Ohio State President Kristina Johnson had big plans. Now she's stepping down.
At her first State of the University Address in February 2021, Kristina M. Johnson laid out a set of ambitious goals she planned to tackle over the next decade as Ohio State's 16th president.
Her aim was lofty but clear: to make Ohio State the best land-grant university in the nation.
Johnson envisioned an Ohio State where students could leave school with a bachelor's degree and zero debt. She planned to hire at least 350 new tenure-track faculty members from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields. She pushed to double the university's research expenditures, putting Ohio State among an "elite" group of research institutions.
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These plans, among others she pitched, were not just goals but a personal mission, she said at the time.
"We have the size, scale and scope to truly lead," Johnson said. "We can reach for excellence, and we are well on our way."
While Ohio State is making strides on her goals, Johnson will no longer be the one seeing them through.
Johnson announced Monday night that she is stepping down as Ohio State's president, hours after The Dispatch broke the story of her departure.
The university's board of trustees asked Johnson, 65, to resign following a review conducted by an outside consultant. Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said the outside consultant was called in to help the board with Johnson's annual performance review. During the consultant's work, concerns about her were raised by staff, sources in the administration told The Dispatch. What those concerns were and the details of the review are not clear.
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"The board was aware of President Johnson’s intent to leave the university (in) advance of the November board meeting and therefore an annual review was not completed," he said.
Kristina Johnson's last day as the university's 16th president is expected to be at the end of the academic year shortly after spring commencement, which is scheduled for May 7.
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Johnson issued a statement Monday night in the wake of The Dispatch report that she would be resigning.
“Since I arrived at The Ohio State University in August of 2020, we have been able to achieve so much, on so many different fronts, despite considerable adversity including the COVID-19 pandemic," Johnson said. "I am very proud of all that we have accomplished together. It’s been a privilege to serve this incredible university, and I have been honored to work as part of this brilliant, dedicated and passionate community.
“I have made the difficult decision to step down as president following commencement at the end of the academic year," she said. "This will allow a search for the next president to proceed and adequate time for me to assist with a seamless transition."
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Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita, chair of the board of trustees, said in a statement: “On behalf of the entire Board of Trustees, I want to thank Dr. Johnson for her dedication to the university, especially her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. We congratulate her on her many achievements and wish her our very best in her future professional endeavors.”
Gov. Mike DeWine said he and Johnson “had a very good working relationship since she became president" and cited her leadership in helping pave the way to educate Ohio's students in preparation for the arrival of Intel in the region.
DeWine said “getting the right person to head Ohio State University is very important" and that the board of trustees have an incredibly important task in selecting the university's next leader.
“Ohio State has a huge impact on this state. It’s a major research institution. It educates a large number of our students. It’s very, very, very important," he said.
University Senate Faculty Council Chair Caroline Clark said she was "stunned by this decision," and that she felt that Johnson had been "one of our best university leaders in recent times."
"She has initiated significant initiatives that promise to further the prominence of our university, and her leadership and voice have been instrumental in guiding us through some of the most challenging times that higher education has ever faced," Clark said. "I’ve been particularly impressed by her active engagement in shared governance and her willingness to engage with a broad constituency of students, staff and faculty. Given the extraordinary demands of her position, this is remarkable. I do worry about losing her leadership, particularly around recruiting and supporting the best faculty and enhancing research and development here at OSU."
Johnson will depart about 2½ years into her five-year contract. At the time of her departure, Johnson will have the second-shortest tenure as a president at Ohio State behind only former Ohio State President Walter Q. Scott, who served from 1881 to 1883. That does not include acting or interim presidents.
Ohio State's Board of Trustees will begin searching for the university’s 17th president. The university said it will share more information about the search and how the community can participate in early 2023.
Ohio State president didn't have review in November
Ohio State's Board of Trustees conducts an annual review of the university's president each fiscal year (which runs July to June), and trustees work with the president to establish a set of goals, according to Johnson's 2020 offer letter. Those goals are used as the basis for her annual review, and those reviews are typically shared at November's Talent, Compensation & Governance committee meeting.
No such review took place for Johnson at the committee meeting this November. Instead, trustees met for nearly two hours in executive session before briefly discussing other personnel actions.
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The Dispatch has made several public records requests to Ohio State asking for copies of Johnson's annual performance review and the report completed by the outside consultant. The university had yet to complete those records requests by the time of The Dispatch's print deadline.
In August 2021, after her first year at the university's helm, the trustees' Talent, Compensation & Governance Committee approved giving Johnson a $27,000 raise, which is 3% of her base salary, as well as a $263,500 bonus. At the time, Johnson earned $900,000 a year, according to her contract.
She is currently earning $927,000 annually as of Sept. 30, according to the university's salary data base.
When former Ohio State President Michael V. Drake announced his retirement in November 2019, it came after a committee of university trustees gave him a positive performance evaluation and approved a 2.5% raise, bringing his annual salary to nearly $892,000 per year. Unlike previous years, though, they did not approve a bonus.
In addition to her base pay, Johnson also receives $200,000 a year in her university retirement account, $50,000 annually to support her research and education, and an $85,000 annual allowance for other expenses such as a car and tax services.
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Johnson came to Ohio State in May 2020 from the State University of New York, where she had served as the system's chancellor for three years. Her first official day as president was Sept. 1, 2020.
Before that, she served eight years as dean of the engineering school at Duke University and two years as provost at Johns Hopkins University. She then became a top official in the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration and founded a couple of for-profit businesses.
Johnson's first year as president at Ohio State was in the midst of an unprecedented chapter for higher education.
She took the helm amid calls for justice and an end to systemic racism, political upheaval and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, all while figuring out how to safely reopen campuses and resume athletics because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of her first orders of business was creating a task force on safety issues on campus and in off-campus neighborhoods after Ohio State student Chase Meola was shot and killed in early October 2020.
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Johnson restructured the university's research enterprises and hired "Grace" Jinliu Wang, a former SUNY colleague, as Ohio State's new executive vice president for research. Earlier this month, Wang was announced as the 17th president at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
In the fall of 2021, Johnson reopened campus to in-person classes and announced the university's new vaccination policy, requiring students, staff, faculty and the campus community to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Ohio State was among the first large, public schools in the state to make such a requirement.
In addition to making strides on her goals, Johnson announced the new name of the innovation district on the university’s west campus – Carmenton – and has raised a significant amount of funds for the Scarlet and Gray Advantage, Ohio State's zero-debt degree initiative.
Students Abigail Hersman, 19, and her friend Nathan Malcolm, 21, were both surprised to hear the news about Johnson’s resignation, finding out about it through Instagram.
The two of them were sitting at a table inside Ohio Union Tuesday afternoon studying.
“I was shocked,” Hersman said. “I didn’t know if it was a joke.”
The sophomore and junior said they thought Johnson did well during her two years at the university, specifically when it came to leading Ohio State during the early days of the pandemic.
“She had a full plate, but she did a good job under the circumstances,” Malcom said.
Hersman also liked that Johnson was active around campus and came out to university events, such as a philanthropy event for her sorority Zeta Tau Alpha.
“It’s nerve-racking to see who the new president will be and which direction they will go in,” she said.
In her statement, Johnson said her time at Ohio State has also brought "much personal satisfaction" to her and her wife, Veronica Meinhard.
"Veronica and I quickly felt welcomed as full-fledged members of the campuses and local communities," she said. "We want to thank the amazing students, faculty and staff of Ohio State, the alumni, parents, supporters and all of Buckeye Nation, including my cabinet and the Board of Trustees, for the camaraderie you have shown us as we reached new heights together.
"We wish all of you — and The Ohio State University — the very best in the future.”
Dispatch reporters Megan Henry and Micah Walker and USA Today Network Ohio Bureau reporter Jessie Balmert contributed to this story.
Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. Sign up for her Mobile Newsroom newsletter here and Extra Credit, her education newsletter, here.