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Another Big Ten president is on the way out.
Ohio State University president Kristina Johnson announced Monday that she is resigning at the end of the academic year. The news broke Monday night with initial reports that Johnson, who has been at Ohio State for a little over two years, was stepping down in the aftermath of an investigation into concerns raised by her staff. Johnson has since pushed back on those claims.
In a brief interview with Inside Higher Ed, Johnson offered no insights into the reason for her sudden resignation and denied that she was ever the subject of any inquiry at Ohio State.
Speaking anonymously, an Ohio State trustee said Johnson herself made the decision to leave. Asked if any type of investigation had been opened regarding the president, he said, “Absolutely not.”
Johnson’s departure marks the seventh exit this year among the leaders of the 14 universities that comprise the Big Ten conference, though the circumstances in each case differ dramatically. The University of Michigan Board of Trustees fired its president, Dr. Mark Schlissel, in January after learning he had an affair with a subordinate. Michigan State University president Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. was pushed out by the Board of Trustees last month, resigning over allegations that he mishandled Title IX issues, which he has denied. Longtime Purdue University president Mitch Daniels announced his retirement earlier this year, as did Eric Barron at Pennsylvania State University, who officially vacated the position this spring.
Additionally, Rebecca Blank stepped down from the top executive post at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to replace the outgoing Morton Schapiro at Northwestern University—only to back out of the position after she was diagnosed with cancer shortly before she was due to start.
Johnson’s reasons for stepping down at Ohio State, however, remain a mystery.
‘A Very Difficult Decision’
Asked multiple times to specify her reason for leaving or to provide insights into her future after she officially exits Ohio State at the end of the current academic year, Johnson sidestepped the questions, emphasizing only that she had “made a very difficult decision” to step down.
Her answers largely echoed a university statement released Monday night.
Johnson declined to share information about potential next moves, saying she was focused on the work that remains to be done at Ohio State over the next six months before she formally leaves office.
The trustee who requested anonymity said Johnson informed the board in mid-November of her decision to step down, an unexpected move that he said caught members by surprise.
“I thought she had tremendous acumen and a drive for change. And she was very, very successful in managing the university through the pandemic for two and a half years and has also been an outstanding leader in the community,” the trustee told Inside Higher Ed.
Johnson is set to resign in May, less than three years into her contract. She previously served as chancellor of the State University of New York system from 2017 to 2020. Beyond her various academic stops prior to Ohio State, Johnson also spent time during the Obama administration in the Department of Energy as the under secretary of energy for energy and environment.
Asked if she was leaving for a different job in academia or the government, Johnson did not provide an answer, emphasizing instead that her focus was on Ohio State for the next six months.
Her Time at Ohio State
The university website notes that Johnson has long-running ties to Ohio State through her paternal grandfather, Charles Johnson, an 1896 graduate who played on the football team.
Johnson joined Ohio State in fall 2020, stepping into the presidency in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to managing the early days of COVID-19, Johnson also joined a discussion with other Big Ten presidents on the potential return of fall sports that year. She was one of three leaders in the conference, along with University of Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green and then president Bruce Harreld of the University of Iowa, who voted to bring back fall sports. When the athletic conference hesitated, Johnson asked OSU’s athletic director about the possibility of competing outside the Big Ten. But the conference decided to return to competition that fall.
Outside athletics, Johnson had to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 on Ohio State’s campus, emphasizing testing and face coverings, limiting class size, and required coronavirus vaccines.
Johnson arrived at Ohio State with grand ambitions.
In February 2021, she laid out plans to launch the Scarlet and Gray Advantage, an Ohio State initiative to provide students with a bachelor’s degree with zero debt; she announced a goal to hire at least 350 new tenure-track faculty members and double Ohio State’s research expenditures.
With only about six months left in the job, Johnson knows she has a lot of work ahead.
“We are investing in faculty excellence; we’re on our path to double our research expenditures, well before the end of this decade. And I’m really passionate about the Scarlet and Gray Advantage program, because [my wife, Veronica Meinhard] and I both graduated with hardly any debt, and it made all the difference in our careers and lives. So I want to make as much progress on those three signature initiatives as I can,” Johnson said, noting the compressed timeline.
Enrico Bonello, chair of the steering committee for the University Senate and a professor at Ohio State, said that faculty members have generally viewed Johnson in a positive light. Bonello praised her energy and initiatives, including the Scarlet and Gray Advantage.
“She has been very open and, in fact, excited to work with the [University] Senate and especially us faculty leaders in a true shared government spirit. For me personally, it’s been the best experience in shared government with a president,” Bonello told Inside Higher Ed via email.
Bonello added that faculty members have reacted to the surprise resignation with disbelief.