The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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President Kristina M. Johnson delivers her investiture address in Mershon Auditorium in November.

Vision for a model land grant

When Kristina M. Johnson became the 16th president of The Ohio State University in 2020, we were nearly six months into a global pandemic that continues to upend our lives. The situation has demanded her laser-focused attention, agility and optimism. Through it all, she was crystallizing the blueprint that will guide her tenure at Ohio State, which she envisions becoming the absolute model of the 21st century land grant university.

Crisis can bring clarity.

Over the past 15 months, President Kristina M. Johnson has observed first-hand the remarkable response of the Buckeye community — students, staff, faculty and alumni — to a series of crises that wreaked havoc on the educational and social fabric of our nation and the world. The pandemic, especially, has tested the will and strength of every one of us.

In Johnson’s estimation, the people of Ohio State rose to the challenge. And beginning her tenure in the midst of such chaos has given her a clear line of sight to the way forward.

“No one would have chosen to begin this role during a pandemic, a national awakening to structural racism and economic upheaval,” Johnson said. “But it helped me see more clearly the power of The Ohio State University — its scale, its talent, its humor under duress, the incredible goodwill of this community and the willingness to take care of each other.”

On November 19, 2021, on the occasion of Johnson’s investiture — a university milestone in which a new president takes the oath of office and lays out long-range plans — she shared her vision for moving beyond the dilemmas of today and grasping ahold of the brightest possible tomorrow.

The time is now, Johnson declared, for Ohio State to become the absolute model land grant university of the 21st century, an institution dedicated to the advancement of its communities, local to global.

“We have the capacity to address so many of the obstacles holding Ohio and the nation back — in public health, in the environment, in cybersecurity, in infrastructure, in our democratic institutions and in our economy,” she said. “As a land grant university, we have an obligation to address those obstacles and to open up new opportunities wherever we can.”

Johnson acknowledged she is calling for a transformational shift. How will we get there?

By harnessing the potential of people with every imaginable talent and background while fiercely committing to excellence in five key areas: academics; talent and culture; the knowledge enterprise, including research, scholarship, creative expression, entrepreneurship and partnerships; service to the state, nation and world; and resource management. A parallel pursuit will mean a life-changing step forward for future undergraduates, who will have the opportunity to graduate debt-free under a new program, Scarlet & Gray Advantage.

President Kristina M. Johnson
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Hear from President Kristina M. Johnson as she lays out her vision for Ohio State.

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Early in the pandemic, Ohio State faculty and staff worked quickly to improvise and experiment in delivering knowledge to students. Johnson sees valuable lessons in that agility and creativity.

With our increased flexibility, and by leveraging the video technology we’ve all become accustomed to, faculty can convene experts from around the world in their classrooms and research labs. An expansion of online learning options, greater use of artificial intelligence tools and an education cloud that can be tapped by students and alumni alike are all within reach.

“As a general principle, we will recognize our students’ amazing diversity and breadth, and deliver an individualized education to each one,” Johnson said. “An individualized education also means interacting with excellent faculty who get to know their students and inspire them one at a time.”

To enable such attention, the president laid out a strategic hiring plan to address the loss of faculty positions that occurred at the same time Ohio State’s enrollment climbed — a plan that will reduce class sizes and the student-faculty ratio. In addition to retaining excellent faculty, the 10-year plan calls for hiring 350 net new tenure-track faculty.

Hiring in fields where the greatest job growth is projected is one area of emphasis, ensuring the university can support the future workforce needs of Ohio and the nation. Another priority is the new RAISE initiative — short for race, inclusion and social equity — which will add to Ohio State’s existing expertise in racial disparities by recruiting faculty who focus on inequities in health care, STEM education, the arts, justice and public safety, the environment, economic resources and leadership.

“Ohio State should be widely known as the best place in the world for scholars and artists,” Johnson said.

“Education at a great university is about much more than career preparation. As we work to deepen our students’ sense of their own humanity and develop their abilities to write persuasively, think critically and speak clearly, the arts and humanities writ large are key.”

Photo showing Associate Professor Jon Witter ’98, ’00 MS, ’06 PhD sharing details about Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster with President Johnson during a visit in Summer 2021.
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Associate Professor Jon Witter ’98, ’00 MS, ’06 PhD shares details about Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster with Johnson during a visit last summer. Our deep roots in agricultural innovations are a strength the president sees leveraging to further benefit Ohioans.

Provost Melissa L. Gilliam and President Johnson speak with a student during a reception for Distinguished University Professors at Longaberger Alumni House in August.
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Provost Melissa L. Gilliam and Johnson speak with a student during a reception for Distinguished University Professors at Longaberger Alumni House in August.

An engineer and researcher herself, Johnson knows that the paradigm-breakers — those willing to take the risks required of exploration — often are scientists and scholars who follow their own curiosity, sometimes against great odds. They are encompassed by another area of emphasis: the knowledge enterprise, including research, innovation, entrepreneurship and partnership.

To bolster ingenuity, Johnson has moved forward on a recommendation to create the Presidential Research Excellence Fund, which will support the most exciting and innovative faculty proposals in areas of scientific, medical and engineering priorities. The new fund is providing seed money for two types of projects: Accelerator Grants of up to $50,000 for small teams pursuing curiosity-driven, high-risk and high-reward research and Catalyst Grants of up to $200,000 for convergent, cross-disciplinary research addressing challenges of national or international importance.

Johnson is the first Ohio State president since the 1940s with significant experience in the business and public policy sectors. She holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents and co-founded two companies. A convener of people and ideas, she wants to get more Ohio State research into the marketplace, where it can do good.

One base of operations for such work will be the 270-acre Innovation District under construction on West Campus, where people, ideas and disciplines can converge and startups will thrive. Building on that infrastructure are programs such as the new President’s Buckeye Accelerator, where student entrepreneurs can innovate and gain support to get their projects off the ground.

“Working with JobsOhio, we intend to help keep the momentum going in Columbus, as it becomes a center for high-growth companies and a Midwest venture capital industry — in part by educating the STEM workforce for those companies,” she said.

Photo of Veronica Meinhard
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Universities have long played a crucial role in defining and responding to our nation’s greatest challenges. And Johnson is calling for a recommitment to higher education as a public good — through service to the state, nation and world.

Speaking specifically to service close to home, she pledged the university would do more for Ohioans.

“The state of Ohio is a paradox,” Johnson said. “It has the seventh-largest economy in the United States. It should rank very high on all measures of health and well-being. But instead, we are well below average.”

Ohio ranks 37th among the 50 states in educational attainment, 42nd in public health and has the third-highest death rate from drug overdoses in the country, she said. “At The Ohio State University, we have so much accumulated knowledge to share that could help to turn these statistics around.”

The 107-year-old Extension service is an ideal model for how the university can help build healthier, more vibrant communities. Johnson said Ohio State will “extend Extension” beyond its primary focus on agriculture into public health, engineering, business management, robotics, the arts — “everywhere we can contribute to the economic well-being of the state of Ohio and to its social well-being, health and happiness.”

A former U.S. undersecretary of energy, Johnson said Ohio State also must commit to practicing sustainability at every turn, in service to the world. Part of her personal contribution will be to teach a project-based class — Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions — beginning spring semester.

Noting the university already has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, she added, “We are going to ask the students selected for this class to help us develop plans to get Ohio State to net-zero carbon by 2040 at the latest — and to determine the costs to do so. Our students are the future stewards of this university, this state and this planet. I want to hear their voices and implement their very best ideas.”

Key to achieving every one of these goals is resource management, Johnson said. With leaders dedicated to being great stewards of the university’s resources, Ohio State can achieve all of the other strategic priorities. Operating with utmost efficiency also will help ensure an Ohio State education is affordable and accessible.

Creating more access and affordability may be Johnson’s most significant goal — one that would greatly impact students and their families.

She explained: “Today, a university education is still the single best way for young people from all backgrounds to engineer their own rise. … If you want to be a force for social mobility, the details matter — especially affordability. … Today, about half of our students graduate with debt, and they owe an average of $27,000.”

That is why Johnson has moved forward with a 10-year plan to ensure all undergraduates have the opportunity to leave college debt-free. The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program does not mean free college, she stressed. Student and family contributions are expected. Also, with the generosity of more than 600,000 alumni, plus friends, partner corporations and foundations, the university plans to raise $800 million over the next decade for undergraduate scholarships.

“We are going to do this Buckeye-style,” Johnson said. “A grass-roots movement that inspires all of us who have wonderful lives, thanks to The Ohio State University, to pay forward.”

President Kristina M. Johnson connects with Ohio State marching band sousaphone player Luke Isler during a Skull Session at St. John Arena in September

Johnson connects with TBDBITL sousaphone player Luke Isler during a Skull Session at St. John Arena in September. A short time later, Isler dotted the i during pregame at Ohio Stadium. Johnson says students’ spirit is one of her favorite discoveries as president.

Illustrated portrait of President Kristina M. Johnson

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