COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — When Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees approved Dr. Kristina M. Johnson’s appointment to the university’s top leadership position, the chair of the search committee that recommended Johnson called her selection “kismet” — destiny.
Less than three years later, the fate of Ohio State’s presidency is in a similar place to where it was the last time a president announced their resignation — and at nearly the exact same time.
With Johnson’s announcement on Monday that she will resign after spring commencement in May, a search for the university’s 17th president will soon be underway. A Monday news release stated that details about the upcoming presidential search, including the establishment of a presidential search committee, will become public in early 2023.
Three years ago, Ohio State faced a similar timeline to find a presidential replacement. Then-President Michael V. Drake announced Nov. 21, 2019, that he would resign at the end of June 2020. By mid-January, Ohio State had officially launched its search.
Ohio State’s search for a new president will likely follow a similar process to the search that produced Johnson as the top candidate. Here’s a look back at the search for Ohio State’s 16th president.
How much did the search cost?
Ohio State spent just over $468,000 on its presidential search. The bulk of expenses went straight to Isaacson, Miller, the search firm the university hired to cast a wide net and identity potential candidates.
According to invoices from January to June 2020, Isaacson, Miller charged $416,249 in executive search fees. It also expensed $3,916.98 for lodging, travel and other incidental costs.
The remaining $47,930.37 came from the costs of travel and lodging for selected candidates, including their flights to Columbus, according to an Ohio State spokesperson.
Who helped Ohio State search for its new president?
In January 2020, Ohio State outlined the membership and responsibilities of its presidential search committee. Headed by university Trustee Lewis Von Thaer, the committee was split into two subcommittees: the Presidential Selection Subcommittee, made up of several members of the Board of Trustees, and the University Advisory Subcommittee, a group of faculty, staff, stakeholders and some students.
The University Advisory Subcommittee sought community feedback and offered guidance to the selected trustees. The Presidential Selection Subcommittee was ultimately the decision-making arm of the search committee, and it was also tasked with managing the use of external search firm Isaacson, Miller.
Members of the subcommittees were as listed below:
Presidential Search Subcommittee (all chairs or vice chairs of Trustees committees)
- Lewis Von Thaer, chair, president and CEO of Battelle
- Alex Fischer, former president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership
- Hiroyuki Fujita, founder and CEO of Quality Electrodynamics (current Board chair)
- Erin Hoeflinger*
- Brent Porteus*
- Abigail Wexner, CEO of Whitebarn Associates
- John Zeiger, founding partner of Zeiger, Tigges & Little LLP
Names marked with (*) are no longer trustees.
University Advisory Subcommittee (with listed positions at the time)
- Susan Olesik, co-chair, professor of chemistry and biochemistry
- David Frantz, co-chair, faculty emeritus in the Department of English
- Juan Alfonso, distinguished professor in the Department of Microbiology
- Anil Arya, associate dean in Fisher College of Business
- Catherine Baumgardner, chair of Ohio State Alumni Association Board of Directors
- TJ Beavers, chief of staff of Inter-Professional Council
- Michael Coleman, former mayor of Columbus
- Ben Duwve, senior director of allocations, Undergraduate Student Government
- Michael Eicher, senior vice president of Office of Advancement and president of Ohio State University Foundation
- Lisa Florman, chair of Department of History of Art
- Donna Ford, distinguished professor in the Department of Educational Studies
- Joseph Heremans, Ohio Eminent Scholar in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and professor of physics, material science and engineering
- Andrew Jordan, chair of University Staff Advisory Committee
- Clark Kellogg, former Ohio State Trustee
- Peter Mohler, vice dean for research in the College of Medicine and director of Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute
- Devin Peterson, distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology
- Stephen Post, president of Council of Graduate Students
- Sharon Schweikhart, Faculty Council chair and associate professor, College of Public Health
- Gene Smith, senior vice president and Wolfe Foundation Endowed Athletics Director
- Karla Zadnik, executive dean of health sciences and dean in College of Optometry
Ohio State outsourced its search to Isaacson, Miller, a search firm that recruits for “the leadership of the nation’s civic infrastructure,” according to the firm’s website. It conducts 500 searches each year for universities, foundations, arts and cultural groups, research institutes and national advocacy organizations.
According to the firm’s website, Isaacson, Miller prioritizes finding diverse candidates for senior leadership positions, with nearly half of the firm’s placements being women and more than a quarter of placements being people of color.
The firm has a database of 500,000 potential candidates and also conducts external searches, depending on an organization’s needs. From there, Isaacson, Miller narrows the candidate pool through interviews before sending suggestions to its client. Ultimately, the client — in Ohio State’s case, the Presidential Selection Subcommittee — develops a list of finalists and selects its preferred candidate.
What was the committee looking for?
Ohio State developed a presidential profile outlining qualities its figurehead should have, as well as visions for the university’s improvement.
According to the presidential profile, when the committee chose Johnson, they had the following presidential characteristics in mind:
- A person of integrity, charisma and wisdom with “impeccable” ethics and “high energy”
- A decisive and purposeful leader who is open-minded and curious
- An effective, optimistic, advocating leader who delegates well
- A person with “exceptional interpersonal and communication skills”
The committee also outlined the specific leadership qualities it valued in a presidential candidate.
- Vision: “Ohio State provides an extraordinary platform for an energetic, inspiring leader who can articulate and implement a vision consistent with the campus community’s many strengths.”
- Proven excellence in resource management and growth: “The president must have a proven ability to attract new revenue and increase philanthropic support in order to further the ambitious goals of the institution.”
- Deep understanding of university culture: “Critically, the president must have experience in a working partnership with a board of trustees and leading an exceptional and high-performing team across the tremendous scale of university activities.”
- Ability to lead a complex academic organization: “Ohio State is a comprehensive research university that is proud of and committed to its roots as a land-grant institution … The next president must have the capacity to leverage these resources to reach unapparelled excellence.”
- Proven ability to work effectively and collaboratively with a full range of external constituents: “The next leader must understand that the presidency is a highly visible position that collaborations and leads in interactions with groups such as our alumni and donors, Columbus and Ohio community members, media, legislators, other government officials and leaders in the private and nonprofit sectors.”
After seeking input from students, faculty, staff and other Ohio State community members, the University Advisory Subcommittee developed a list of priorities the next president should consider when leading the university.
- Student success and support: The committee outlined several areas of focus in regards to student success, including college affordability, professional development, research support and safety. It also emphasized the importance of addressing student mental health and outlining specific needs for first-generation students, students with children and low-income students.
- Academic excellence
- Diversity and inclusion: Citing increased minority representation among students, the committee also suggested that the president focus on diversity in faculty and staff, with a specific goal of making the university more accessible for disabled employees.
- Cooperation across campus and interdisciplinary research: The committee sought a president that would “evaluate and reduce bureaucratic constraints” in terms of cross-department research.
- Understanding and support of regional campuses
- Important community leader and partner in Columbus and the state
Who else did Ohio State consider?
With an initial pool of 428 candidates, the presidential selection subcommittee narrowed its focus to 61 potential presidents, Von Thaer told the Board of Trustees at its the June 3, 2020, meeting. The subcommittee interviewed seven candidates and selected four finalists.
An Ohio State spokesperson declined multiple requests for the names of the finalists, citing the search firm’s “trade secrets.” The spokesperson said Isaacson, Miller refused to send records it used in the search — despite the fact that the Presidential Search Subcommittee not only interviewed candidates, it was tasked with selecting finalists.
How did Kristina Johnson fit the profile?
With more than 30 years of experience across education, public policy, research and business, Johnson’s extensive resume ticked many of Ohio State’s boxes.
Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, came to Ohio State after serving as chancellor for the State University of New York. While there, she focused on increasing graduation rates and hiring underrepresented minorities to STEM positions across the system’s 64 colleges and universities.
Her other academic positions included serving as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University and a professor the University of Colorado at Boulder. In her various positions, she forwarded interdisciplinary research, increased research funding and focused on increasing the number of women in faculty positions.
Beyond academics, Johnson is an accomplished researcher and inventor; she has more than 100 U.S. and international patents, has published nearly 150 papers and has won several awards for her research and inventions. While at Colorado, Johnson co-founded a technology company that was eventually incorporated into RealD, a digital 3D system used in films. In 2008, the American Association of Engineering Societies awarded her team the John Fritz Medal in 2008 for the 3D technology.
From 2009 to 2010, Johnson was the under-secretary of energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, overseeing environmental cleanup, nuclear waste management and other national energy and environment programs. And before joining SUNY in 2017, Johnson co-founded a hydropower company that produced enough renewable energy to power 150,000 homes across the country.
Von Thaer gave Johnson a raving review in his address to the board in June 2020, highlighting her “long and impeccable” credentials and “glowing” references. He emphasized Johnson’s commitments to diversity, clean energy, sustainability and cross-disciplinary research.
“We believe that Dr. Johnson is unquestionably the right leader with the right expertise, right experience and right energy to propel Ohio State forward at this time,” Von Thaer told the board before it unanimously voted to hire her.