Reinventing Buckeye town Featured

5:29am EDT July 28, 2003
When most people think of The Ohio State University, the first images that come to mind are its football team, basketball team, golf team ... in short, athletics.

The OSU administration is the first to admit that the university is more known for its athletics than for its academic programs, something President Karen Holbrook is determined to change.

Holbrook, who took office in October 2002, steers the university with two primary goals: To increase academic excellence, and to increase faculty and student diversity.

With 31,721 employees and its own police force, telephone system and television station, Holbrook compares the university to a city.

"It's basically a city of its own," she says. "You rely on a lot of people to be part of the team."

That's a big change from her experience at the University of Georgia, where she served as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.

Holbrook says her role at Ohio State is to keep track of the big picture.

"I have to understand what everyone is doing," she says. "And I need to be a spokesperson to outside and inside constituencies."

Given the size of the university, the big picture is billboard-sized and complicated. But Holbrook shrinks it down to size by staying focused on the two goals.

In June 2002, OSU compared itself to nine benchmark schools, state schools similar to it in size and scope -- Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, Texas, UCLA, Washington and Wisconsin -- and found itself lacking in areas including research dollars awarded, freshman retention rates, and staff and student diversity. By examining where it was, the university formulated a plan of where it wants to be by the end of 2010 -- in the top tier of America's public research universities, with 10 undergraduate and graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their respective disciplines and 20 programs ranked in the top 20.

OSU has a steep hill to climb to achieve these rankings. According to the most recent rankings published by U.S. News and World Report -- which just included graduate schools, only one OSU program, the college of veterinary medicine, was in the top 10 (sixth in the nation) and eight were in the top 20.

On the road to change

With 48,477 students -- second only to the University of Texas in student population -- you might wonder why the administration feels it needs to change. But Holbrook and her administration say raising the academic bar is important for both the university and Ohio's economic development.

So what roadmap is the university using to get there?

Holbrook says the approach is to attract top-rate faculty and a more academically successful student population.

"There hasn't been a lot of competition to get access into state schools," she says. "We want to become one of the public elite."

The application process has become tougher, and it is now harder for students to get admitted than it was in the past. Holbrook says a big part of her focus is on "incentivizing," recruiting and retaining academic talent, not easy given the university's economic climate.

"Our No. 1 asset is our faculty," Holbrook says. "We need to listen to them to understand how we can reward them and do everything we can to bring in new talent as well."

The university plans to hire in the next three to five years 12 faculty members who have attained or have the potential to attain the highest honors in their disciplines. To accomplish this, OSU is developing a merit-based compensation plan to offer recruits that is more competitive with the benchmark institutions.

The school has set aside a pool of money in its endowment fund, along with matching funds from the university. The compensation package offered to each potential faculty member will vary based on market conditions, but can include competitive salary, laboratory facilities and graduate students for assisting in research.

Holbrook says another way to bring in talent and more research dollars is to create consortiums and research centers to address unmet research needs.

"For example, the government just announced a $29 billion budget for homeland security," she says. "Where can we institute programs to capture those funds?"

Universities could qualify to receive the government funding if they launch research projects to develop better, more efficient weapon detectors for airports or other, similar products.

The university also plans to increase its own funding and space for these centers and academic initiatives.

Bumps in the road

In addition to the challenges most universities face -- including cost and affordability, diversity, alcohol use and changing student expectations -- OSU adds prioritizing activities in a constrained budget environment while still meeting its academic goals.

"It's getting a lot harder to raise money," Holbrook says. "We are looking harder to find new sources of revenue, and we are getting more aggressive in getting external support for research."

Holbrook says the university is also getting more aggressive when seeking private support for programs and facilities.

"We're thinking creatively about how we can do more for ourselves," she says.

State funding represents just 18 percent of the university's $2.54 billion budget, "so a fair amount of our budget is self-support," says Holbrook.

Part of prioritizing where to spend the money is choosing which academic programs the university offers and which it cuts. Holbrook is taking a different approach to this than her predecessors did.

"It makes no sense for me to say I don't want to see a class offered because it has a small number of students," she says.

Instead, she leaves these decisions to program chairs and college deans.

"They know their strengths, they can make the decisions," she says.

It's part of her performance-based, responsibility-based budget.

"We decide where to invest central funds, but they make the determination which programs can be downsized," she says.

Another challenge is finding ways to improve the student experience.

"Students have different expectations, lifestyles and needs today," she says. "They expect better facilities and access to technology and the library 24 hours a day."

And they are less interested in sitting in large lecture halls with hundreds of other students.

"Our facilities are aging, and large lecture halls are less attractive, so we want to renovate some of our buildings," she says.

Once students have graduated, keeping them in the state presents another challenge.

"We want them here, well-prepared," she says. "This is an important goal that should be Ohio's goal as well."

Holbrook says the state can take a step toward accomplishing the goal by building a diverse economy.

"Investing in education at all levels helps, too," she says. "A highly educated work force attracts business and industry."

Holbrook is confidant that OSU can overcome the obstacles and achieve its goals.

"One thing I've found is that everyone here is committed and passionate about what they do," Holbrook says. "And we will continue to engage well-prepared, committed people." How to reach: The Ohio State University, (614) 292-6446 or

The Ohio State University -- facts and figures

Enrollment, Columbus campus, autumn 2002: 48,477

Annual tuition, undergraduate: $5,664

Number of undergraduate majors offered: 174

Number of master's degrees offered: 111

Number of doctoral programs offered: 93

Estimated number of courses offered each year: 12,000

Payroll for all employees: $1 billion

Number of buildings: 859

Total acreage of all campuses: 15,236 acres

Endowment: $898 million

Fund-raising: $210.6 million

Total research awards received 2001-2002: $348.5 million

OSU 2003 Rankings

Fisher College of Business tied with Purdue University at No. 14 in U.S. News and World Reports' ranking of business school in the United States.

In business specialties:

Accounting: 14

Finance: 12

Management: 11

Marketing: 13

Production/operations management: 9

Supply chain management/logistics: 3

In academic programs, Ohio State is:

No. 7 in first year experiences, tied with University of Notre Dame and William Jewell College

No. 18 in learning communities

No. 27 in service learning

Source: U.S. News and World Reports