COLUMBUS — The past two years have brought scandal and scrutiny outside the classroom at Ohio State University: two decades of sexual abuse by an employee unearthed; the shuttering of a sexual assault center fraught with problems; investigations into football coaches; and departing board of trustees members, to name a few.

But inside classrooms and lecture halls, in research labs and in the ’Shoe on graduation day, Ohio State President Michael V. Drake says the university is the best it’s ever been.

In an interview with The Dispatch this week, Drake shared enrollment numbers for this school year, including an incoming first-year class on the Columbus main campus with the highest-ever average ACT score: 29.5 out of 36.

The 52,016 applications to Ohio State this year were down slightly, less than 1% lower than last year’s record number. The incoming class is also smaller than last year’s by about 220 students. And there’s a sharp decline in international students, down nearly 32% from the 2018-19 year.

But the new class does include a record 1,937 minority students, up nearly 17% from last year. African American students represent the biggest minority increase, up nearly 28% over last school year. And nearly 24% of the incoming class consists of first-generation college students, up nearly 11% over last year.

The class also includes 1,390 students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds who qualify for a federal Pell Grant, up 8% from last year.

Indicators on the other end of the student experience are improving, too, Drake said. The most recent preliminary figures show Ohio State’s four-year graduation rate has increased to 67% for the class that started in August 2015. That’s up more than 2% from the class that started the previous year. The six-year graduation rate is nearly 86% for the students who started in August 2013, up from 84% from the students who started in the previous year.

Those graduation rates, Drake said, are “the best that they’ve been in our 150-year history.”

“I am proud and gratified at the work that our students and faculty and staff have done to allow us to achieve these historic highs,” Drake said.

Drake said the work of the university is complicated, and he acknowledged the “variety of issues that come and challenge us.”

The university released a report in May on the sexual abuse allegations against former university physician Richard Strauss that concluded the late doctor had molested at least 177 students from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. After the release, Drake announced the formation of a sexual abuse task force.

The president said it has taken the summer to put the task force together, but that its membership is almost complete and will be announced soon. He reiterated the committee’s goal will be to review what Ohio State and others have learned about sexual assault, and use that information to better understand and deal with similar situations.

Drake said again that Ohio State is “a fundamentally different university today that we were at the time of Strauss,” with different policies and procedures in place compared with several decades ago.

Still, handling sexual assault has been a persistent challenge for Ohio State, like other universities across the country. Ohio State shuttered its Sexual Civility and Empowerment center last year after a review found it failed to properly report sexual assault complaints. And in July, The Dispatch learned the university had failed to report nearly 60 felonies to law enforcement during the lifetime of the sexual assault resource center.

The Strauss situation and the closure of the Sexual Civility and Empowerment center are very different, Drake said.

“The broad arena of sexual assault is a very complicated arena that, really, all institutions, all communities, and many, many millions of people in the country are struggling to deal with in an appropriate way,” Drake said.

He said Ohio State officials want “to do our best to be leaders in responding appropriately and addressing these things in the best way that we can,” pointing to the school’s new Office of Institutional Equity that will deal with sexual and other forms of harassment and discrimination.

And as this school year gets underway, Drake will be reporting to a board of trustees under new leadership, as Gary R. Heminger takes over as chairman.

The changes come after board shakeups last school year, when trustee Jeffrey Wadsworth left in late August 2018 over the board’s decision to suspend then-head football coach Urban Meyer for only three games. Wadsworth had advocated for a harsher punishment. Then, chairman Michael J. Gasser resigned in May, citing personal and private issues in his resignation letter, though a university source with knowledge of the relationship said a “major rift” had developed between him and Drake.

When asked about his relationship with the board, Drake said, “The work is quite intense, and I appreciate the dedication of the, really, volunteers on the board who spend the time and effort that it takes...”

The president said he likes Gasser “very much,” adding that he and Wadsworth were among the individuals who first recruited Drake to Ohio State.

“They made personal decisions that they wanted to step away from the board, and I honor that,” he said.

The Urban Meyer and Zach Smith investigation and aftermath that led to Wadsworth’s departure brought lessons about communication, Drake said.

“The most important thing there was communication, and clearer communication, and we want to emphasize that always ... and make sure we’re all talking actively and sharing information as much as we can,” he said.

“We worked through it,” Drake added. “We had an investigation. We had findings, and our goal was to act appropriately, and to move on. You know, Urban had a great season after that, and is doing very well with us now.”

There promises to be more to work through in the coming school year, as the university and former students work to mediate at least seven pending lawsuits over the schools’ handling of Strauss and the abuse allegations against him.

Also pending is a review of New York financier Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to Ohio State, which Drake said is close to completion.

Ohio State will mark its 150th anniversary in March, with celebrations and events planned throughout the school year. As it does, Drake said the university will take stock of how things have changed and where they stand.

Drake also noted recent recognition for Ohio State’s commitment to undergraduate teaching, as well as external research funding being at an all-time high.

“It’s great to say, ‘Well, it’s been 150 years, where are you, and how’s it going?’” he said. “And it’s just wonderful that at the time of our sesquicentennial, to have our best year ever.”

 

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola