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Ohio State presidents past and present celebrate land-grant mission

Gee joins Johnson in virtual fireside chat

A celebration of the land-grant mission of The Ohio State University brought together past and present leaders of the university to discuss the successes and challenges facing higher education.

This month, Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson joined former President E. Gordon Gee for a virtual fireside chat. The conversation was moderated by Stephen Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science, and David Staley, associate professor of history.

Gavazzi and Staley edited “Fulfilling the 21st Century Land-Grant Mission,” a book of essays that includes contributions from Gee, former Ohio State presidents William “Brit” Kirwan and Michael V. Drake, and university faculty and staff.

The fireside conversation began with a question about Johnson’s decision to lead Ohio State.

“The Ohio State University is just an iconic, storied institution, that both of us have had the honor to serve. You start there and then you think about it being the second largest land-grant institution in the country, and that comes with an incredible opportunity to serve and to serve those in the communities in which we live,” Johnson said.

She noted one statistic that helps prove that point: Ohio State serves more low-income students than the entire Ivy League combined.

“I think when you have the opportunity to make that kind of impact and difference, I just feel so honored to be able to have been selected to do that and to follow in the footsteps of my mentor, Gordon,” she said.

Gee, now serving as president of West Virginia University after two terms at Ohio State, agreed with that sentiment. He said the difference between his time leading private universities and Ohio State or West Virginia was the mission of service.

“Kristina has been at a couple of great private institutions, Duke and obviously Johns Hopkins, and I have led at Brown and Vanderbilt, and the way I describe it is that when I was at those institutions, I felt really privileged. I would wake up in the morning and think what a wonderful opportunity I had,” Gee said. “When I would wake up as the president of Ohio State, or now of West Virginia, I know why I’m there. The land-grant universities are this country’s mission, and they have a great purpose and that purpose is to serve.”

Gee and Gavazzi co-wrote a book on land-grant universities titled “Land-Grant Universities for the Future,” and coined the term “land-grant fierce” to encourage land-grant institutions to be truer to their founding mission. Staley asked both presidents if the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced that belief.

“I think actually it’s helped us understand it a little bit more because Ohio State has a great academic medical center, they have sociologists and political scientists and people who to try to understand what [COVID-19] means for the people of Ohio,” Gee said. “There are 11.6 million Ohioans and there are 1.8 million West Virginians, and every day I think what we’re trying to do is solve their problems. If we can come up with rapid tests, if we can come up with a vaccine at the Wexner Medical Center, it’s not about taking it to Washington, D.C., and bragging. It’s about taking it to Athens County in Ohio and inoculating people.”

Johnson pointed to some of the ways Ohio State is leading research and innovation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are part of a couple of vaccine trials at the Wexner Medical Center and as the president mentioned, we have the College of Public Health, which has really been a leader in COVID,” she said. “We’ve developed over the last couple of months a way to test 60,000 individuals a week … and we’ve learned a few things. And we’re working with the governor’s office in order to take those learnings to scale across the entire state.”

Gavazzi also probed the presidents about the land-grant mission in the 21st century.

“How do you envision the appropriate 21st century balance that must be struck between the demand for excellence in teaching, excellence in research and excellence in service to the communities of our state, our nation and even the world?” he asked.

Johnson said the modern mission is like the founding mission: serving the community. She said one of the ways to do that is to help educate a modern workforce capable of thriving in a more technological world. Continuing to build an anti-racist society is also critical, she said, and that goal includes increasing educational opportunities for under-represented communities.

Johnson mentioned her grandfather, a graduate of Ohio State when it was Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College. As an employee at Westinghouse, he set up technical schools to help educate a more diverse workforce.

“If you come to my office, you’ll see some of the letters from those early 1900 days and there’s one letter that’s thanking him for setting up the technical schools, because he recognized that African Americans and women within Westinghouse did not have the opportunities to have technical jobs. They were janitors and secretaries,” she said. “So this is just something that’s in our blood. It’s in the blood of land-grants. It’s in the blood of engineers. And I couldn’t be more proud to be both of them right now.”

Gee said it was important to understand how critical higher education is as the world becomes more competitive.

“I think the issue we have to face … is the fact that there are 330 million Americans. There are 1.4 billion Chinese, and India will grow to about 2 billion by 2050. So on the basis of mass, we lose. The only thing that we have that really enables us to remain competitive is our ability to outthink in order to perform,” he said. “And that’s our business. We don’t produce widgets. We don’t produce cars. We produce ideas and people who produce ideas and people who can wrestle with those ideas.”

As the chat concluded, the mission of service returned to the conversation. Johnson said the goal of serving communities and influencing communities is a land-grant university’s north star. Gee agreed and offered advice.

“I think a reason that you just have to love these kinds of institutions is that they do have something which is in their DNA, which is about being called to make a difference for every person they touch,” he said. “The goal for Kristina is to have every Ohioan in their hearts and minds believe that Ohio State is the most important thing in their lives. And that is very doable, I can tell you.”

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