Our view: Ohio State’s next president must serve Ohioans not will of powerful or political

Dispatch Editorial Board
Drone view of the Oval, Thompson Library and the Ohio State University campus in March 2020

As part of a recent Columbus Metropolitan Club panel discussion about the transformative Intel plants planned for the region, Heath-Newark-Licking County Port Authority CEO and President Rick Platt urged Ohioans "to get used to growth."

"We can grow our economy," he told the crowd. "That doesn't mean that we're all fighting for some shrinking piece. We're all fighting for a bigger piece of the pie."

Growing the skills of citizens who can seize the jobs of the near future and beyond, and who can also think critically, and actively participate in our democracy is an integral part of growing the state’s economy.

Ohio State University, the scarlet and grey land grant institution established more than 150 years ago to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics training so members of the working class could obtain a "liberal, practical education," is key to growth of both our economy and citizenry.

Power struggle: Sources vary on clash between Ohio State's Kristina Johnson and Les Wexner

This is why all Ohioans have skin in the game when it comes to who is chosen as the university’s 17th president.

The person selected to replace outgoing Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson must work in the interest of the state's economic needs, but their vision must align with the university's stated mission:

  • Creating and discovering knowledge to improve the well-being of our local, state, regional, national and global communities
  • Educating students through a comprehensive array of distinguished academic programs
  • Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens
  • Fostering a culture of engagement and service
Sun., May 8, 2022, Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson speaks during Ohio State Spring Commencement at Ohio Stadium.

"We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential components of our excellence," a portion of the university's Vision, Mission, Values reads.

There has been considerable discussion about a power struggle between Johnson and businessman and philanthropist Les Wexner, but the reasons for her resignation after fewer than two years in office remain murky and officially unconfirmed.

More:Ohio University named its three final candidates for president. Here's who they are.

In light of the mystery surrounding Johnson's departure and attacks on so-called "wokeness" in learning from lawmakers here and around the nation, the faculty, staff, alumni and other Ohio State observers we spoke to on and off the record raised concerns.

There are real fears about the potential erosion of academic freedom, the scaling back of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and the politicalization of the OSU president's role.

Any of those regressions — DEI and academic freedom among the things Johnson touted — would work against the state's economic and educational interest.

Upholding Ohio State's principles

 There is no timeline for the trustees to select Ohio State's next president, but the trustee-comprised Presidential Selection Subcommittee is expected to soon share how the greater campus community can participate in the process.

“Our dedication to advancing Ohio State’s standing as one of the nation’s premier public universities remains unchanged — as does our commitment to being a leader in affordability and student support, faculty retention and hiring, innovative research and excellence in patient care,” said Hiroyuki Fujita, chair of the Ohio State Trustee board.

Letters:Les Wexner’s backroom power plays have led to 'weak, chaotic' Ohio State board

OSU Associate English Professor Pranav Jani, president of the Ohio State University Association of University Professors, says the Ohio State community deserves answers about Johnson and true involvement in choosing the next president.

Pranav Jani is Director of the Asian American Studies Program and Associate Professor in the Department of English at The Ohio State University.

"I would like to see transparency about what happened in the fall leading up to (Johnson's resignation) and the secrecy, and a clear selection process that includes students,  faculty and the academics, and university community," Jani, the university's director of Asian American studies, told our board. "We want to make sure this is not a political appointment that would roll back the efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion."

Including marginalized Ohio

During Wexner Medical Center Board meeting Feb. 20, 2019, where the board announced Dr. Harold "Hal" Paz as the new executive vice president and chancellor for health affairs.  Paz is center, with his hands folded on the table, Ohio State Board of Trustees member Les Wexner right.

When it comes to reaching historically marginalized communities, Ohio State's record has long had much room for improvement.

Jack D’Aurora:'The irony is stunning.' Ohio Board of Ed. making case for critical race theory

According to estimates from the U.S. Census, 13.2% of Ohioans identify as Black or African American alone, 2.7% identify as Asian, 4.3% as Hispanic or Latino and 2.6% as two or more races.

Ohio State's 2021-2022 minority enrollment was 25.1%, including 7.7% African Americans, 7.7% Asian Americans, 5.4 % Hispanics and 4.1% people who identify as being of two or more races.

At the start of spring semester, Ohio State had 16,277 minority students — 4,755 African Americans, 5,292 Asian Americans, 3,467 Hispanic Americans and 2,807 of two or more races included — out of a 62,523 total student population.

There are 5,512 international students currently enrolled. A total 57,909 people attend classes on the Columbus campus.

Judson L. Jeffries

Ohio State African American and African studies Professor Judson L. Jeffries, a regular opinion contributor to the Columbus Dispatch, worries that forward-thinking and diversity-minded candidates will be turned off by the controversy surrounding Johnson.

"Given the circumstances under which Dr. Johnson resigned I'm not sure why anyone would find this job appealing," he told our board. "However, because academia is replete with careerists and opportunists, administrators will be lined up to interview for this job."

The future of academic freedom

Ohio State University's Orton Hall looms over campus in this aerial drone photograph.

Educators around the nation have been targeted by those on the far right who have complained about DEI training, sexual orientation and gender studies, historical truths and critical race theory - a more than 40-year-old academic concept that "examines if, and how, systems and policies perpetuate racism."

'I have no regrets': Kristina Johnson talks stepping down as Ohio State president

Most of the proposed bans introduced at Ohio's Statehouse focused on K-12 education and public institutions like libraries, but legislatures in other states have set their sights on higher education as well.

Ohio State University trustees on Thursday approved a $263,500 bonus and a 27,000 raise, for President Kristina M. Johnson.

Jani says Ohioans should take note.

"There is a clear and open attack on the academic community happening around the country and I hope the OSU presidency is not being swayed by political interest but is in tune with the work," he said.

More:University of Texas System to halt new diversity, equity and inclusion policies on campuses

There is reason to wonder and read between the lines.

In a recent guest column about her decision to leave Ohio State, Johnson, an electrical engineer by trade with a strong background in business and academia, reflected on how her agenda was no longer in step with what the board wanted, discussed her efforts to help secure Intel and discussed her work to protect professors' right to teach.

Hiroyuki Fujita during a Wexner Medical Center board meeting Feb 14, 2023 at the Longaberger Alumni House.

"I have fought for academic freedom and to protect the university’s right to decide which professors to hire.  University curricula must not be subject to political forces," she wrote. "Ohio State professors must be allowed to pursue academic research without fear or favor, and ideas must succeed or fail based on academic merit rather than their political appeal."

Ohio State English Associate Professor Jill Galvan, a member of the Ohio State University Senate, says the university's next president must maintain the OSU principles including reaching diverse groups.

The aims must be to train civic-minded critical thinkers no matter the discipline they pursue, she said.

"We are public servants," Galvan said. "We can't lose sight of producing well-rounded citizens who are well-rounded thinkers."

Ohio State's trustees have their work cut out for them.  They must operate in the light, ensuring the integrity of the president's position is maintained.

The person they select as president must be willing to put the good of the campus community and Ohio above political will of a few powerful players.

This is far more important than any wins Ohio State's football team racks up.

Ohio State is more than a university. It sets the pace for education in the state. Ohio State University is where Ohioans grow.

This piece was written by the Dispatch Opinion Editor Amelia Robinson on behalf of The Dispatch Editorial Board. Editorials are our board's fact-based assessment of issues of importance to the communities we serve. These are not the opinions of our reporting staff members, who strive for neutrality in their reporting.