FEATURES

The Dazzling Rise and Stunning Fall of Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson

What a “failed presidency” reveals about Ohio State and Columbus and its impact on the search for her successor

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson in her Bricker Hall office in April 2021

Kristina Johnson was different. Tanny Crane recognized that right away.

Shortly after Ohio State University appointed Johnson its 16th president in June 2020, the new leader contacted both Crane and her mother, Loann, asking them to meet for lunch. This wasn’t surprising. Every new OSU president wants to talk to the Crane family, the owners of the Crane Group and major donors to several Central Ohio institutions, including Ohio State. But what was surprising was how quickly the call came—even before Johnson officially started at OSU—and how warm, approachable and considerate she was.

Sharing a meal of quiche, salad, croissants and macarons from German Village’s Pistacia Vera, the trio met at the 95-year-old Loann Crane’s Miranova condo. One of the city’s great arts patrons, Loann gave Johnson a tour of her personal collection, while the president shared tidbits about her first few days in Columbus. After the lunch, Johnson followed up with personal calls and thank-you notes. “Just all the things that you checkmark, ‘That’s lovely,’” Tanny says.

Johnson continued to stay in touch. When Loann Crane died in November 2021, Johnson dropped off a care package at Tanny’s home—the exact same Pistacia Vera meal they shared during their first lunch together. “I was so struck by her thoughtfulness and how in the world she remembered that,” Tanny says.

Johnson’s leadership also inspired Crane. At Johnson’s pandemic-delayed investiture (also in November 2021), she outlined an initiative, called the Scarlet & Gray Advantage, with an ambitious goal of creating a debt-free degree within a decade at Ohio State. The moonshot proposal so inspired Crane that she decided to rejoin the Ohio State Foundation Board after recently dropping off. “I was really enamored with [the plan],” Crane says. “I just thought, ‘Wow, what can I do to help?’” What’s more, Crane believed in Johnson, a new kind of Ohio State leader. “She had unique qualities we just hadn’t seen in a president before,” Crane says.

That’s why Johnson’s stunning reversal of fortune is so hard to understand. On Nov. 28, 2022, just a year after Crane and other community leaders celebrated Johnson at that investiture in Mershon Auditorium, Ohio State announced that Johnson will step down as president at end of the academic year—a bombshell that came with no explanation, fueling rumors and speculation. A year ago, Johnson was a rising star, with seemingly all of Columbus swooning over her. Today, she’s a lame duck whose 33-month OSU presidency will be the shortest in 140 years when it ends in May. What happened? How did she fall so far, so fast? And if someone like her can’t make it in Bricker Hall, who can?

President Kristina Johnson leads the Ohio State University spring commencement ceremony held May 9, 2021, in Ohio Stadium.

Sudden Departure Stuns Johnson’s Supporters

The reactions were pretty much the same. When news broke about Johnson’s resignation, her admirers responded similarly. “Surprise is an understatement,” says real estate developer Ron Pizzuti, whose former Bexley home, Pizzuti House, is the university’s presidential residence. “Nobody had an inkling of it,” says Stanley Ross, a prominent Ohio State donor. “It was just a bolt from the blue,” says Gil Cloyd, chair of the Ohio State Foundation Board and a former university trustee.

The news didn’t make sense. Johnson was finishing up her second year of a five-year contract. She was developing relationships with critical Ohio State stakeholders. She was talking about huge, long-term goals around research, fundraising, student debt and more. “I know she really intended to be here for a decade,” Cloyd says.

In a statement provided to The Columbus Dispatch in November, University Senate Faculty Council chair Caroline Clark called Johnson “one of our best university leaders in recent times,” a comment echoed by others both on campus and in the broader Columbus community. “An excellent president,” says Brian Perera, Ohio State’s recently retired associate vice president for state relations. “A very effective president—probably the most effective of my time here,” says Keith Myers, the university’s former vice president of planning, architecture and real estate, who also served under Johnson predecessors Michael Drake and Gordon Gee and interim president Joseph Alutto. “A superstar,” says Columbus attorney and civic leader Larry James, who befriended Johnson and her wife, Veronica Meinhard.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Rebeka Mikulasikova (23) high-fives Kristina Johnson after the team’s 89-83 win over the Michigan State Spartans at Value City Arena on Jan. 12, 2022.

These rave reviews, of course, don’t correlate with her presidency’s abrupt and confusing denouement, a state of affairs the university seems unwilling to clear up. Senior university leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. Johnson also declined to comment through her attorney, Rex Elliott, who said university officials asked her to turn down the request. Johnson previously had spoken with The Dispatch, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, though she offered no additional information about why she was resigning. Citing anonymous sources, The Dispatch reported in early December that trustees asked Johnson to resign following a review by an outside consultant. The review uncovered claims from staffers about a hostile work environment, The Dispatch reported, as well as concerns about dishonesty in Johnson’s interactions with trustees.

In addition, university officials are being cagey with public documents. The consultant, Richard Chait, an emeritus professor with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was hired to assist with Johnson’s 2022 performance review. He spoke with members of the university community and summarized those conversations verbally with board members, says OSU spokesman Benjamin Johnson (no relation). University trustees also didn’t complete a 2022 performance review for Johnson because they knew in advance of their November board meeting her intent to resign, Benjamin Johnson says. Those actions avoided creating written documents that might be accessible via public records requests.

This opacity has frustrated some. “The public deserves to know why Johnson is departing the university after such a short time,” wrote Jessica Langer, the editor of The Lantern student newspaper in a Dec. 1, 2022, column. “Ohio State is a public institution, and that requires transparency. The Ohio State community isn’t getting that from Johnson, Ohio State or the board of trustees.”

“Just because a body or committee is empowered to make certain decisions without having to explain its actions does not mean it should,” wrote Ohio State professor Judson Jeffries in a Dec. 2, 2022, Dispatch op-ed about Johnson’s resignation, also calling for more transparency. In an interview with Columbus Monthly, Jeffries elaborated on why he spoke out. “Someone on the faculty had to raise this issue [to get] people talking about it publicly,” says the professor of African American and African studies.

OSU President Kristina Johnson with Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation (left), and Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger (right) at the Intel groundbreaking ceremony on Sept. 9, 2022

It’s hard to believe that Johnson’s presidency has gotten to this point. When she was hired, she seemed like an ideal candidate on paper. She’s an academic, an entrepreneur, an inventor, a scientist, even a former collegiate field hockey athlete whose grandfather played football at Ohio State. She also showed decisive leadership from the start, taking aggressive actions to control COVID on the Ohio State campus (even before her official first day) while also launching an ambitious agenda that includes doubling research spending, expanding faculty and staff, and eliminating student debt through the Scarlet & Gray Advantage initiative. Though her tenure has been short, she’s made progress on those goals, bringing down COVID positivity rates during her first few months on campus, setting a new record for research expenditures in 2021 and surpassing initial Scarlet & Gray fundraising targets.

Johnson’s admirers lament the loss of such a dynamic leader. After Johnson’s resignation, members of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee sent a letter to the board of trustees, praising Johnson for her support of research, faculty and students, and urging trustees to find a new OSU leader who will continue Johnson’s work.“ Everyone who cares about academic excellence was very disappointed at this turn of events,” says Robert Holub, chair of the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and a member of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee.

Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson (Block O shirt) and her wife, Veronica Meinhard (red sweater), celebrate the 2022 homecoming court before the football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium.

Did Les Wexner Play a Role in Johnson’s Departure?

At Ohio State, there’s the president, and then there’s the “owner.” Presidents come and go, the joke goes, but the “owner,” Les Wexner, never leaves.

Long Columbus’ most powerful leader, Wexner is no longer quite the civic force he once was in Central Ohio after his connections to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein became a public scandal. But the 85-year-old billionaire philanthropist and L Brands founder remains a power player at Ohio State, where he continues to chair the OSU Wexner Medical Center Board, which oversees the $4.89 billion health care operation. And several of his allies (including his wife, Abigail) remain on the board of trustees, ensuring he retains influence there. So when intrigue occurs at Ohio State—like the sudden resignation of a seemingly popular president—all eyes turn to him.

Did Wexner push out Johnson? A knowledgeable community source says Johnson and Wexner did not have a strong relationship, with tensions developing over the management of the med center. But the source says the conflict wasn’t just with Wexner; it was with all the med center board members, along with university trustees.

These problems seemed to come to a head over Johnson’s handling of the search to replace Dr. Hal Paz, the med center CEO who left Ohio State in October 2021 to become the executive vice president for health sciences at Stony Brook University in New York. A pair of sources says Johnson pushed out Paz, even though he was admired by many trustees and university leaders. (Paz didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Then, as the search to replace Paz reached what was supposed to be the final stages in 2022, Johnson failed to share critical information with trustees and med center board members, two sources say. The university had zeroed in on a top candidate, Dr. Mark Anderson, then the director of the Department of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But Anderson ended up taking a job at the University of Chicago instead. Board members were surprised, wondering how they didn’t know about this competition for their prized recruit. It turned out Johnson did know, the sources say, but she didn’t share that information with board members. (On Jan. 13, 2023, Ohio State named Dr. John Warner of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as the new OSU Wexner Medical Center CEO.)

That incident fed into an already developing narrative about dishonesty and lack of transparency in Johnson’s decision-making and communications. “In fact, she was asked to come and tell the board how she was going to deal with those shortcomings,” one source says. In February 2021, Johnson made her first State of the University speech, revealing a slew of ambitious plans (hiring 350 additional faculty members, eradicating student debt, turning Ohio State into an anti-racist community). Johnson didn’t vet her ideas with the board, angering some trustees, a source says.

Ohio State President Kristina Johnson gives a State of the University address on April 21, 2022, at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

The first openly gay Ohio State president, Johnson also faced criticism that she was too “woke” for the university. In September 2020, she sent a campuswide email decrying authorities’ decision not to bring charges in the fatal Breonna Taylor police shooting in Kentucky, incorrectly saying that Taylor was asleep at the time and that police shootings of people of color wouldn’t stop “until we create an anti-racist world.” That statement drew complaints to the university Human Resources Department, accusing Johnson of dividing the campus over issues of race, according to copies of the complaints obtained by Columbus Monthly through an open records request. Two sources say Johnson’s progressive views also caused friction between her and some trustees, particularly those appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine in recent years.

But the turning point seems to have occurred in summer 2022, when trustees began to look into concerns that Johnson had created a hostile work environment for employees at Bricker Hall. As part of Johnson’s performance review, trustees decided to get feedback from her cabinet, more than a dozen senior leaders on campus who oversee such areas as athletics, academics, research and finances. A community leader says about two-thirds of the cabinet reported bullying behavior from Johnson, including people she recruited to the university.

The revelations became a “bridge too far,” the community leader says, leading to her departure. “There was a crescendoing effect as people kept bringing these forward, and there was no correction on her part,” the source says. “And then this whole staffing situation is where the house of cards comes falling down.”

Researchers Dub Johnson’s Short Tenure a “Failed Presidency”

Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein, researchers at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, call Johnson’s tenure a “failed presidency”—defined as a tenure that ends within the first two years of a contract. The characterization is not a judgment on Johnson’s or any other president’s accomplishments (and doesn’t take them into consideration, in fact). But as a matter of course, a short time in office makes it difficult to have lasting impact.

The average length of a university presidency has been trending downward. A 2017 American Council on Education study put the figure at 6.5 years, down from 7 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2006. Over the past 25 years at Ohio State, the longest presidential tenure has been Michael Drake’s six-year run from 2014 to 2020. OSU donor Tanny Crane fears this trend could damage the university. “I do believe that stability and continuity are critical right now, and we haven’t had it,” she says. “I’m a graduate. I’ve had many relatives who have attended Ohio State University, and we’re proud to be associated with it and have our name on some things there. So it really worries me about the stature and reputation of Ohio State University when we haven’t retained a president for a while.”

Indeed, that history—and the Johnson episode, in particular—could affect the effort to replace her. Ohio State remains a strong institution, and its top leader will be compensated generously (Johnson’s annual base salary is $927,000). But the lack of clarity surrounding Johnson’s resignation may unnerve strong job candidates. “They actually should be reticent about taking a job at an institution that operates in such opaque ways,” says Jeffries, the Ohio State professor.

“Leadership transitions do damage to university operations, to faculty and staff morale, and to the reputation of OSU,” wrote the members of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee in their letter to trustees. “These effects are even larger in this case because of the brevity of president Johnson’s tenure. We encourage the board of trustees to find a successor it is prepared to support through the inevitable ups and downs of a major university.”

Johnson’s abrupt departure inevitably focused attention on the OSU board and its role, both in her resignation and in the way she was hired. The university paid executive search firm Isaacson, Miller at least $420,000 to find Johnson, which didn’t include nearly $48,000 for flights, ground transportation and hotels for the presidential candidates who visited campus as part of the search. Even DeWine says he is concerned about what appears to be rapid presidential turnover, suggesting in mid-December that board trustees should be more involved. “I understand that boards of trustees now always get national search firms,” DeWine told reporters. “That’s OK, but I think there’s also people that might be available that the trustees collectively already know about.”

Wilde also recommends more local involvement. While she acknowledges that search firms are here to stay, she points out that many take too much control out of the hands of university boards. “When you read some of these contracts, the search firm has great power all the way up to the final selection, and that’s where we start having some issues,” she says.

Ohio State trustees met on Dec. 19, 2022, to begin discussions about the next presidential search. The university will share additional details about the effort and how the community can participate in early 2023, says OSU spokesman Benjamin Johnson. Advice is already flowing in. Mark Kvamme, partner emeritus at the Columbus venture capital firm Drive Capital (of which Ohio State was an early investor), says the university should focus on recruiting a true nonacademic for the job. While Johnson had a more diverse background than previous presidents—starting her own tech company, serving as an undersecretary of energy in the Obama administration—she remained at heart an academic, Kvamme says. He thinks the university needs someone who’s been the CEO of a major corporation or the head of a large institution, like a governor or a mayor of a big city. He also recommends bringing in a known entity as an interim president to “steady the ship” following the recent upheaval. He floats such possibilities as former Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer (a current member of the OSU board), former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, recently retired AEP CEO Nick Akins and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who brought Kvamme to Columbus to serve in his administration in 2011.

Whoever leads the university—whether it’s an interim or the permanent president—Kvamme says that person needs to better understand how Ohio State and Columbus operate: the expectations, the power dynamics, the culture. “My fear is they’re going to do this big, long, expensive search again, and bring somebody from the outside who has the right résumé, but they’re not going to know how to play the game,” Kvamme says.

Johnson’s Last Months at the Helm

For the next four months, Kristina Johnson will exist in a strange limbo. She will remain in office through May 2023, until the spring commencement ceremony at the end of the academic year. “This will allow a search for the next president to proceed and adequate time for me to assist with a seamless transition,” she said in the Nov. 28 announcement.

The arrangement is puzzling. Why would trustees want to keep her around after all the tumult? And why would she want to stay? Regardless, Johnson is soldiering on. The day after her resignation announcement, she attended a previously scheduled President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee luncheon in an Astronomy Department seminar room, as well as a reception later that day in the Ohio Union. On Dec. 18, she presided over winter graduation.

Perhaps the most awkward event occurred on Dec. 1, when Johnson and her wife, Veronica Meinhard, hosted the president’s annual holiday reception at Pizzuti House. In attendance were community, business and political leaders, including Gov. DeWine, as well as members of the media. Still, by all accounts, the event proceeded normally, with Johnson offering only guarded remarks on wishing she could continue in her position.

Her supporters say she’s taking the high road. “She’s not putting blame on anyone,” says Pizzuti, who’s spoken to her several times since the resignation and considers both Johnson and Meinhard “lifelong friends.” Crane also has spoken to the couple on multiple instances, and she says they’ve always delivered the same message. “They love Ohio State, love Columbus, would love to stay here, but they’re very respectful of leadership, and they want to do the right thing,” Crane says.

Freelance writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this story.

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly. It has been updated to include information from a letter to the university’s board of trustees from the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee and the hiring of Dr. John Warner as the new CEO of the OSU Wexner Medical Center.