EDUCATION

'I have no regrets': Kristina Johnson talks stepping down as Ohio State president

Mike Wagner Sheridan Hendrix
The Columbus Dispatch
In an exclusive interview with The Dispatch on Friday, Ohio State President Kristina Johnson openly discussed her departure from Ohio State and the rumors surrounding it. This file photo is from an interview inside her office on July 30, 2021, when Johnson talked about her first year on the job.

In the days since Kristina M. Johnson announced she would step down as Ohio State University's president, questions have lingered as to why her tenure is coming to an abrupt end.

Students, faculty, and community leaders were left wondering why Johnson said Monday evening that she would resign at the end of the academic year, less than three years into her five-year term. In an email to the campus community and alumni, Johnson did not give a specific reason for her departure, only saying that she made the "difficult decision" to resign.

In a sometimes emotional, exclusive interview with The Dispatch on Friday, Johnson openly discussed her departure and the rumors surrounding it. Although her responses in the following Q&A have been edited for length and clarity, she discussed, among other things, her decision to resign, her relationship with Ohio State's Board of Trustees, her proudest moments, critiques of leadership and her future plans.

The university's board of trustees asked Johnson, 65, to resign following a review conducted by an outside consultant, sources inside the administration told The Dispatch.

Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said the outside consultant was called in to help the board with the president's annual performance review. During the consultant's work, concerns were raised by staff related to a hostile work environment, sources said. In addition, concerns about dishonesty in her board interactions were raised, sources inside the administration told The Dispatch.

The Dispatch has made several public records requests to Ohio State asking for copies of the report completed by the outside consultant, complaints made against Johnson, documents related to her annual performance reviews, and communications between Johnson and the board of trustees. The university did not complete those records requests by the time of The Dispatch's print deadline.

"President Johnson made the difficult decision to step down as president, following commencement in May 2023 at the end of the academic year, so that a search for the next president can proceed and adequate time remains for her to assist with a seamless transition," Ben Johnson said. "We are very proud of all that has been accomplished, which is a tribute to the spirit, commitment and brilliance of the entire Ohio State community."

In this Dispatch file photo, Ohio State President Kristina Johnson gives the State of the University address on April 21, 2022 at OSU's Wexner Center for the Arts.

Why did you agree to resign your position as President of The Ohio State University only half-way through your contract? 

"It was a really tough decision and I'm incredibly proud of what we've accomplished together. And that is a real tribute to my staff, the faculty, and students. And I'm really proud of that record. And I love the community and I love Columbus, the alumni, the supporters. So that was a hard decision."

But can you give us any insight as to what led to that decision? 

"Just that it was a really tough one. And as I said, I think what I'm most proud about is that we set a really big vision. And we set some ambitious goals. And I think those goals really challenged and inspired the community, certainly the cabinet, the staff that's had to implement them. And I've worked very well together with the faculty, the students, and staff, they have to do the actual work and I couldn't be prouder. They engaged our three major goals. I think this is something that the whole community can articulate.

"Since 2008 (during the Great Recession,) we've lost 220-ish, full-time tenure-track faculty. So, we set a pretty ambitious goal to get 350 net-new (faculty members) over the course of this decade, 50 of them with the RAISE Initiative. And we've already allocated 48 of those. So, I'd see that as a real cornerstone accomplishment.

"The second one is to grow our research expenditures to double them in this decade. And we did that by having a new strategy. We restructured that office, now called the Enterprise for Research, Innovation and Knowledge. And I'd like them to know, I'd like the world to know that we're among the very best universities in the country in research. And it's because of a change in strategy, going after large cross-disciplinary programs in a number of different areas. And I won't bore you with the details, unless you want to know. But that's huge.

"And then the last thing that that gets me up every day, which is why I do this job is the opportunity for our kids to find pathways to a debt-free bachelor's degree by the end of this decade. Because (my wife) Veronica and I graduated with very little debt. And it meant that all the opportunities that we could choose were open to us. You graduate with kind of average debt here, and in other places, you make certain choices that send you down paths. I'm not saying they're bad paths, but why not have all the choices in front of you rather than having them narrowed because of debt? So those are the three things I'm most proud of. The team really came together So, you know, it was a tough decision, because of all that success and because of the way that I feel about the community and they feel about me."

Were you asked to resign by the university? And if so, who asked you to resign? Was it board members or who? 

"Again, it was a personal decision. It was a tough decision. And, you know, it's my decision. I'm very proud of what we accomplished in a short period of time. And I wish the university the very best. This place has a way of getting under your skin in a good way."

Did you feel pressured to resign by the university or the board? 

“Again, it was a personal, tough decision.” 

When did you decide to make the decision to resign as president? And how did you communicate that to the board of trustees? 

“It was a recent decision, and I called the chair (of Ohio State's Board of Trustees Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita.)” 

Was there another job opportunity that factored into your decision? Or do you have another job lined up now? 

“I'm focused on just being here for my last six months, I don't have another job lined up. It's something that I'm really focused on. And we've got a big agenda that I want to make sure that I can help support those working throughout the rest of that six months that I have.” 

As we sit here now, are you still planning to resign at the end of the current school year? Or in the past few days have you considered staying on as Ohio State’s president? 

“Being the 16th president has been the honor of a lifetime. I bet you can imagine that leading the storied institution, it's been awesome. I made the tough decision. And now I'm going to work really hard over the next six months to do all I can to make this place even greater than it is.

"I'm excited about commencement. We've got a great commencement speaker. I actually had a dream about that individual. I was like, ‘wow, I must be really excited about this,’ and giving out about 12,000 diplomas and certificates. So, I'm super excited about getting ready for that. I’m very excited about some of the things that we can get done over the next six months. I'm making a list in collaboration with my team and the board. But I've got to also be respectful that no decisions are made that would tie the hands of my successor.” 

There has been quite a bit of public support from students, faculty, and the public that don’t want you to leave. How has that weighed on you? 

(Long pause before answering with tears welled in her eyes) “Veronica and I love this place. And, as I said, it's been just a highlight of my career."

Did the university use an independent outside consultant to conduct an annual performance review to evaluate you this year?  

“Yes, this is standard for presidents in the past. There is an annual performance review, and it involves an outside consultant who is skilled in those activities.” 

And as part of that annual review, were there complaints made against you by members of your staff or other people you work with at Ohio State? 

“In any performance review, you get feedback. And that feedback is constructive. And you use that feedback to become better as a leader. What I do know is that my staff and I have had very good working relationships, and I enjoy working with the team. We've accomplished a lot of good things together and want to continue to do that for the next six months.” 

Did any complaints affect your decision to resign? 

“So let me step back. What I can tell you is that our team set a very big vision and very ambitious goals and that required a lot of tough work. It was a lot of work. Change is hard. And we did it during a time of immense stress, and COVID-19, which I'm very proud of what we did together. We led this university with no record of in-classroom transmission, and I am very proud of those accomplishments. You know, I think that it's, again, what they've done and how they have worked is a real tribute to their brilliance and their dedication. I couldn't be happier that we did this together during my presidency.” 

The Dispatch has heard from people close to the university who described you as being demanding, or acting as some kind of tyrant, or somebody who created a toxic or hostile work environment in certain situations. And that you could be verbally abusive to people in your inner circle. How would you respond to those depictions? And how would you describe your management style? 

“Those statements don't reflect my working relationship with either my cabinet, my staff, my faculty, and my students. I describe my management style as is one of caring, compassion, focus, strong work ethic. I'm a coach, conductor. And I think we've accomplished an awful lot together ... and our record speaks for itself.” 

Some of those same people have said that there are complaints made about you being dishonest with some board members. Is this true? 

“My approach to working with the board, with my team, my faculty and staff is the same. It's truthful and transparent.” 

Do you feel any characterizations like that are related to being a woman in power? And do you think a male president would be described in a similar way? 

“Again, let me step back for a minute and just say, we worked really well together. And I think it was great to lead this institution. I think my leadership style was very complimentary to what the university needed at this time, and I have no regrets.” 

How would you describe your relationship with the board of trustees? And along with that, how did that relationship change when you first became president compared to when you made the decision to resign? 

“I had a great working relationship with the board. We couldn't have done what we set out to do, which is, as I said, those 350 net-new faculty, doubling our research expenditures and, and particularly the Scarlet and Gray advantage (Ohio State’s zero-debt degree initiative.) So, these are big, bold initiatives, and you can't do that without the support of the board. I enjoy the board. I enjoy the cabinet, and the whole Buckeye community.” 

So you felt generally supported by the board during your two and a half years? 

“I felt supported by the board.” 

And what would you say directly to the folks that don't want to see you leave? 

(Voice again cracking with emotion) "This has been a tremendous honor. And Veronica, and I really enjoyed being here. I think I would say, you know, we love you. We think this university is on fire. And I can't wait to see what it does next. And it's sad. No, I’m not going to be a part of it. But I'll always be part of it."

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Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smola Shaffer contributed to this article.

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