no action. Not acknowledging that such unconscionable actions were commonplace on campuses nationally, the president and “other members of her leadership team” emailed students, faculty, and staff: “There is no room for hate in our home [sic]. The university is where we work and live—and will not tolerate violations of the values, principles and behaviors that constitute the Shared Values we agree to uphold when we become part of Ohio State.”

I note that this boilerplate sloganeering comes from Bricker Hall central administration which neighbors the Thompson Library, still carrying the name of William Oxley Thompson, former university president and one of Columbus’ arch segregationists.

 OSU has long been asked to remove Thompson’s name. Such are Shared Values. President Johnson continued, “We understand that diversity and inclusion [but not equity as in DEI?] are essential components of our excellence…. We take seriously our commitment to act responsibly and be accountable for our words and actions.” We?

As usual, no actions accompany the rhetoric. No policies or explicit penalties or other courses of action. There is no mention of installing more cameras or increasing patrols. Nor university-wide educational programs to transmit and reinforce those “Shared” Values, principles, and behaviors, whatever they may be. And unlike many other universities at the present moment, there are no “threat assessment teams.” (See Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga, “When colleges face threats,” Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2022. Only empty rhetoric, The OSU Way.

At the same time, we learn only from non-university sources that one OSU hockey team player emitted a racist slur in a game at Michigan State and received a game misconduct penalty. “There was an investigation by the Big Ten…. But no further public action has been taken by the Big Ten or Ohio State.” Is there “room for hate” in the hockey arenas?

Oh. Almost 10 days after the incident and with the player who was penalized again on the ice the next weekend, with no comment from the president, Athletic Director Gene Smith broke his silence, offered his “apology,” and stated that the offending player “has returned home and will not practice or compete ‘at this time.’” “Time” will tell, it seems.

The university that “leads” by slogans cannot confront anyone else’s counter claims whether aimed to move the university toward commensurate corrective action, demonstrate “values, principles and behaviors,” or respond directly to attacks on them.

To quote a leading OSU statement: “WWBD—What would Brutus do?”  What indeed?

In the wake of “The Game”—for which I must leave my University District home for safety--is Brutus, assisted by Johnson and others, now removing illegal crosses on M’s? No one in Ann Arbor, especially university leaders, crosses out O’s. I’ve checked. They compete on the football field and in the blood drive.

References by Harvey J. Graff (all are available on publisher websites)

“An Education in Sloganeering,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2015

“How misguided university policies are harming the humanities, arts and sciences,” Inside Higher Education, December, 18, 2015

“For Ohio State, bigger is not better,” Columbus Free Press, Sept. 16, 2021

“The Banality of University Slogans: Whether its ad campaigns for football season, gauzy reports from the provost, or rhetoric from the school’s president, higher education abounds with empty rhetoric,” Washington Monthly, Jan. 10, 2022

 “Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes,” Times Higher Education, Jan. 17, 2022

“Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership,” Academe Blog, Jan. 19, 2022

 “Ohio State versus ‘campus safety,’” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 13, 2022

 “Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022

“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 City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 8, 2022

“The City of Columbus and The Ohio State University: Two peas in a pod, one bigger than the other, relatively speaking, but so much the same. Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 14, 2022

“The enterprise of scientific misconduct: Malpractice at Ohio State University,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 26, 2022

“The OSU Way: Slogans over Truth and Honesty in Graduation Rates and Student Well Being,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 27, 2022

“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


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 August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.