Incoming University President Kristina M. Johnson is no stranger to Ohio State. Her grandparents met here, she competed in the club lacrosse championships here in the late ’70s and attended her first Buckeyes football game in the ’90s with her friend, former University President E. Gordon Gee.
But when Johnson returned to campus with her wife in May for a tour by trustee Alex Fisher and Senior Vice President for Administration and Planning Jay Kasey, she saw the university for the first time again — now as the future 16th president of Ohio State.
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to be a university president, to be able to interact directly with students, faculty and staff, develop a shared vision,” Johnson said. She said she is ready to engage with students and navigate the university through multiple current national crises.
Johnson will be stepping down as chancellor of the State University of New York system later this summer and assuming her new role at Ohio State Sept. 1 with an annual base salary of $900,000. Some criticized her decision to move during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Johnson said SUNY is ready to move forward and so is she.
“We have our plans ready to go, we will be prepared for the fall,” she said.
The SUNY system has handled plans to reopen similar to Ohio State, Johnson said. This includes a task force, like Ohio State’s post-pandemic operations task force, and working with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be ready to reopen its 68 campuses to students in the fall. Ohio State announced Wednesday that it will resume in-person classes in the fall with a modified schedule.
Johnson also said systemic racism in the United States is a crisis through which universities must be guided. Protests emerged nationwide as a result of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody May 25, and the history of black Americans who died as a result of police use of force.
“The killing of George Floyd was outrageous and senseless. It was without reason, without due process and without any shred of humanity that was shown towards him,” Johnson said. “This is revealed in my view, and obviously I’m not alone here, that this country has a systemic racism issue that we need to address.”
Protests in Columbus, Ohio, have been ongoing since Thursday and have passed through campus on multiple occasions. Although protests on campus have been peaceful, incidents in Columbus of police officers using pepper spray, tear gas and shooting at demonstrators with wooden pellets has caused some Ohio State students to speak out against university affiliation with Columbus Police.
The presidents of Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government, Council of Graduate Students and Inter-Professional Council released an open letter Monday demanding the university and University Police cease on-campus operations with the Columbus Police and review contracts with Columbus Police for off-campus activities.
Johnson said that she has yet to read the letter and needs to first better understand the relationship between the University Police and Columbus Police, but doesn’t know if such a move would be practical.
“I can imagine, for example, on game day when you’ve got 100,00 people coming to the Horseshoe that there’s a lot of different law enforcement individuals and agencies involved,” Johnson said.
A protest was led by student-athletes who were joined by University Police and Athletic Director Gene Smith outside Ohio Stadium Tuesday.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be the president-elect of the Ohio State University when you have young men and women that get it and are standing up and making a statement. So, it’s an exciting time and I’m really pleased to be here,” Johnson said.
Janice Bonsu, a fourth-year medical student and graduate student trustee, said that Johnson is capable of bringing change to the university and maintaining the tradition of diversity she said Drake has established.
“As a student of color, that was one of the deciding factors to me coming to Ohio State. I wanted to train in a place that reflects our country and those patients that I’m going to serve,” Bonsu said. “Dr. Johnson is committed to increasing the diversity on campus — not just racially, but schools of thought.”
Bonsu said she feels one of Johnson’s main priorities is students. When Bonsu was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, she said she witnessed Johnson’s dedication to students.
“I actually went to college with her niece, and I remember Dr. Johnson coming on campus for family weekend,” she said. “She came to soccer games. She’s such an involved individual.”
Johnson’s duties at SUNY did not include being on campus every day, as many of the system’s 68 universities have individual presidents. She said she is excited to start engaging with students, which began before the official announcement.
On Tuesday, the day before the Board of Trustees announced and officially approved her for the position, Johnson encountered an incoming freshman and her mother who told her about how excited they were that the student was joining the campus community this fall. Johnson said the mother and daughter did not know at the time they were talking to the next university president but that she reached out by text after the official announcement Wednesday.
“My best days are when I’m on a campus and I get to interact with students and the faculty and create the kind of vision we can carry out that again leverages — makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts,” Johnson said.
Other qualities Bonsu said made Johnson qualified were her extensive experience in research — as highlighted by her numerous patents — and policymaking. But what Bonsu said really left an impression on her was Johnson’s willingness to listen.
“Though she does not have all the answers, you know, because she’s new to this and she wants to learn, she’s willing to learn and she was like, ‘Who do I need to sit down with?’” Bonsu said.
While chancellor of SUNY, Johnson said she would take weekly walks with the system’s student assembly president to learn about the issues important to students. She said getting engagement out of a university was important to her as a student and still is.
“I’m also looking to learn from the students, how they want to engage and start that dialogue,” Johnson said.
Sarah Szilagy contributed to this story.