Investiture address

The Investiture of Kristina M. Johnson, PhD, as The Ohio State University's 16th president celebrated the institution's proud legacy and progress toward becoming the absolute model land-grant university for the 21st century. She said fully achieving this greatness will require a strategic focus on excellence in five key areas: academics, research, talent and culture, service, and operations. President Johnson also announced details of the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, which will offer pathways to a debt-free bachelor’s degree within a decade.

The below address was delivered to members of the Ohio State community and public on Friday, November 19, 2021.

See Ohio State News for more information about the Investiture address and Scarlet & Gray Advantage program.

Good afternoon.

It has been a great honor to serve as president of The Ohio State University for the past year.

I thank Chair Gary Heminger, Vice Chair Abigail Wexner and all of the members of the Board of Trustees for their confidence and support.

I am grateful to Governor Mike DeWine and to many other appointed and elected officials for the generosity and encouragement you have shown me since my arrival in the Buckeye State.

And I am so pleased to welcome here former Governor Ted Strickland, former congressman and current president of the Ohio Business Roundtable Pat Tiberi, State Representative Mary Lightbody, Chancellor Randy Gardner and Franklin County Commissioner John O'Grady.

I am honored to share the stage with friends and colleagues who have participated in our program today and thrilled to be joined by the leaders and delegates representing other institutions of higher education, including President Samuel Stanley of Michigan State University. 

He says he’s here for the investiture — but it might have something to do with the football game we are going to play tomorrow.

It is wonderful to have my family with me: my wife, Veronica Meinhard, my sisters and brother, nieces and nephews, and members of my chosen family: my dearest friends. 

Thank you for taking time to be here with me today. 

I thank the entire community of The Ohio State University for the enormously warm and generous welcome you have offered Veronica and me. 

We marvel every time we sing “Carmen Ohio” at how exactly right it is: “time and change will surely show, how firm thy friendship — O-HI-O.” 

Veronica and I are so grateful for the firm friendship this community has shown us and the many great people we have met.

I also have to thank the Buckeye community for inspiration — and an education. 

I thought I understood Ohio State when I arrived here. After all, two of my grandparents were Buckeyes. 

I visited Ohio State when I was a student, playing in the lacrosse nationals, and later to see colleagues and friends.

I served on the Ohio State College of Engineering Advisory Board. 

But after accepting the presidency, and before I arrived in Columbus, I was in an airport wearing my Ohio State sweatshirt.

Someone yelled, “O-H.”  I was so startled at being roared at in an airport, that I forgot to follow with “I-O.”

All over the world, even two-year-old babies of our alumni know that when a stranger shouts, “O-H,” you say …

That intense sense of pride and connection has been everywhere during my first 15 months as president. 

Let me tell you a few other things that have been a little more intense than I expected:

First, the extreme excellence of the faculty, such as artist and professor emeritus Ann Hamilton, distinguished university professors Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson, pioneers in using ice cores to reveal past climate conditions; distinguished university professor and soil scientist Rattan Lal and historian Sir Geoffrey Parker, to name a few.

Our faculty are the measure of this university, and by that measure, Ohio State is one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world.

Another element that is so much greater than I expected are the physical resources here, including Sullivant Hall, the Museum of Biological Diversity, the Museum of Classical Archaeology, the Wexner Medical Center, the ’Shoe.

Also, a little more than I expected — the ferocious dedication to the University, manifested through athletics.

I came in understanding what college sports are like — but there is nothing like this, anywhere else: People around the world are part of Buckeye Nation, not because they were necessarily educated at Ohio State, but because they love our teams.

Of course, back in the 19th century when my grandfather played on the Buckeye football team, athletics were a way for a young Ohio State to project its excellence to older universities with grander traditions. 

Today, we still project excellence to the world, every time our student-athletes take the field. And as Athletics Director Gene Smith told me when I first arrived, we make sure that those student-athletes graduate as the very best versions of themselves.

And isn’t that the ambition Ohio State should have for all its students?

One more unexpected element: the joie de vivre of those students.

They are Rhodes Scholars and Marshall, Truman and Knight-Hennessy scholars. 

They are brilliant. They are creative and fun.

Some of them belong to The Best Damn Band In The Land.

Over the last 15 months, we’ve had to ask students to isolate and to quarantine due to COVID, and it is tough to be shut up in a room by yourself for 10 to 14 days. 

But when the Ohio State Marching Band comes to play “Hang on Sloopy” under your window — it becomes bearable.

Finally, the ways this community is able to rally when confronted by a challenge is utterly amazing.

Part of that is the most resilient, agile and dedicated staff I have ever encountered.

I am so proud that despite COVID-19, we were able to reopen for our students last fall — and stay open — which meant that we kept our students on track and were able to award 12,345 degrees and certificates at our spring commencement.

And I am so proud that we could bring back sports, which meant that our Olympians could continue to train. 

A record 26 current, former and incoming students represented Buckeye Nation in Tokyo last summer, taking home two gold medals, a silver and a bronze.

That reopening was only possible because we increased our surveillance testing tenfold from the initial plan.

Within two weeks, we stood up Jesse Owens North for surveillance testing on a massive scale — an amazing achievement, with 750,000 tests conducted thus far.

The Wexner Medical Center was one of the first places in the country to distribute the Pfizer vaccine after emergency approval — and the leadership and staff there launched a huge vaccination effort, delivering more than 200,000 doses at the Schottenstein Center.

Thank you, Dr. Thomas and your team for your extraordinary leadership. 

I am so grateful to the autumn campus reactivation team, chaired by Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa Gilliam and Senior Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers — and to the comprehensive modelling team under the leadership of Dean Amy Fairchild of the College of Public Health, which helped us return to some sense of normalcy this year — as well as achieve a vaccination rate of above 92 percent, which is why we can all be together today!

Of course, this pandemic time has revealed challenges in our society beyond public health, and this community is going after those other challenges with its characteristic energy and courage. 

In response to the structural racism highlighted in the spring of 2020, Ohio State launched a Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities right before I arrived. 

I will tell you about one of the ideas that came out of our discussions in a moment.

The United States as a whole has experienced a rise in violent crime since the pandemic, and after losing one of our students to a senseless act of violence last fall, I established a Task Force on Community Safety and Well-Being, which offered 15 excellent recommendations, 13 of which have been already implemented. 

As president of Ohio State, my first priority is putting the safety of our students, faculty and staff, first. 

Our Department of Public Safety, led by Director Monica Moll and Senior Vice President Jay Kasey, have installed safety lighting, surveillance cameras and deployed non-sworn security officers in the University District.

In collaboration with the Columbus Division of Police, we have reduced crime in this community by 60% since August.

Working with the mayor’s office, the Columbus Division of Police, Columbus State Community College and the Columbus City Schools, we are taking a holistic approach to public safety — including addressing the longer-term issues by giving Columbus children more opportunity through programs such as STEAMM Rising. 

We also created a Commission on Mental Health and Well-being after observing how hard the isolation and stress associated with the pandemic have been on everybody — but particularly on our students.

We are so grateful to Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein, who saw the same mental health needs and helped us create the Jeffrey Schottenstein Program for Resilience.

This is a community that really knows how to come together to get things done.

At my first State of the University speech last February, I said that I wanted to see Ohio State become the absolute model of the 21st century land-grant university. That means recommitting to our land-grant mission. 

Signed by President Lincoln during a dire period of the Civil War, the 1862 Morrill Act that created the land-grant colleges strengthened American democracy by bringing higher education to people from ordinary backgrounds for the first time.

We truly are a university of the people, by the people for the people.

Of course, we have not always lived up to the democratic values that inspired our founding. 

Only gradually over the last 151 years has “for the people” come to mean “for all the people.” 

Our country has been on the same journey, and it has been heartbreakingly slow.

However, the State of Ohio and The Ohio State University were often better than the times. 

Ohio was a center of abolitionism, and our Columbus campus holds multiple stops on the underground railroad used to bring enslaved people to freedom.

We recently dedicated a National Pan-Hellenic Council plaza celebrating our nine historically Black Greek fraternities and sororities, near Hale Hall, right beside the Freedom Train route.

From the beginning, The Ohio State University accepted women and minorities, allowing ambitious young people to determine their own fates in a society that gave them too few chances. 

I think of the great Olympian Jesse Owens, who ran down discrimination here and abroad — and won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

Less famous, but just as much of a pioneer, is Bertha Lamme, the very first woman in the United States to earn an engineering degree outside of civil engineering. 

She graduated from Ohio State in 1893 with a specialty in the brand-new field of electrical engineering.

She went on to work at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing company with my grandfather and helped to build the electrical infrastructure of our nation. 

Bertha Lamme and Jesse Owens far exceeded the expectations of the world in which they lived. 

Today, a university education is still the single best way for young people from all backgrounds to engineer their own rise. 

In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, the U.S. economy generated over 18 million net new jobs. 

And 89% of them went to people with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Yet, in recent decades — instead of equalizing opportunity — higher education seems to be concentrating privilege — in a country in which social mobility has been stalling.

We have been fighting this trend. 

Our Columbus campus alone educates more low-income students than all 13 of the top-ranked national universities on the U.S. News and World Report list — combined. 

But it is time for us to move forward once again toward the ideal: a university of the people, by the people for the people.

If you want to be a force for social mobility, the details matter — especially affordability.

What happens when students have to borrow to pay for college? 

People without family means — which includes many of the country’s minority students — start their adult lives in a financial hole. 

Today, about half of our students graduate with debt, and they owe an average of $27,000.

They may make life-narrowing choices because of those loans, such as not pursuing a career they are passionate about because it doesn’t pay enough; not going to graduate school; not buying a house; not starting a family.

I want all of our graduates to be free to say yes to every great opportunity that comes their way.

So, we are going to give every undergraduate the opportunity to graduate debt-free.

And we are going to do it Buckeye-style — with a grassroots movement that inspires all of us who have wonderful lives, thanks to The Ohio State University, to pay forward. 

As legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes used to say, you can never pay back all the people who helped you along the way, “so you should always try to pay forward."  

Let me be clear: Our debt-free program, named the Scarlet and Gray Advantage, is not “free college.” 

There will still be an expected student and family contribution.

But we will ask our students to contribute in ways that are not career-derailing — and are instead career-enhancing.

The Scarlet and Gray Advantage has four components:

First, for our part, operating efficiently will allow us to maintain the affordability of an Ohio State education and ensure that we are accessible.

Second, our state legislature and governor have increased the Ohio College Opportunity Grant for all 14 Ohio public higher education institutions in the biennial budget, and we are so grateful to them for their support. 

We hope that the federal government will also increase support for our Pell-eligible students.

Third, for about half of this ambitious project, we will rely on the generosity of our 600,000-plus alumni, friends and partner corporations and foundations. 

To begin, we will engage many, many donors, including our amazing alumni societies and clubs.

The TBDBITL Alumni Club, for example, might not be the biggest alumni group, but they are definitely the loudest — and they offer us a fantastic model. 

They established a scholarship fund for band members nearly 40 years ago. 

Inspired by TBDBITL, Veronica has been working with alumni societies and clubs around the state on a pilot program to help their communities raise funds for local students — while reaching out to prominent Buckeyes to amplify this generosity with matching funds.

In all, we intend to raise $800 million over the next decade to expand undergraduate scholarships, of which $500 million will go to our undergraduate student scholarship endowment. 

To help kick off this campaign, the university and lead donors are creating a $50 million pool to match the first $50 million in private gifts.

Donors who contribute at least $100,000 will see their gifts’ impact double in size.

As the fourth — and most important part — of our debt-free program, we will ask our students to contribute to their own financial well-being.

They will help fund their own education through paid internships and on-campus work experiences that will add momentum to their trajectories.

We will help them persist with programs proven to help students remain in college and graduate on time. 

Within ten years, I intend for us to rank among the top five public universities in the nation in our four-year graduation rate.

And when they graduate, we want our students to shrug off any financial disadvantages they might have had on arrival and to rise under their own power. 

We know that per-capita income in our rural areas is lower than for Ohio as a whole, and many of our rural students are first-generation college students from economically disadvantaged communities. 

We know that nationwide, after generations of discrimination, Black and Hispanic families own a fraction of the wealth owned by white families. 

We know that in nearly every occupation, women still earn less than men. 

I want our graduates to transcend these economic disparities and help to eliminate them.

So, we are going to provide the opportunity for every student to participate in our Scarlet and Gray Peer Financial Coaching. 

We will begin piloting the Scarlet and Gray Advantage with 125 low- and middle-income first-year students in the fall of next year. 

Ultimately, our aim is for 4,000 more students every year to graduate debt-free. 

By improving affordability and access, we will help to expand that equality of opportunity at the heart of the American dream. 

But this is not our only contribution to our nation’s democracy. 

“Education for citizenship” is the Ohio State motto, and we take that mission seriously — especially now, when freedom of speech is threatened on college campuses, when respectful disagreement seems to be in such short supply throughout our society, and when there is not enough focus on the common good. 

So, we are going to expand our Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability, or IDEA, under the leadership of political science professor Michael Neblo, one of the world’s leading experts in deliberative democracy — to help our students consider how to apply our nation’s founding principles and its history to the most complex problems of our current day.

Given the pride and passion of Buckeye Nation, I see no reason for Ohio State to reach for anything but greatness.

And we will do so by a strategic focus on excellence in five key areas:

  • academics; 
  • talent and culture;
  • our knowledge enterprise, including research, scholarship, creative expression, entrepreneurship and partnerships; 
  • service to the state, the nation and the world; and
  • resource management.

Let’s start with academic excellence. 

The pandemic, as painful as it has been, forced Ohio State to improvise and experiment with the way we deliver knowledge to our students — and given us important insights into the future of higher education.

As we de-densified our campuses, we embraced hybrid education — part remote, part in-person — at scale, and on the fly, and we need to consider what worked well in this model and run with it.

That means taking advantage of technology-enabled flexibility to offer new opportunities to our students. 

With video-conferencing technology, we can convene experts from all over the world and bring them into the classroom.  

By expanding Ohio State online, we will help our students to get the education they need, when and where they need it.

As a general principle, we will recognize our students’ amazing diversity and breadth, and deliver an individualized education to each one. 

Our regional campuses and the Columbus campus offer myriad possibilities, and we can use artificial intelligence tools — a Buckeye virtual learning assistant — to help our students identify their own paths through Ohio State into great careers. 

Beyond that, we will help them navigate a world of work that requires learning lifelong, including by exploring the possibilities of an education cloud that they can tap into, long after they graduate, for new knowledge. 

In the process, we will redefine what it means to be an alumnus or an alumna of a university. 

An individualized education also means interacting with excellent faculty who get to know their students and inspire them one at a time. 

But we have not been investing sufficiently in our faculty. 

While our undergraduate enrollment has grown by more than 5,000 students since 2008, our net number of tenure-track faculty has declined by roughly 245 over the same period. 

It’s time to lower class sizes and our student-faculty ratio. 

So, I have asked Provost Melissa Gilliam to make recruiting 350 net new tenure-track faculty over the next decade — and retaining the brilliant faculty already here — her highest priority. 

Our RAISE Initiative — short for Race, Inclusion and Social Equity — an idea generated in collaboration with our Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities — will be part of this initiative. 

Through RAISE, we will add to our already superb scholarship and research focused on racial disparities by recruiting new faculty who will consider inequities in fields that include health care, STEM education, social justice and public safety, the environment, leadership and economic resources.

To support the workforce needs of our state and nation, we also will hire faculty in fields where the greatest job demand is projected.

But 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. 

So, we will make sure that we have superb faculty to keep our academic offerings comprehensive in these fields.

As we work to attract great professors, who in turn attract great students, we will be reaching for excellence in talent and culture.

The goal here is simple: Ohio State should be widely known as the best place in the world for scholars and artists — the institution that does the most to encourage their professional growth, in both research and teaching.

And no matter where students are on their learning continuum when they enter, we want to be the place that sets them on a trajectory to become the best versions of themselves. 

To accomplish that, we need to build a faculty that better reflects the demographics of our students — and that offers more of our students more role models who encourage them to think really big.

Of course, our amazing faculty — including the new faculty we recruit — will be key to the third kind of excellence Ohio State will embody as the greatest land-grant university of the 21st century: excellence in our knowledge enterprise, including research and innovation.

With Executive Vice President Grace Wang at the helm, we set the ambitious goal of doubling research expenditures over the next ten years. 

We are well on our way, beating fiscal year 2020’s record $968 million in research expenditures by more than 7% in fiscal 2021.

We also recognize that some of the most significant discoveries and innovations emerge from the most unconventional ideas — ideas that may not yet be mature enough for federal funding agencies. 

So, we launched the Presidential Research Excellence Fund to provide seed funding for two types of key projects: first, Accelerator Grants of up to $50,000 for small teams pursuing curiosity-driven, high-risk and high-reward research.  

And second, Catalyst Grants of up to $200,000 for convergent, cross-disciplinary research addressing challenges of national or international significance. 

And a tip of the hat to the faculty groups we have met with in the arts, humanities and social sciences, who said faculty in these fields should be included from the very beginning of convergent research projects, because they ask different questions than the scientists and engineers. 

We also intend to lead in research in emerging fields. 

This year, we were awarded two out of 11 new National Science Foundation institutes in artificial intelligence and an NSF-sponsored Imageomics Institute, which will create a new field of study in which machine learning allows scientists to extract meaning from an enormous amount of biological image data. 

We also will reach for excellence in supporting entrepreneurship and partnerships arising out of Ohio State research. 

Part of that is investing on a large scale in the physical infrastructure for creativity, discovery and entrepreneurship — including in our new 270-acre Ohio State Innovation District — and our new Arts District at the front door to the Columbus campus at 15th and High, which includes the Timashev Family Music Building — one of the most acoustically and technologically advanced music facilities in the world.

But entrepreneurs and artists need more than great spaces to realize their dreams. They need an ecosystem.

We have highly entrepreneurial students that we should be supporting in every way possible. 

This fall we launched the Buckeye Accelerator to help our student entrepreneurs get their start-ups off the ground.

After a six-week summer “boost camp,” six student founders will be selected for a year-long “acceleratorship” and awarded funding to launch their ideas. 

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.

With our new Bachelor of Science degree in engineering technology, or BSET, offered at our Lima, Mansfield, Marion and — soon — Newark campuses, we are educating the next generation of leaders for Ohio manufacturers.

And we will establish new partnerships to bring Ohio State ideas into the world. 

Last week, we broke ground in our Innovation District on a new Energy Advancement and Innovation Center created in partnership with Ohio State Energy Partners and ENGIE — where our researchers, industry experts and entrepreneurs will help reduce the world’s carbon footprint by developing energy efficient, smart systems for vehicles, devices, appliances, houses, farms and cities.

Arguably, the most important form of excellence we need to reach for, is excellence in service to the state, the nation, and the world.

The Ohio State University has had a great partnership with the State of Ohio during the pandemic to keep our community safe and to forward public health beyond our campuses. 

But Governor DeWine has really challenged the university by asking us, “what more can you do for the state?”

Governor, we are a land-grant university, and during my tenure as president, we will do everything within our power to serve our neighbors, and to influence those we serve.

The state of Ohio is a paradox. 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. In educational attainment, Ohio ranks 37th.

In public health, Ohio ranks 42nd overall. Ohio has the third-highest death rate from drug overdoses in the country.

At The Ohio State University, we have so much accumulated knowledge to share that could help to turn these statistics around. 

We need to expand our outreach and share it.

The cooperative extension service led by our magnificent College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences is an important model. 

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that created the extension services required land-grant universities to “aid in diffusing useful and practical information” about agriculture.

I had the great fun of attending our Farm Science Review for the first time this year — a festival of diffusion! 

Under my tenure, we are going to extend extension beyond agriculture, into the realms of 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. As we consider our service to the world at large, we also will focus on our own sustainability efforts. 

We have promised to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. But I’d like to see us get to net zero carbon emissions faster. 

As undersecretary of energy during the Obama Administration, one of the most exciting things that I did — alongside my colleague Dr. Mark Handschy, who is here today, was enlist about a hundred scientists and engineers to figure out how the United States could reduce carbon emissions 83% by 2050. 

With our Strategic Technology Energy Plan, we devised a practical, low-cost path toward a low-emissions future. 

After leaving the Department of Energy, we co-founded and led a hydropower company that today generates enough clean electricity to power 150,000 homes renewably.

So, I know that Ohio State can do even more to halt its own contributions to a rolling series of climate-related natural disasters and what clearly is already a climate crisis. 

I intend to engage our students in this effort by teaching a project-based course entitled “Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions” this spring. 

We are going to ask the students selected for the class to help us develop plans to get Ohio State to net-zero carbon by 2040, at the latest, and 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. 

The last but not least form of excellence we have to reach for is excellence in resource management — because it is key to every other goal. 

We have put together a nucleus of dynamic, smart, and committed senior leaders dedicated to being great stewards of the University’s resources, so we can achieve all of our strategic priorities.

Serving as the president of Ohio State for the past 15 months has been the great privilege of my life.

Given a choice, no one would have chosen to begin this role during a pandemic, a national awakening to structural racism and economic upheaval — never mind, while the cancellation of college sports loomed as an awful possibility!

But it helped me to 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.

If anything, instead of being a distraction, COVID-19 clarified my ambitions for Ohio State. 

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.

As a land-grant university, we have an obligation to address those obstacles and to open up new opportunities wherever we can.

By reaching for excellence in everything we do, and by organizing ourselves for effectiveness and influence, we are going to make The Ohio State University just what it should be: the greatest land-grant university of the 21st century.

And I think we are going to enjoy every moment of the journey all along the way.

Thank you.