President Johnson describes university ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’
Ohio State has the size, scale and scope to lead
“The excellence of the education we offer here transforms our students’ lives, and that is important,” Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson said during the 2022 James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture. “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.”
This notion was a through-line in Johnson’s speech this week at the Ohio Union, the first Patterson Lecture since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Begun in 2004, the lecture series allows a prominent figure to discuss the challenges facing higher education. It was named in honor of Ohio State graduate Jim Patterson, whose commitment to the land-grant mission led him to the university’s Board of Trustees, serving from 1994-2003 and as board chair in his final year.
Despite the size of Ohio’s economy, Johnson noted that the state ranks poorly across several measures, including per capita income, public health and educational attainment. It is incumbent upon Ohio State, she said, to partner with the communities that have supported the university. This can be done in many ways, including workforce development with employers like Intel, which recently committed $20 billion to two new semiconductor factories in Licking County.
“Building the workforce Intel requires is beyond what a single university, even one with our scale, can do. It is going to take a regional effort,” Johnson said. “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.”
In addition to contributing to the state, Ohio State must make its top-tier education accessible for all its students, Johnson said. The university’s Scarlet and Gray Advantage program, which will offer undergraduate students the opportunity to earn a debt-free degree within the decade, is beginning with a pilot program this fall with 125 students.
“Since student debt is a complex national problem, and there are many kinds of borrowers, the pilot will allow us to work out the knots,” she said. “Ultimately, our 10-year goal is to do this at scale, with thousands more students a year graduating Ohio State without the burden of loans.”
Free from debt, students can then embark on a journey of lifelong learning. Johnson described a platform that will allow for just that.
“I envision doing this with an education cloud where students can personalize their education, earning micro-credentials that can stack as they progress through Ohio State – and then long after they graduate, as knowledge in their field expands,” she said.
Academic advisers will work in tandem with this program, Johnson said, helping students plot an academic path that can lead to exciting, engaging careers.
Johnson asked the audience to consider the purpose of land-grant universities. Who are the people they are meant to serve: the students who attend them, the communities that engage with them, the faculty who conduct research at them?
Ohio State can be all of these things, she said.
“It is time to redefine what it means to be a great land-grant university in the 21st century – to become a university of the people, by the people, for the people,” Johnson said. “Down the road, that is where real excellence lies – as well as the possibility of inspiring all institutions all across the nation to do the same.
“The beauty is, we have the size, scale and scope to lead,” she said, in closing. “I intend to make sure we do that.”
The James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture is hosted by The Ohio State University Office of Outreach and Engagement.