Weekly Wisdom 9/27/21: Transcript of Conversation With Kristina Johnson, President, The Ohio State University

Weekly Wisdom 9/27/21: Transcript of Conversation With Kristina Johnson, President, The Ohio State University

Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on September 27, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Kristina Johnson:
I think they’re super excited to get back to the research opportunities. We have what’s called a second semester, sort of second year transformation experience program or step. We have over 2000 students engaged in research in our laboratories. They’re all back doing that and getting engaged, both on campus and in the world. So I think that’s new, too.

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together, podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I’m your host, Bridget Burns.

Each week, I partner with a journalist to have a conversation with a sitting college president, chancellor, system leader, or someone in the broader ecosystem who is really an inspiring leader. And the goal is to have a conversation to distill their perspective and their insights gathered from their leadership journey. Our hope is that this is inspiring and gives you something to look forward to each week. This episode, my co-host is Inside Higher Ed co-founder and CEO, Doug Lederman.

Doug Lederman:
Today we’re joined by Kristina Johnson who is the president of Ohio State University, our 16th president, and she came to Ohio State last year, having spent some previous years as chancellor of the State University of New York. Also worked in corporate and government sectors as well, and a really well-rounded leader. Welcome, Dr. Johnson.

Kristina Johnson:
Thank you very much, Doug and Bridget. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Bridget Burns:
Very excited to have you on. So just how are you holding up right now? I know that it’s -- this part of the term, you all have started classes and I’m sure it’s a whirlwind at the moment.

Kristina Johnson:
It is. It’s going well, and it’s so great to be back in person. Walking along the Oval at Ohio State University and just seeing all the students, and they’re smiling. We require masks indoors but not outdoors, so I can actually see them, and it’s really terrific.

Bridget Burns:
Don’t tempt me. You’re dangling it out in front of me. For those of us who are remote and basically stuck in boxes, so I’m super jealous and it sounds lovely. I wanted to first start by asking you to share a little bit about yourself, because while you are definitely not new to leadership or to higher education, to the Ohio State University as the president, you are. So I want to just see if you could share a little bit about your background or perhaps a story or something that would give us a sense about who you are and how you kind of view leadership.

Kristina Johnson:
Well, a little bit about my background. Some of my ancestors came from Ohio. My grandfather actually went to Ohio State. Played on the 1896 football team, so Ohio State has been a storied institution in our family and in my history. I grew up in Colorado. I grew up during the pre-Title IV year. So when I ended up going to Stanford in the '70s, I think one of the things that I recognized was that there weren’t really the sporting opportunities either in my high school or in my college for women that there were with men. And the reason why that plays into the way that I look at leadership is I really look at leadership as a player coach. So we didn’t have a lacrosse team at Stanford. So I founded it. Got all the kids together. Most are from the East Coast, sometimes from the Midwest, and I said, "Look, let’s play, let’s start this sport on this coast." So I would take the draw. I was center but I was also the coach. So I think that’s the way I approached leadership, is you have to do the little things and the big things well. Sometimes that means mostly at this level it’s coaching, but sometimes that means you have to be a player, too.

Bridget Burns:
I love that. Kind of peg that up. It’s good advice.

Doug Lederman:
Talk to us a little bit about changing leadership or taking on a different leadership role in the last year when our whole world turned upside down, and entering a new institution, even if it had family history to you. And sort of taking the reins and especially a place as large and as sprawling as Ohio State. We’ve heard lots of people talk about sort of entering a new organization, onboarding in these times.

Kristina Johnson:
Well, onboarding was challenging, I have to say, because one of the first things I did when I came in -- actually a month before I started -- was I assessed our return to campus plan. And one of the things -- we made some changes. One of them was to limit gatherings to less than ten. So part of onboarding is to meet as many people as you can everywhere they are, as often as you can. Just to build that trust and that connection. So that was pretty challenging when you can’t have meetings more than ten. But we’re still having small meetings. They would be two or four. A lot remotely.

So we actually learned -- we used what we learned in higher ed, which is some of our large lecture classes we do online where you can accommodate a lot of people, trying to get the classes in person to be smaller, smaller than 20, smaller than ten in the case of COVID, so that we can actually have that interpersonal relationship. That was kind of the approach we had to take to onboarding. And then Franklin County, which is where Ohio State University is located, went purple in November, and that pretty much shut down all activities, and in fact the mayor said we didn’t want anyone traveling around Thanksgiving holidays because we didn’t want people to then come back and bring back -- take COVID to the communities in which they live or to bring it back.

So like many universities around the country, we were open, and then after Thanksgiving we didn’t bring the students back but had them take their classes and assignments remotely. And then returning, we added another couple layers of improvement, which is to have everybody test before they come, and then test again after they got here. Which meant that we pretty much stayed for the spring semester less than half a percent positivity rate, and we were able to stay open. We were able to get back to athletics and our sports, our in-person music performances, and do a lot of things that we couldn’t do before. Again, trying to keep less than -- at that time, I think we increased it to 20. So I think onboarding was challenging, without a doubt. Trying to establish that trust and build a team. So building a team is very hard. We all weren’t together until -- I think it was, I think it was May. We started to have in-person meetings the Monday after graduation, so that was tough. Without a doubt.

Doug Lederman:
Did it change how you led from previous times, or were there things you had to do different -- I mean physically, obviously, but were there new approaches about how you connected with people or tried to lead?

Kristina Johnson:
Yeah, I think what it was for me -- I came in every day. I think there were only two or three days when someone in my office was exposed to someone who was COVID positive, so we quarantined until we found out that we actually weren’t exposed. So I came in every day. And again, I would choose the opportunities. I’d still walk around the Oval. It was just pretty empty. I’d go to the Student Union fully masked, say hello to the students that were there. It was really trying to be as visible as possible 24/7 just because, again, you couldn’t have the large gatherings that would facilitate more of that connection. I did a lot of videos. I would everyday record two or three videos. I think that was a little different as well.

Bridget Burns:
Totally understand that. So as you’re walking around the Oval and now that you’re back on campus, I’m wondering if you can give a sense for folks at home about what you’re seeing or hearing is coming from students. It sounds like everybody is happy to be back in person because they’ve been tired of Zoomland, but I’m sure there might be other perspectives that you’re hearing as a leader that you’re trying to adapt to.

Kristina Johnson:
Yeah. Well, for sure being able to just meet students, walk up to a group of students, talk to them about what they’re experiencing. I think mostly for our new students that are coming in, they had their high school year probably part remote, maybe some in person. So they haven’t really seen a difference, per se, because we’re pretty much to almost normal or the new normal. But imagine you’re a sophomore or junior, particularly a sophomore, you’ve never experienced it, so what I hear a lot from our sophomores is that, "I’m going to college -- this is my first year for the second time." And then definitely the way that Veronica and I feel about our experience at Ohio State University. It’s our second year for the first time. I think they’re super excited to get back to the research opportunities.

We have what’s called a second semester, sort of second year transformation experience program or step. We have over 2000 students engaged in research in our laboratories. They’re all back doing that and getting engaged, both on campus and in the world. So I think that’s new, too, and something that’s really top of mind. They’re grateful for it, and I think probably one of the best days as a Buckeye was we had the 2020 celebration in August for all the students who graduated in 2020 but didn’t get to have an in person graduation. I have never seen so many happy students, parents, faculty to be celebrating, "Wow, we made it, we graduated and we got our degree or our certificate."

So the Buckeyes -- what I’ve learned about the Buckeye Nation in the last year is they are resilient, they are passionate. If you go anywhere in the world and you say, "O.H.," you’re going to get a resounding "I.O." from somebody. I’ve learned talking with faculty and staff that they are a very impressive group of scholars. Our students are smart and curious and kind, which is a pretty formidable combination. So I’m still learning. But I think really top of mind is the students, and they’re pretty passionate. They’re passionate about social change. They’re passionate about making a difference in the world. That’s kind of some of the things that I hear.

Bridget Burns:
I saw in the last little bit ago that you had announced a new $20 million investment in campus public safety, and that’s something I haven’t seen from other institutional leaders. So I just wanted to give you a chance to share a bit about your thinking behind that.

Kristina Johnson:
Well, safety of our students is my number one priority. And I’ve always felt that if you don’t feel safe, it’s kind of difficult to learn. And that also goes for our students and faculty and staff. So we announced a number of initiatives in addition to the financial investment. We announced expansion of our free Lyft ride to get students off campus back on campus, or off campus to where they live safely. We are expanding the lighting in our surrounding neighborhoods. We’re expanding the camera systems that we have deployed. This is an area that is quite close to our campus, so we want to have our students feel safe going into the community and then coming back.

We’re also expanding our security -- of course that is the Columbus Police Department jurisdiction, but we have a joint program with the Columbus Police Department, and we have a very good working relationship with the Chief, Elaine Bryant, who is the new chief of police in Columbus, Mayor -- Mayor Ginther and also our community leaders. We recognize this is a holistic approach to public safety. It’s not just about the security. It’s also about trying to get at the fundamental roots of increased crime and in particular, and I know you know this, but gun violence has increased over 50 percent during the pandemic nationwide. And I just read in the New York Times today that the murder rate is the largest it’s ever been, 2019-2020, since history was recorded of these acts in the '60s. So this is a nationwide problem. This is something that we need to address as a society, and it has multiple approaches and multiple measures of success. The investment just to set the stage on that, we right now invest about $23 million in the university and another $7 million in Webster Medical Centers.

So we’re investing about $30 million a year. We’re going to invest a minimum of an additional $2 million in order to enhance lighting, surveillance, free Lyft rides, and private security in or around our neighborhoods. We’ll keep at it until we in the short term address this issue, and in the long term address this issue through some of the community. We just announced this week a project I’m really excited about, which is called STEAMM Rising. It’s a science, technology, engineering, arts, medicine, and math. It’s in conjunction with the Columbus City School District and a wonderful superintendent Felicia Dickson, as well as the mayor, as well as the president David Harrison of the Columbus State Community College.

It’s a pathway for our students as young as in the second and third grade to experience a tremendous career that knowledge of STEM and STEAM allows. They say the degrees in STEAM on average are about $90,000, which about double those in non-STEAM careers, so we want to make sure that those opportunities are open to everyone, and that’s the point of land grant admissions. So I would say I’m very passionate about public safety. I’m very passionate about keeping our students safe, and I will continue to do this until we solve this matter.

Bridget Burns:
That’s great. I know it’s also an extra challenge, especially being in a city where the majority of the issues that are being experienced are actually in the jurisdiction of the mayor’s office or in the city. It’s a lot of partnership, a lot of collaboration and trying to figure out -- and as someone who lives in downtown Portland, Oregon, this is a challenge across the country. This is not specific to Columbus. Doug?

Doug Lederman:
Speaking of investments, you’ve also made some major investments in addition to other initiatives on diversity, particularly interested in the faculty hiring initiatives that you’ve announced in the last year. Why -- there’s obviously some cultural and societal reasons why this is so timely, but talk to us a little bit about that and tell us why that’s such an important issue for Ohio State and for you.

Kristina Johnson:
Right. One of the things that I’ve learned, which is a wonderful thing just as I said before, how outstanding our faculty are. What I noticed was, over the last decade, we’ve actually increased the number of students at Ohio State by about 6,000, while we’ve decreased the number of tenure-track faculty by 220. So if you set a goal of us hiring 350 tenure-track faculty in this decade net, so we already hired over a hundred every year, but we need to increase that in order to get our student/faculty ratio lower, because we know that the science of learning, that you learn better when you have fewer students, more faculty.

So that’s the primary initiative in academic excellence is around hiring at least the minimum of 350 tenure-track faculty. And they will be in fields that are high demand right now, where we are seeing tremendous demand in business, in engineering. But they’ll also be in places where if you were full-fledged [unintelligible] university, you have to have the arts and literature and social sciences and areas in humanities that maybe haven’t been as popular lately, but they’re fundamental to what it means to be a great university. I’ve always said the measure of a great university is the quality of the faculty.

So we’ll start with the faculty, and we will invest to hire them, because at the end of the day, they’re the individuals that educate the next generation so that’s critically important. Within that, we also recognize, and sometimes people say, there are multiple pandemics going on. One is that I think the awakening, or the reawakening since the George Floyd murder really is around racism in our society. And so we’ve announced the RISE initiative, which is Race, Inclusion, Social Equity, which has six pillars. We’ll be looking to hire faculty whose scholarship is in education particularly focused on STEAM. It’s in healthcare disparities. It’s in economics, and it’s access to leadership and natural resources. It’s the arts and it’s public safety. So the RISE initiative with these six pillars, we are aiming to hire at least 50 researchers in those areas so that we can get at some of the systemic issues of racism and social justice in our society and the need for that.

Bridget Burns:
I do want to share, so I sit in a space where I frequently am observing and listening to what the statements from presidents across the country are, and one thing I noted was that you were the first large public research university president who actually came out really directly to talk about Black Lives Matter and actually said the word. I found a lot of presidents were uncomfortable at first being able to talk about these issues around race and equity, but it struck me as very different just how direct you were, and how the way that you framed it was really kind of leading the sector, and I saw other institutional leaders trying to kind of -- not cut and paste, but borrow from some of your courage. So I don’t know if you know that, but you were one of the first. It was some of the most forthright language I’d seen, especially from public research universities.

Kristina Johnson:
Well, thank you for that. We are a land grant university, and I think the mission of the land grant university is to serve those we influence in the communities in which they live. I mentioned earlier that I went to college in the '70s. I had wonderful professors, a beautiful university that I had the honor and pleasure to attend, but I never once had a woman faculty member in the sciences. And I took all the math, all the psychics, all the chemistry, all the engineering I could take. Ever. In eight years, undergraduate or graduate.

So I recognized what does that mean to me? It’s kind of crazy now that I’m a university president. I didn’t know women were faculty members in the sciences and engineering. I was getting a Ph.D., so it’s not like I was totally ignorant. I obviously had some smarts, but it’s so subtle. The inherent biases that we all have are just so subtle that it never occurred to me until -- you know, [Ronnie Green] is a very dear friend of mine. She’s at University of Nebraska -- actually University of Nebraska recruited me for a faculty position. Ronnie, obviously you weren’t at the time on the faculty but that opened by eyes and it was really the [pollack] institutions that came out recruiting, and then had an offer from Iowa and UC San Diego. That said a lot. Then I realized, "OK, I guess women work." So you can imagine that that’s really personal. In part, it comes from my family, it comes from my grandfather.

I’ll tell you one little story just quickly. My grandfather worked for George Westinghouse himself at Westinghouse at the turn of last century. And he created these things called casino schools. I kind of wondered what that was growing up, and I asked Mom and Dad. I said, “What are casino schools? Was he teaching people to gamble?" They said, "No, no, no, it was a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Casino Restaurant, but at night he would rent the upper floor, and he would hold classes, engineering and technical classes so that underrepresented minorities, mainly African Americans and women living in Pittsburgh, working for Westinghouse, could do something different than be janitors or serving tea.” That’s what I was told. I did find on his death a letter that was written to him by the NAACP and the African American workers at Westinghouse as a resolution to his widow, my grandmother, applauding him for exactly this work. So I do think it's somewhat in the DNA.

Bridget Burns:
That’s great. That’s a super helpful perspective. Doug, did you want to -- oh, you’re muted again.

Doug Lederman:
There’s some noise in the background so I’ve been trying to limit it. I guess I’m interested in how it’s been shifting to you’re at -- I think it’s not even arguable -- the largest certainly institution in terms of number of institution system in the country at SUNY to a state where there isn’t a ton of -- there’s obviously some statewide organization, but the institutions are generally free agents to a large extent, and Ohio State is the big kahuna in the state. So I’m just curious how that changes your view of collaboration with other institutions, having a system head, per se, in the same way that you were in New York. I’m just curious how that affects your view of being a leader of a university?

Kristina Johnson:
It’s interesting. I loved my time at SUNY and being chancellor, and one of the first things when I came in that I did was I sent all 64 presidents because they own that campus and everything that goes on in it, I sent them a little book called The Starfish and the Spider -- and I know Ori Brafman and I forget the other author -- which basically talks about resilient organizations and how they’re structured, should they be centralized, should they be decentralized, and it’s really Chapter 7 which I think is still needing to be fully written that talks about the best systems are hybrid, where you have some activities that are centralized, but you also have a lot of activities that are decentralized and happen clearly at the campus. So we had extraordinary president leaders, and we really found that out when the pandemic hit.

Coming to Ohio State, what I missed, though, as chancellor is I didn’t have students, and even though there were 30,000 faculty, they were faculty that were doing great work on the campus. So if I wanted to do a special project or see an opportunity to make change, I was just a layer or two removed from being able to really effectuate that change. So when I came to the Ohio State University and especially after the students returned and getting to meet the faculty, I realized that’s really where my heart is and I’m going to teach a class next semester. One on energy, energy and clean energy, reducing our carbon footprint, all different ways to do it. I’ll co-team it with a professor. I won’t name the professor since I haven’t fully invited him yet to the gang. But I’m really excited about that and to be back in the classroom and working closely with students.

Bridget Burns:
What an opportunity to have a former under secretary to be your teacher for a class on energy. So I want to shift to rapid fire, which these are the questions that our viewers really appreciate and write in about. The first question I wanted to ask is what’s the best advice that someone else gave you that has served you in your career?

Kristina Johnson:
That’s easy. It was actually the advice I got from Gordon Gee, who is two-time president at the Ohio State University and now president at West Virginia University. And the thing he said to me was, "Ask for help. It’s too big, complex, difficult job to do by yourself and people find it endearing." And it’s true. Think about it. Any time somebody calls you and says, "Hey, I need some help," you kind of feel like, "Wow, I have something to offer. That’s really great." And it has been so true. And I do. I ask everybody for help, and when you talked earlier, Doug and Bridget, about partnerships and about some of the biggest problems that we have, they cut across disciplines. They’re at the foundering disciplines, they are that foundering of organizations, right. So that’s why, whether it’s public safety or academic excellence or our research partnership in the innovation district where we’re bringing our community in, it's all about partnerships. So that’s one way to build that partnership.

Bridget Burns:
Wonderful. So the second one is what advice do you find yourself most frequently giving to others who are interested in leadership?

Kristina Johnson:
That’s a good question. I think some of the advice that I give to our students is about being servant leaders and what does that mean? That means really serving the people that you wish to lead, making the decisions that are in their best interest and not yours, and serving the whole as opposed to just the individual. I often said that -- going back to SUNY for a minute -- I often said -- and it’s true at Ohio State, too -- "The whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts." You’re really going to solve these complicated problems at the boundary disciplines. It really requires everyone coming together, but the parts have to be better for being part of the whole.

So it’s not good enough to just have the whole perspective. You also need to have the perspective you come to the table as an individual leader, and I think my background as both dean and provost help me appreciate that as well. So I think that’s part of it as servant leader. And the other thing I tell our students is, "Make room in your suitcase." This is something a friend said to me once and I’ll never forget it. When you leave the institution Ohio State, you’re joining an alumni of 600,000 strong, but make room in your suitcase for the kids, your roommates, the kids that were whatever outside, one of our 1400 student clubs or the sports teams or the music or the dance, because those are going to be your friends for life. They’re going to be people that will be with you during the thick and thin. I’m still in great contact with my dear friends from my Stanford days, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bridget Burns:
That’s wonderful. Well, I think that’s perfect for us to end on. Thank you so much, President Johnson. It’s really been an honor to have this conversation with you. I know that you’re an incredibly busy person who is supporting -- well, leading and supporting a massive institution that is in a very difficult time in the country, let alone for the state and the community that you’re in. So thank you for this time. And Doug, as always, you are an excellent co-host. So folks, we will see you all in two weeks. Thanks.

Kristina Johnson:
Thank you.
 

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Kristina Johnson, President, The Ohio State University
Kristina M. Johnson, Ph.D., became the 16th president of The Ohio State University in August 2020. Prior to that, she served as chancellor of the State University of New York (S.U.N.Y.), founded and served as C.E.O. of several successful science and technology companies, served as undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Energy (with a focus on clean energy and reducing carbon emissions), and held academic leadership positions at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University (provost and senior V.P. for academic affairs), Duke University (dean of the Pratt School of Engineering), and the University of Colorado at Boulder (professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems). At S.U.N.Y., Dr. Johnson led a system of 64 public colleges and universities, launching a system-wide student success initiative and a diversity initiative to hire underrepresented minorities and women in STEM. Dr. Johnson has published nearly 150 papers and proceedings, and holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents. Her awards include the 2004 Society of Women Engineers Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2008 John Fritz Medal from the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the 2010 Woman of Vision Award for Leadership by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. A member of several corporate boards, she currently sits on the board of directors of Cisco Systems, Inc. Dr. Johnson earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford University, where she was a varsity athlete in field hockey and founded the club varsity lacrosse team. She is married to Veronica Meinhard, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, and a four-time All-American swimmer at her alma mater, the University of Florida.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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