Ohio State Interim President Joseph Alutto is leading the university during a “period of uncertainty,” he said Monday.
Alutto sat down with The Lantern staff for the first time since assuming the interim presidency July 1, and touched on topics such as the search for a new university president, higher education affordability and off-campus safety.
He said OSU must “continue to attract the very best students possible to this institution … (and) some of the very best new faculty we can to build off the staff we already have here who’ve established a foundation for excellence and eminence.”
Building on the OSU brand is something Alutto plans to work on during his tenure. That brand has in the past been tied to the image of former OSU President E. Gordon Gee.
“Ultimately this is about Ohio State, not about who is the president,” Alutto said.
Alutto said since assuming the interim presidency, he has been well-received and supported by the community.
“I haven’t had any difficulty,” he said. “Everyone has been very, very supportive. I’ve built up credibility with people over the years, and I’ve worked with all of our donors … None of this is new.”
Alutto said it is unlikely his tenure as president will be permanent because he’s not actively seeking the position.
“You don’t apply for a position like this,” he said.
He said the university’s next president needs to be someone who has an appreciation for passionate OSU supporters.
“We want somebody who embraces that, and who understands that’s one of the big advantages of being at Ohio State. It’s not just that we’re big, it’s that there is this passion for us among our alums that recognizes that it’s a very special university,” he said.
He added a forward-thinking president is essential and part of his role as the interim president is to make sure the next president doesn’t have to worry about short-term problems.
“You ultimately wants someone who has enough integrity so that your supporters don’t worry about inconsistencies in what Ohio State is doing and so the value system has to be in place,” he said.
Alutto also said the next president can’t be concerned with the spotlight.
“The new president is going to have to face that the brand of the university has to be about the brand of the university and not the brand of the president,” Alutto said.
OSU President Emeritus Gee announced his retirement June 4 days after controversial remarks he made at a Dec. 5 OSU Athletic Conference became public. Gee retired July 1, and Alutto assumed the position the same day.
Comments about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference in particular, among other remarks, brought national attention.
During the process, presidential candidates, including finalists, will be kept confidential, according to a university statement emailed to The Lantern by Gayle Saunders Sept. 15.
Alutto said Monday confidentiality is important because a public search would create a “popularity contest” that would hurt the ability of OSU to attract the best candidates. If the candidates were public, few elite candidates would be interested because it would hurt their standing in their current positions, he said.
OSU’s contract with private search firm R. William Funk & Associates was finalized Sept. 17. OSU will be paying the firm a fixed fee of $200,000, as well as reimbursing the firm for direct, out-of-pocket expenses and an additional cost of $20,000 to cover administrative and support expenses, according to the contract.
Alutto said he is particularly passionate about higher education affordability, in part because of his background.
Alutto was the first in his family to go to college and said he worked his way through college.
He said because higher education is more expensive now, it is often nearly impossible for students to do that. That condition makes it all the more important that the university provide scholarships and financial aid to give students who are willing to work hard a chance, he said.
“To me, the issue is to give people the opportunity and if you give them the opportunity, and they are capable of taking advantage of the assets that are at an institute, (they’ll) find a way,” Alutto said.
The university is facing the challenge of maintaining the balance between access and excellence, Alutto said. While it’s easy to accomplish either individually, “to combine those two, that’s the tension that’s built into to who we are as an institution, and it’s that balance that I think is so critical as we move forward,” he said.
Alutto emphasized, though, that balance isn’t going to be easy to achieve.
“I’m very passionate about (affordability). I also know there are no clear answers, that what we’re doing is trying to balance this issue of access and excellence. So we can’t provide financial aid for everybody, that just doesn’t work, but really capable individuals who want to come to Ohio State should have a path,” he said.
When a house of 15 people in OSU’s off-campus area discovered Aug. 30 there had been a man secretly living in their basement, some students began expressing concerns about the safety of off-campus housing.
Alutto said, though, the housing is “about as safe as we can make it. There’s a risk to living in Upper Arlington. The reality is nothing is risk-free.”
The students, who live on 13th Avenue, thought a locked door in the basement led to a utility closet. When one of the house’s residents opened the door, they found a bedroom complete with framed photographs and textbooks. Since then, the locks were changed by the leasing company, NorthSteppe Realty.
Alutto talked about the University Police partnership with the Columbus Division of Police to ensure maximum coverage of the campus perimeter and said he has been in contact with Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman to discuss ways to make the area safer, but said there’s only so much that can be done.
“You can’t protect against everything. We just ask students to be careful about what they do, where they live, when they’re out on the streets. This is a big, urban, cosmopolitan environment with all the vibrancy that comes with it, but then all the risks as well,” Alutto said.