Buckeye fever at Ohio State University tends to manifest itself on the gridiron on fall Saturdays, but times, they are a'changing, so it appears.
OSU evidently is weary of getting tackled repeatedly by other academically well-endowed universities such as the University of Michigan, where academics and research are both distinguished endeavors.
That means the pressure is on Ohio State's new president, Dr. Karen A. Holbrook, a cell biologist whose field of research is beyond the ken of many of us, even though most people can see the relevance of such research to their own health and well-being. OSU wants her to recruit top research talent in the school, particularly in the biomedical field.
The Big Ten universities once were referred to scornfully as “football factories,” a title that now might apply more accurately to athletic powerhouses in the South and the West. But that cuts no ice with OSU's critics, many of whom don't understand why this state is home to some of the finest small colleges in the country, but is content with lower rankings for its public university system.
An authoritative study of research at top universities showed that OSU ranks a respectable 10th in the nation. But it should be able to do much better than that.
To the extent that improving the academic standing of OSU also improves the economic climate of Ohio, one can only wish Dr. Holbrook well in her difficult mission. It is not made easier by the troglodyte attitudes of some Ohio lawmakers toward their public higher education system.
Legislators have been heard to complain that the high-paid darlings of academia don't even put in a 40-hour work week, a contention that turns professors three shades of crimson, or should we say, scarlet?
The quality of top-ranking universities, including the University of Michigan, is due in large part to huge endowments and the ability of faculty members to attract research funds.
Michigan and the University of Wisconsin each have research spending in excess of $550 million each, compared with $361.4 million for OSU, the top-ranking public school in this state.
Even the University of Minnesota, in a state where a third of the land is covered by forest, lakes, and swamps, outpaced OSU, with $411.4 million in research spending. All three schools outranked OSU in federal grants by similar margins.
That could change with the arrival of the new OSU president. She rode herd on research efforts at two universities, Washington and Florida, and is credited with raising research budgets at both schools. Her appointment comes at a time of fierce competition for federal grants on the academic front lines.
While it is encouraging to see a new emphasis on research at the primary Ohio research university, it would be well to withhold judgment until the new president has an opportunity to show what she can do.
As invariably seems to happen in such cases, some university officials seem to think that more can be done by paring other programs.
A cautionary note should be sounded. Ohio State remains a university that is hurt by its immense size. Still, a great university prospers from synergy among its many academic scientific fields. OSU must not neglect the education and research in the liberal arts that are the foundation of university learning.
Dr. Holbrook's tenure may well depend on how well she treads this fine line, and it is not only OSU football fans who will be watching.