2022 James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture

The following prepared remarks were delivered to an audience of Ohio State state students, faculty, staff and friends at the Ohio Union on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. 

Good morning, everyone!

I am so delighted to have been invited to deliver the 2022 James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture. As you know, this lecture honors former Trustee Jim Patterson, one of many people who have demonstrated over the years how seriously The Ohio State University takes its mission as a land-grant university.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Jim, a 1964 graduate of the college of agriculture, and his wife, Nancy Wilson Patterson, a 1963 graduate of the college of education, for your fervent dedication to our university.

Also present is their son Bill, daughter-in-law Kristin and their grandchildren. Thank you for being with us.

Trustees Brent Porteus and Reginald Wilkinson are also with us today. I would like to thank them for their constant support.

During my first State of the University speech, I promised to do everything within my power to make Ohio State the absolute model of the 21st century land-grant university.

As we consider what that is, our 19th century history is really instructive.

The 1862 Morrill Act that created The Ohio State University was a very radical piece of legislation, in that it put in place a plan to open higher education up to — and I quote — “the industrial classes.” Until then, all over the world, higher education had been almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy and connected.

But the United States was a land-rich young country becoming an industrial power, and we needed highly educated young engineers and farmers in much greater numbers. So, the Morrill Act granted the states land that they could sell to endow universities.

The bill made it through Congress in 1862 because the Civil War was on — and legislators from Southern states who had objected to federal interference in higher education were not present. It was signed by President Abraham Lincoln — a bit of optimism in an otherwise dark time.

So, it seems appropriate to borrow a phrase from Lincoln in describing Ohio’s first land-grant university: We are a university “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Our purpose is to allow individuals from ordinary backgrounds to do extraordinary things. And over the years, we have done that many times.

Of course, like every other institution in this American democracy, our record has its blemishes.

It won’t surprise you to learn that nearly 11 million acres of the federal lands granted by the Morrill Act to endow universities were appropriated from Indigenous tribes. In addition, the ground under our feet was ceded by Native Americans in the 1795 Treaty of Greeneville and the forced removal of tribes through the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

So, the pre-history of land-grant universities is challenging. Fortunately, there are aspects of our actual history at Ohio State that we can look back on with pride, including the fact that we never restricted admissions to women and minorities. From the beginning, we were open to, I quote, “all persons over 14 years of age.”

President Bill Clinton has said that deciding “who constitutes ‘we the people’” is the most important job of any United States president. Here at Ohio State, deciding who is part of “all persons” is equally significant.

Legend is, that the very first day in 1873 that we allowed students to enroll, President Edward Orton Sr. nearly fainted when he considered the full implications of “all persons:” that the Townshend sisters, waiting in line with the young men, wanted to sign up for classes. Alice, who graduated in 1880, was on the committee that selected scarlet and gray as our school colors. Harriet, who didn’t complete her degree because of an illness, wound up serving as the Ohio State librarian for three decades.

And if we are considering the admission of persons ready to do extraordinary things, we can’t omit one of the two first Black students to enroll at Ohio State, Frederick Douglass Patterson. His father was an escaped slave who started a successful business building carriages, with innovations such as a patented sliding door mechanism for winter-proofing your buggy. Fred had an amazing career at Ohio State, serving as a sub on the football team, as a business manager of The Lantern, as a rousing debater at the Horton Literary Society and as class president. However, he left just short of graduation to teach high school in Kentucky. Returning to Ohio to help with his father’s carriage business, Fred turned the business automotive after his father’s death, specializing in trucks and buses. He became one of southern Ohio’s great business leaders — as well as the only Black owner of an automobile company in American history.

Another pioneer was chemical engineer Yun Hao “Ruth” Feng, who traveled from Beijing to Columbus to become, in 1931, the very first woman to receive a doctorate in engineering in the United States. A chemical engineer, she became an expert in bast fibers, or fibers derived from the inner bark of plants.

Returning to her native China, she was haunted by the suffering of farmers who had no market for their agricultural products because of war. She saw opportunity in a fiber crop named ramie, which she thought could be used as a cotton substitute and relieve a textile shortage — if only a more efficient de-gumming process could be found for it that allowed for the large-scale production of cloth. Ruth Feng invented that chemical process, and then in 1960, invented an even better one. And she continued to guide the industry into her eighties.

Again, extraordinary things emanated from an Ohio State education.

While The Ohio State University admitted every qualified student from the start, that did not yet mean that we welcomed everyone. It wasn’t until 1908 that women got a dorm. Long into the 20th century, Ohio State would not allow Black students to live in university housing, to join white fraternities and sororities, or to use university facilities for social gatherings.

Until Ruth Harrison graduated Ohio State in business administration in 1949 and was hired by the political science department as a secretary, there were no Black administrative staff members. It was not until 1957, and the hiring of George David Boston as an assistant professor of anatomy that there was a Black professor here.

But Ohio State continued to expand access. In the first seven years after the G.I. Bill was passed in 1944, 2.3 million American veterans poured into colleges and universities. To answer the soaring demand for higher education, we opened our four regional campuses and enabled Ohioans to receive an education nearer to home. The regional campuses became even more important after President Edward Jennings converted the Columbus campus from open to selective admissions in 1987. The campuses added housing for students and new degree programs, including master’s and professional degree programs.

Of course, the problem with the G.I. Bill, which made us a much more educated country, was its implementation. The 1.8 million returning Black veterans from World War II and the Korean War received very few of its benefits.

From the 1960s on, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement and the LGBTQ+ rights movement took Ohio State — and the United States — much further down the road toward making “we the people” mean “all the people.”

However, after a pandemic that reminded our country just how unequal we still are — in terms of economic resilience, health outcomes, housing and gender roles at home — it’s clear that this work is not finished.

One hundred and sixty years after the Morrill Act was signed, we still have women earning less than men in almost every occupation. We still have Black and Hispanic families nationwide owning a fraction of the wealth owned by white families. We still have greater poverty in rural areas.

And it is more obvious than ever that the road to a fairer country runs straight through higher education. In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, the U.S. economy generated over 18 million net new jobs. Eighty-nine percent of them went to people with at least a bachelor’s degree.

We also know that college is the great equalizer: Students from low-income families and students from high-income families who attend the same college have pretty much the same income in adulthood. That is the American dream in a nutshell: If you study hard and work hard, you have just as good a shot at a great life as anyone else.

The problem is that many of the nation’s very best colleges and universities make relatively little room for low-income and first-generation students. They seem to be concentrating privilege, rather than equalizing opportunity — creating what The Economist calls a hereditary meritocracy.

We should be very proud at Ohio State at our success in 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 & World Report list — combined.

That makes Ohio State something none of us should ever forget: important.

We have both the excellence and the scale to keep the American dream alive in Ohio — and we are more than ready to serve as a model for the entire country.

A lot of young people clearly understand the opportunity represented by an Ohio State education. I am very proud that this spring, the number of minority students enrolled at all campuses increased 4.3% over last year.

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.

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

What happens when students have to borrow to pay for college? It narrows their life choices.

Research by Ohio State economist Dr. Meta Brown has documented that as tuition and average student loan debt have been rising nationwide since the Great Recession — homeownership at ages 28 to 30 has been falling. Not surprisingly, the proportion of young adults aged 18 to 29 living with their parents has also increased, from about 38% in 2000 to 47% in February of 2020 — rising, even pre-pandemic, to levels not seen since the 1930s and the Great Depression. And nationwide, the prevalence of arguments about whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher has soared.

Students with debt may decide not to pursue a career they are passionate about because it doesn’t pay enough; not to go to graduate school; not to buy a house, or start a family.

A university of the people should be freeing its students to say yes to every great opportunity that comes their way.

We have headed straight toward this ideal with our Scarlet and Gray Advantage program, which, within this decade, is going to offer undergraduates the opportunity for a debt-free education. This is not free college or free tuition. There is still an expected family contribution. And we expect students to contribute, too. But it is a path to a debt-free degree.

We are piloting the program this fall with 125 students. Since student debt clearly is a complex national problem and there are all kinds of different borrowers, this pilot will allow us to work out the knots.

Ultimately, our ten-year goal is to do this at scale, with potentially thousands more students a year graduating Ohio State without the burden of loans.

We also are working hard to ensure that as we hire 350 net new tenured and tenure-track faculty members, we keep an eye on making our faculty more representative of “all persons.” I can tell you firsthand how important that is. As an undergraduate engineering major at Stanford, it took me a very long time to understand that I could become a professor, since I never had a single woman professor in any of my math, science or engineering classes.

That is one of the reasons why it is so wonderful that Ohio State’s Black and women engineering students — not to mention the budding roboticists of any gender or race — have been able to look to our Dean of Engineering Ayana Howard to validate their dreams.

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

Our RAISE initiative is going to help more of our students see it. Through RAISE, we are adding to our already superb scholarship and research focused on racial disparities by recruiting additional faculty who will consider the inequities in our society and history — and who represent our diverse student body.

Painful as it was, the pandemic also taught all of us some new lessons about how to educate “all persons.”

In 1930, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that one of the great purposes of a university is to help people to live at “the height of the times.” Part of that, of course, is allowing students to learn what they need when they need it — just in time, as the economy changes, as circumstances change, as new opportunities arise.

During the pandemic, we embraced hybrid education — part remote, part in-person — at scale and on the fly. Now, we need to take advantage of the same technology-enabled flexibility to offer new opportunities to new students.

Currently, we have an excellent set of online undergraduate degree programs to help professionals in the health sciences further their education, including an RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science degree in dental hygiene for licensed dental hygienists.

In other fields, however, it's hard to replace the residential college experience with a fully online program. So, we see a lot of room to expand Ohio State Online in the just-in-time sphere, with certificate and licensure programs and professional master’s degrees that allow those already in the workplace to improve their game or to switch to more promising fields.

Our Fisher College of Business is really stepping up, creating five new online programs for next fall: an MBA for Working Professionals, a Specialized Master of Business Analytics, a Master of Supply Chain Management, an IT strategy certificate, and a Fintech Fundamentals micro-certificate.

I also want to help every Ohio State student get just what they need when they need it in terms of education — lifelong. I envision doing this with an education cloud where students can personalize their education, earning micro-credentials that they can stack as they progress through Ohio State — and then long after they graduate, as knowledge in their field expands.

As part of this effort, Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa Gilliam is working to develop the technological infrastructure that — along with our wonderful advising staff — will allow us to provide on-demand support to Buckeyes. A combination of virtual and actual advisers will help our students and graduates understand the gaps and strengths in their education and training, while connecting them with offerings attuned to their interests that can help set each one on a great career path.

Clearly, the excellence of the education we offer here transforms our students’ lives, and that is important. But as a land-grant university, we have an obligation to focus on the well-being of more than just the individuals we educate. We owe a debt of service to our state and our nation.

President Clinton asked, “how can we expand ‘we the people?’”

The 19th and 20th century presidents of Ohio State asked, “who fits into ‘all persons?’”

Governor DeWine asks a different, but equally pointed question: “What are you, The Ohio State University, going to do to lift up the people of this state?”

The truth is that 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. Not unconnected — it ranks 31st in per capita income. In public health, Ohio ranks 42nd overall, because of high rates of smoking, infant mortality, general mortality and poor mental health. Ohio has the fourth-highest death rate from drug overdoses in the country.

This university has a lot to contribute to reversing those statistics. First of all, our efforts to increase educational attainment here in Ohio through programs such as the Scarlet & Gray Advantage are so important — because they really do lift all boats. Regions with highly educated populations tend to have higher wages for everyone.

As Chancellor Randy Gardner of the Ohio Department of Higher Education has pointed out, a 5% increase in educational attainment in Ohio — split equally between those earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees — would add $500 million each year to the state budget, in the form of both increased tax revenues and reduced public assistance spending.

We also are contributing powerfully by using our research enterprise and the talent we educate to foster economic development and entrepreneurship, and to propel the state of Ohio out of its Rust Belt history and into its future as the Silicon Heartland.

Ohio State was a key reason why Intel decided to invest $20 billion in two new advanced semiconductor factories in Licking County that are expected to create 20,000 direct and indirect jobs. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger has said that he wants there to be a “thoroughfare” between Ohio State and Intel, with the best students we educate headed Intel’s way.

However, building the workforce Intel requires is beyond a single university, even one with our scale. It is going to take a regional effort. So, we are working with other public and private universities in Ohio and beyond — including Ohio’s two historically Black universities, Central State University and Wilberforce University — to develop the curricula that will lead students to careers at Intel and at other tech-intensive businesses.

We are also doing our part to create equality of opportunity by focusing on K-12 education, where our country really has been underperforming. On international math assessments of 15-year-olds, the United States ranks below every single one of our competitor nations in science and engineering, including the G7 nations, China and South Korea.

The reason for this, as you know, is that our public schools vary unconscionably in quality — usually depending on the wealth of the district or neighborhood. Low-income students of all races and ethnicities perform much worse on math assessments than higher-income students of the same race or ethnicity.

But there is an opening for improvement: economist Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights group at Harvard has shown that even a single year of being taught by a great teacher in elementary school makes it more likely that a student will go to college and earn a higher income in adulthood.

With our new STEAMM Rising collaboration with the City of Columbus, Columbus City Schools and Columbus State Community College, we intend to inspire Columbus K-12 teachers in the sciences, technology, engineering, art, math and medicine. We are creating a Summer Institute taught by our faculty for about 100 Columbus teachers each year for five years. The teachers have asked us for a “design thinking” approach, so we are going to give them truly exciting experiences in the arts and sciences, and then help them incorporate those experiences into their curricula, so they can inspire their students in turn.

At The Ohio State University, we have so much accumulated knowledge to share that could ease inequities and disparities, and help the state of Ohio rise on every measure of well-being. All of our colleges and regional campuses are engaged in community-based research and service.

In Franklin County, a Wexner Medical Center program named Moms2B has reduced infant mortality in neighborhoods with high rates of it, by sending health professionals from our Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to church halls and community health centers to teach expectant mothers how to protect the health of their babies.

The College of Education and Human Ecology’s Virtual Lab School is giving a boost to educators at the U.S. military’s child care centers around the world, offering research-based professional development and practice-based coaching online.

The Glenn College of Public Affairs promotes bipartisanship in Ohio by bringing together state and local elected officials from different political parties for its Public Leadership Academy — a weeklong residential program that fosters goodwill and understanding among leaders all focused on helping their communities thrive.

As Provost Gilliam has pointed out, we are classified by the Carnegie Foundation as both an “engaged university” for our outreach and as an R1 university for the intensity of our research enterprise. Each powers the other, and our potential influence increases exponentially.

We also have an incredible model of outreach in our College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, and Ohio State Extension, which diffuses important research to farmers — including on topics such as clean energy and protecting water resources — and manages 4-H clubs.

However, the Smith Lever Act of 1914 that created cooperative extension services at the land-grant universities also charged them with offering practical instruction in “home economics.” In that role, Ohio State Extension has really enhanced the well-being of the people of this state.

This year, Ohio State Treasurer Robert Sprague honored 59 county extension offices with the Compass Award for promoting financial literacy — for their Real Money. Real World. program. The program uses an interactive spending simulation to teach 12- to 18-year-olds to make the kind of smart decisions with their money that they will need to make as adults.

If you think about it, our extension network really gives us 88 campuses in 88 Ohio counties. So, I’d like to extend extension to spread even more useful knowledge, as well as a dose of inspiration, all over the state — in public health, entrepreneurship, emerging technologies, the arts, and new possibilities in terms of careers.

Everywhere that the research that we conduct here can benefit the people of Ohio — we should be there.

As you know, our motto here at Ohio State is “Education for Citizenship,” and we take that very seriously. Under the leadership of political science professor Michael Neblo, one of the world’s leading experts in deliberative democracy, we are expanding our Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) — to help even more students apply the United States’ founding principles and history to the most complex problems of our day.

Given what is happening in Russia and Ukraine, a government of “we the people” is truly something to be grateful for.

I want Ohio State itself to model what citizenship really is for our students — as we work for the good of all, by bringing new opportunities to our neighbors.

Without question, my grandfather Charles Johnson of the great Buckeye Class of 1896 absorbed Ohio State’s land-grant mission — that opportunity should be spread as widely as possible — into his bones.

As an engineer at Westinghouse, he spent his evenings after work teaching colleagues who had not been able to go to college — mainly his Black and female co-workers. By launching something he called the Casino Technical Night School, named for the restaurant where his classes met, he helped his students get onto the technical tracks at Westinghouse and into jobs that would change their lives.

When he died — from double pneumonia at the tail-end of the last great pandemic, on April 20, 1920 — the Black employees of Westinghouse wrote a resolution honoring him, calling him, “heat transformed into light and motion.”

The Ohio State University can be heat transformed into light and motion, too.

It is time to redefine what it means to be a land-grant university in the 21st century — to fully become a university of the people, by the people, for the people.

Down that road is where real excellence lies — as well as the possibility of inspiring other institutions all across the nation to do the same.

We have the size, scale and scope to lead. I intend to make sure that we do.

Thank you.