37th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Breakfast

The following pre-recorded remarks were delivered virtually during the 37th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast on Monday, January 17, 2021.


Good morning. I am so honored to be part of the 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday breakfast — as the great city of Columbus, Ohio, hosts the largest such celebration of Dr. King's life and teachings in the nation.

The theme of this year's event — “How long? Not long” — taken from the magnificent speech by Dr. King that he gave after the completion of the third of three voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery — has gotten me thinking about time, and timing.

Every leader in this community — whether in government, higher education, business or the foundation world — has had a challenging time in the last 18 months, as not one, but three pandemics raged in Ohio and the nation:

First, COVID-19. Second, the economic upheaval it caused and third, a national awakening to the structural racism woven into our society — and the anguish in the people we serve over the injustices they see around them.

For me, the challenges of taking on the leadership of Ohio State in the problematic year of 2020 really clarified something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the fact that if you lead an educational institution in the United States, you cannot lead in just terms of research and teaching, and consider your job done.

Education is not peripheral to questions of social justice — we are at the center of it.

As you know, Dr. King focused on economic justice as well as civil rights and spoke emphatically about the ways that inequalities of opportunity have held down poor Americans in general, and Black Americans in particular.

In a speech at my alma mater, Stanford University, in 1967, Dr. King told us that there were “literally two Americas,” one “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” and the other a “lonely island of poverty.”

If anything, the two Americas have grown further apart during the 55 years since, and we have become a measurably more unequal country.

The gaps between black and white families in terms of income, wealth, homeownership and health outcomes have not disappeared. In some cases, they have widened.

Upward mobility in the United States is stalling: In other words, children born in the more meager America today are decreasingly likely to complete the journey toward that other America.

When we ask, “how long?” — the answer, on the economic front, clearly, is “much too long.”

Many economists agree that the road to upward mobility runs straight through the nation's colleges and universities. And as a land-grant university, The Ohio State University has a special obligation to advance equality of opportunity.

The 1862 Morrill Act that created us, signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War, is explicit about our mission: “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”

In other words, we were created to allow people from ordinary backgrounds to do extraordinary things. That democratic view of higher education is more important now than ever.

For young people in America today, it is very hard to build a good life without a college degree. 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.

Students of all races and from all communities understand that they need to prepare themselves for the knowledge economy, and nationwide, the share of non-white undergraduates has risen to 45 percent.

But they are not all having the same experience at college since they may have had vastly unequal K-12 experiences.

Access to higher education is not enough — we need to bring the two Americas together at the level of primary and secondary education.

Ohio State has a role to play here, too. I am so proud to be working with the City of Columbus, the Columbus City Schools and Columbus State Community College on a STEAMM Rising initiative that will create pathways and programs to bring children from kindergarten in the Columbus City Schools all the way through Columbus State Community College and Ohio State — at the same time we train and inspire their teachers in science, technology, engineering, the arts, mathematics and medicine.

Affordability is another key question if higher education is going to equalize opportunity and not just concentrate privilege in the luckier America.

At Ohio State, we're proud that our Columbus campus alone educates more low-income students than all 13 of the top-ranked national universities combined.

But, if you want to be a force for upward mobility, the details matter. What happens when students have to borrow to pay for college? People without family means start their adult lives in a financial hole.

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

They may make life-narrowing choices because of those loans, such as not pursuing a career they were passionate about because it doesn't pay enough; not going to graduate school; not buying a house; or 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 through an initiative: the Scarlet & Gray Advantage.

Roughly half of the cost of this program will come from philanthropy. The balance will come from our own operating efficiencies, state and federal support and from our students themselves. Students will be able to contribute through paid internships and on-campus work experiences that will add momentum to their career trajectories.

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

Within 10 years, I intend for Ohio State to rank among the top five public universities in the nation in our four-year graduation rate.

I want all our graduates to transcend America’s economic disparities and help them eliminate them, too, once and for all. So, we are going to provide every student with the wrap-around services they need to prepare them to graduate on time and help make this a better, fairer country.

We will begin piloting the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program with 125 low- and middle-income first-year students in the fall of 2022. Ultimately, our aim is for 4,000 more students every year to graduate debt-free.

For me, expanding access to education is personal. A lot of people know that my grandfather Charles W. Johnson of the Ohio State class of 1896 played right guard on the football team.

But I am proudest of something else. As an engineer at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, he spent his evenings after work teaching colleagues who’d been shut out of an engineering education, mainly Black and women employees.

By launching something he called the Casino Technical Night School, named for the restaurant where his classes met, he helped his students get onto technical tracks at Westinghouse and into jobs that would change their lives.

When he died, from double pneumonia at the tail-end of the great influenza — April 20, 1920 — the Black employees of Westinghouse wrote a resolution honoring him to his widow, pointing out that he was a strong friend to them, because he believed that “the safety and happiness of any community depends on the development of the whole.”

I believe that, too. And I know that Ohio State can be what those Black leaders called my grandfather: “heat” transformed “into light and motion.”

That means doing everything in our power to make sure that our faculty and administrators reflect the changing demographics of our students.

As Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman said, “it's hard to be what you can't see.”

This is a real problem I understand very well. Even though I am a third-generation engineer, it took me forever to realize that I could become a professor and build a career in academic engineering. Because I never had a woman professor in any of my science or engineering classes. I couldn't see it.

It is that much more important for our first-generation students to see it, so they can be it.

Our RAISE Initiative — which is short for race, inclusion and social equity — will help with this goal.

Through RAISE, we are recruiting new faculty who are experts in racial inequities in fields that include health care, STEM education, social justice, public safety, the environment and economic resources.

Yes, our RAISE professors will be role models for our students. They will also contribute new ideas for uniting the two Americas, helping to eliminate the islands of suffering in a prosperous nation and state.

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. With our debt-free undergraduate education, we are trying to change that.

In public health, Ohio ranks 42nd overall. We have high rates of smoking, obesity and mental health conditions. We rank a heartbreaking 40th in infant mortality — with Black newborns nearly three times as likely to die as white newborns.

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 College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences is an important model. Created by a 1914 act of Congress to diffuse useful information about agriculture, Ohio State Extension, with its offices in every county in Ohio, clearly can do much more.

Here is just one example: The Moms2B program, a partnership of the Wexner Medical Center, Nationwide Children's Hospital and Ohio State Extension, is successfully improving infant mortality in central Ohio.

Professionals from our Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology meet with pregnant women weekly in churches and community health centers to talk about birthing healthy infants and to share healthy meals. Within a few years of its launch, Moms2B helped to significantly reduce infant mortality in Weinland Park.

Under my tenure, we are going to extend Extension fully into the realms of medicine, public health, engineering, business management, robotics the arts — everywhere we can contribute to the well-being, health and happiness of the people of Ohio.

When Dr. King posed the question, “how long?” he answered, “not long,” because of his faith that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

But he also rightly condemned the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.

We regularly hear that at our current rate of progress — or non-progress — it will take a century or more before one America catches up to the other. We cannot allow that.

As Dr. King said, “we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right, to do right.”

This wonderful Columbus community has everything on its side: intense civic-mindedness, a passionate sense of justice, intellectual capital galore and the tremendous pride of place.

We truly can be what Dr. King called “the beloved community,” joining forces in goodwill to create a better society.

I am convinced that, together, we can help time along and do right by working to forge what is so long overdue: one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

We have vast resources to improve the lives of many, but Ohio State alone cannot achieve all I have discussed today.

We need your help if we are to realize The Ohio State University’s vision and mission and to become the “beloved university.”

Thank you for listening to what we are planning at Ohio State for our campuses, for Columbus and for the State of Ohio.