OSU president Kristina Johnson brings entrepreneur's energy to a challenging first year

Bob Vitale
Dr. Johnson, president of The Ohio State University talks about her time as an inventor leading up to her current role.

“It’s hard to have first impressions in such an unusual year.”

That understatement comes from Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. It’s early February, and Fischer is talking with Kristina Johnson about her first few months as the president of Ohio State University amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They share a stage at the Boathouse Restaurant, where Johnson is the guest of honor for a livestreamed, socially distanced, Columbus Metropolitan Club forum featuring her and Fischer, a member of the Ohio State University Board of Trustees.

Fischer’s remark hints at the trial by fire Johnson has faced since taking office in August 2020. She’s led the university through a once-in-a-century global health crisis while learning an enormously complex job via Zoom calls, digital conferences and small, masked gatherings. These circumstances, obviously, have made it challenging for Johnson to get to know her new home. But she’s done her best, and when Fisher asks her to share her initial impressions of the university and Columbus, she says the right things. She praises OSU students and faculty members, of course, but also mentions the city’s beloved Columbus Zoo, which she describes as a “favorite.” She even says kind things about Gordon Gee, the university’s only two-time president, whose immense popularity in Columbus has cast a shadow over previous OSU presidents. She calls Gee a “very dear friend.”

Johnson also has made an impression of her own. Despite the pandemic, she’s moved forward on an ambitious agenda that includes doubling research spending, expanding faculty and staff in both numbers and diversity, decreasing class sizes and eliminating student debt within the next decade. She’s emerged as a take-charge leader who’s wasted no time tackling the priorities she was hired to address, as well as new ones she’s made her own.

“She’s the right person at the right time for Ohio State,” says Jack Kessler, chairman of The New Albany Co. and a former OSU trustee. Kessler was on the search committee that recommended Gee as president of the university in 1990 and was among the local business leaders who lured him back for a second stint in Bricker Hall in 2007.

Johnson’s background—she holds more than 100 national and international patents, helped found two companies and served 18 months as an undersecretary of energy during the Obama administration—is markedly more diverse than her recent predecessors, including Gee. She’s the first OSU president since the 1940s, in fact, who has had a significant non-academic career. “Kristina’s different,” Kessler says. “She’s got the ingredients that most university presidents don’t have.”

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A couple of months after the CMC forum, Johnson sits in her Bricker Hall office for a rare in-person interview. It’s a sunny, late April morning, the kind of day on which the Ohio State campus traditionally bursts with life, but the atmosphere feels more like midsummer than two weeks before spring commencement. Building lobbies are empty, signs posted around campus discourage congregating and Johnson’s office seems to be one of the few where everyone’s working on-site.

On this day, Johnson talks about navigating this restrictive environment. The 64-year-old mechanical engineer says she takes walks around campus just to run into people. She and her wife, Veronica Meinhard, both sports fans and former college athletes, hosted a group of students for the April 17 spring game at Ohio Stadium that was within the university’s 10-person limit for on-campus gatherings. Franklin Park also has been a favorite off-campus destination, within walking distance from the president’s residence in Bexley.

It’s been a demanding initiation for Johnson, unlike any other faced by her Bricker Hall predecessors. While crises are as common at Ohio State as football victories over Michigan, Johnson’s pandemic crucible seems to have set the bar for difficulty, upending nearly every aspect of university life.

For Fischer, Johnson “earned her keep” last fall when he says she acted as “a voice of reason” among Big Ten university presidents by seeking safe ways to resume fall sports after an earlier vote to cancel football and other athletic seasons. She knew from her days as a field hockey and lacrosse player that student-athletes spend years, not just preseason practice sessions, preparing for their college seasons. She also knew the disappointment her wife felt after qualifying to swim in the 1992 Olympics for her native Venezuela and being told weeks before the games that her country decided not to compete in the sport.

Through May 8, a total of 8,087 OSU students and 812 staff had contracted COVID-19. It’s a high number, even among the 10 U.S. schools with the highest 2020-21 enrollments. But Ohio State was among a minority of universities that began the fall with in-person classes. About half of the classes offered by OSU for fall semester were either in-person or took a hybrid approach between online and classroom instruction.

Johnson says prevention, detection and control of the virus were “all consuming” during her first year and has described balancing the risks of reopening the university against the risks of not reopening. In her State of the University address in February, she said crucial research could have been derailed and academic progress stifled, but she also spoke of less tangible effects of a shuttered campus. “Many of our students consider our campuses home, and home is a tough thing to lose, even temporarily,” she said.

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Like a researcher eager to share her newest discoveries, Johnson steps up the pace of conversation when she’s talking about Ohio State’s future. In a job that hinges on the ability to build relationships—with students and faculty, business leaders, political leaders, donors and others—OSU’s new president engages with all of her constituencies with ease, Fischer says. “I’m not hinting about anybody else,” Fischer quickly adds.

But praise for Johnson’s outgoing nature and enthusiasm for the job invites the obvious comparisons to her immediate predecessor, Michael Drake, the stoic ophthalmologist who retired in 2020 and then quickly left town for California and a new job as president of the University of California system.

Drake arrived in 2014 to a cool reception from those who saw him as a tepid replacement for the gregarious Gee. Many eventually grew to appreciate Drake’s low-key personality, dry sense of humor and national academic influence and standing, but some local folks still felt he never fully became a major player in Columbus and the state of Ohio. “He was gone a lot,” Kessler recalls. “He was a different president. That’s not positive. That’s not negative.”

After Gee and Drake, OSU trustees were ready to go with a president from outside academia, Fischer says. In addition to running her own companies in the past, Johnson currently serves on the board of directors for Cisco. “Kristina Johnson is as accomplished as any CEO in the Columbus Partnership on business topics,” says Fischer, whose organization consists of the leaders of the city’s most important corporations and institutions and is chaired by L Brands founder Les Wexner, Ohio State’s most generous and influential donor. “She’s very accomplished and therefore very comfortable in those settings. She’s challenging all of our thinking.”

Leading Ohio State is often compared to serving as the mayor of a medium-sized city, given OSU’s enrollment of 61,000, employee headcount of 45,000 and budget of $7.2 billion. Johnson also inherited a capital budget that includes the 270-acre Innovation District on West Campus, a $165.1 million Arts District on High Street between 15th and 18th avenues, and a 9-acre mixed-use project with Campus Partners that will include retail, restaurants and bars on High Street and Pearl Avenue at 15th Avenue. “Ohio State’s land grant mission compels us to be an active participant in the community, and we continue to strengthen our relationships with community partners statewide,” Johnson says.

A key part of that community agenda is strengthening ties between Ohio State and Battelle. The two neighboring research giants have grown closer in recent years as Columbus civic leaders have pushed for more collaboration. But the coronavirus crisis amplified the need, and both OSU and Battelle responded, with researchers from the two institutions working side by side to create a rapid test for COVID-19, for instance.

Now, Ohio State leaders are hopeful that this COVID success can serve as a template for new collaborations in the future—and it appears that Johnson has an ally in Battelle CEO Lou Von Thaer, an OSU trustee who chaired the search committee that selected Johnson. “It was clear from the beginning that Kristina is an eager and capable leader who has big ideas about how to foster collaboration inside Ohio State and with external partners,” Von Thaer said in a statement.

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OSU president Dr. Johnson leads the commencement ceremony at OSU’s graduation held Sunday, May 9th at the stadium.

There were days Johnson didn’t see herself as a college professor, let alone as a university president. “I was eight years at Stanford and only had two women professors total, and none in any of my basic science, math or engineering,” she says. “It just didn’t occur to me that that was a career path.”

Johnson didn’t see many women in other potential career paths either, as she pursued her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, all at Stanford, in mechanical engineering. “You would be there in class constantly hearing for eight years, ‘Well, the engineer, he will do this, he will do that. The professor, he will do this, he will do that.’ It’s just a subtle drumbeat. Every class, there was never a female set of pronouns applied to anything.”

In 1975, Johnson experienced a similar disparity when she participated in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which draws young scientists yearly from more than 30 countries. Then a high school senior from Colorado, Johnson doesn’t recall seeing any girls and women among the students and judges at the fair that year.

Still, the experience was formative—and had big impact years later. On April 20, 2009, an explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered a monthlong oil spill of 210 million gallons. When President Barack Obama first addressed the issue from the White House, his administration couldn’t estimate how much oil was spilling and at what rate.

Johnson, then working for the U.S. Department of Energy, went home that night puzzled, and then it hit her: She knew how to measure the amount of oil pouring into the gulf from more than 5,000 feet below. They could use photos of a gushing pipe taken over time to measure the rate. It was essentially same method she’d used in her high school science fair to calculate the growth of a fungus. At 3:30 a.m., Johnson talked to the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, and later that day, Obama shared the critical information the public was demanding to know.

Today, Johnson keeps her science fair award as Colorado’s state champion on a wall of her office as a reminder of the impact these kinds of formative educational experiences can have on people’s lives. “You give students that opportunity and it sticks with them,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to create a portfolio and a career.”

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At Ohio State, Johnson has taken steps to boost the school’s performance in turning research into commercially viable products and businesses. More than any other field, it’s where she has made her own mark. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

Her work in optoelectronics led to a resurgence in 3D movies, dominated the market for rear-projection televisions in the early 2000s and improved processes for mammograms and cervical-cancer screening. She co-founded and later sold a company in the field while working at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received one honor for her work that previously had gone to Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi and Orville Wright.

Commercialization of university research is one topic that can dampen the talk of normally boosterish civic leaders in central Ohio. “Nobody’s accused Ohio State of being the best,” Fischer says.

“That doesn’t mean we’re the worst,” he adds quickly. “There’s so much more we have to unleash.”

Ohio State’s performance in the area, considered critical for economic development efforts because of the potential for university research to fuel startup businesses and new jobs, is truly average. OSU ranked 34th among universities worldwide in the number of U.S. patents granted in 2019, according to a tally by the National Academy of Inventors. Among Big Ten schools, Ohio State’s 68 patents rank eighth.

In October, Johnson announced the appointment of Grace Wang, senior vice chancellor for research and economic development for the State University of New York system, to the new OSU position of executive vice president for research, innovation and knowledge enterprise. In February, in her first State of the University address, Johnson pledged $750 million for research over the next decade. Wang also will lead development of the Innovation District, a $647 million university investment in new research facilities in the West Campus area.

Johnson says her goal—she was part of similar initiatives at Colorado, Duke, Johns Hopkins and SUNY—is to take the friction out of the commercialization system and “get the technology out there.”

“Form as many license deals as you can, move quickly. File provisional or full patents fast. You’ve got to be able to seed people with ideas. Give them little grants in order to check out what they’re doing. The company that I formed [in Colorado], really was seeded with just a $150,000 grant in order to build a couple prototypes.”

“We’re a big organization,” Johnson says. “We need a big commercialization shop. I think it’s going to go well. It’s going to take us time.”

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Charles Johnson was one of 770 students at Ohio State back in 1896, when the university was in just its third decade and livestock grazed on the Oval. The son of Pennsylvania farmers, he came to the young university to study mechanical engineering, the same academic discipline his granddaughter (and future OSU president) would embrace some eight decades later.

Charles Johnson died in 1920 toward the end of the influenza pandemic of 1918. After his death, Black employees at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh paid tribute to Johnson, who taught them engineering after work hours at a local restaurant so they could get on a technical track toward better jobs.

Kristina Johnson cited her grandfather’s legacy in February when she announced an initiative called RAISE—Race, Inclusion and Social Equity—that has a goal of at least 100 new faculty members of color and 50 new faculty who will address racial disparities and social justice in their respective fields.

In addition, Johnson is navigating new expectations when it comes to addressing systemic racism. After the shooting death in April of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by a Columbus police officer, calls grew louder on campus for OSU to sever ties with the city’s Division of Police. The shooting came just days after a relatively muted response from Columbus police to a mob of mostly white students who overturned cars on Chittenden Avenue during the off-campus area’s annual “Chittfest.”

Johnson issued a statement on April 27 that acknowledged the calls to stop working with Columbus police and mentioned others whom she said want increased Columbus police presence off-campus. “The university is hearing you,” she said without specifying which side it agrees with.

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Veronica Meinhard thinks the one-on-one dinners she and her wife have hosted and attended with people on their get-to-know list have allowed better conversations than the big receptions they’d be attending if there were no global pandemic.

She and Johnson have been together since 2013. Meinhard holds a bachelor’s degree in sports management from the University of Florida and an MBA from the Universidad de Alcala de Henares in Madrid. She worked in fundraising positions at her first alma mater and at the University of Maryland before starting her own philanthropy firm.

She laughs at the idea of Johnson having celebrity status in her new job—“we’re so laid back”—but sees the OSU presidency as a platform for her wife to elevate and empower others. At the State University of New York, where Johnson served as chancellor of a 64-school system, she had been working on a plan to hire 1,000 women and people of color in STEM fields by 2030. The plan to offer debt-free undergraduate degrees at OSU within the next decade is part of that platform here.

“She has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen,” Meinhard says. “It’s something that permeates her entire life.”

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer.

Kristina Johnson

President, Ohio State University

Age: 64

In position since: August 2020

Previous: Chancellor, State University of New York; holds more than 100 national and international patents; helped found two companies; served 18 months as an undersecretary of energy during the Obama administration

Education: Bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, all at Stanford, in mechanical engineering

Board positions: Columbus Partnership, Cisco

Personal: Wife Veronica Meinhard