The impending expansion of the Ohio State University board of trustees from nine members to 15 raises new questions about the pay-to-play climate that has smothered state government over the past 15 years of Republican rule.
Does Ohio State, by far the state's largest institution of higher education, really need more trustees or is this just another power grab to strengthen what is already an unassailable stranglehold on the lion's share of funding for state colleges and universities?
And, since it is Gov. Bob Taft who will be doing the appointing, will the six new trustees be truly independent advocates for the best interests of OSU or will they reflect more of the mediocrity and naked political patronage that have characterized many of Mr. Taft's appointments to state boards and commissions during his two terms as governor?
One prime example of patronage on the OSU board that boomeranged shamefully was Mr. Taft's appointment of his chief of staff, Brian Hicks, just after he left the governor's office in 2003 for a career as a lobbyist. Last summer, Mr. Hicks was convicted of a state ethics violation tied to Coingate scandal figure Tom Noe. That episode was followed closely by Mr. Taft's conviction on four counts of failing to disclose golf outings paid for by others.
Mr. Hicks remains on the OSU board, but the student Senate is on record as demanding his resignation. And Mr. Taft carries the dubious distinction of being the only Ohio governor ever convicted of a crime.
What prompted the expansion of the OSU board is not entirely clear, but a news report out of Columbus indicated that it was pushed by billionaire retail magnate Les Wexner, a former OSU trustee who may be interested in getting back on the board. A change in state law that took effect last January allows reappointment of former trustees after a four-year hiatus.
Under the expansion provision, slipped into the state budget bill in June, Mr. Taft will appoint three new trustees this month to serve terms of 3 1/2, 4 1/2, and 5 1/2 years, respectively. In early 2006, he will appoint three more for terms of six, seven, and eight years. Trustees of four-year state schools otherwise serve for nine years.
The justification for the expansion is that OSU's sheer size requires more oversight.
We see a far more likely motivation:
The Republicans know their monopoly on state government will be in jeopardy next year. They know money wins elections. So why not expand the OSU board and offer all those extra seats to wealthy - and grateful - political friends?
What a concept. Why not 25 board members? Or 30?
Certainly the precedent is there. The Taft administration has handed out board appointments based on political influence, not necessarily the well-being of the institutions.
Lest anyone forget, Tom Noe, whose primary expertise was in Republican political fund-raising and questionable investments with $50 million in state money, was appointed by GOP governors to the boards of both Bowling Green State University and the Ohio Board of Regents, which oversees the university system. For that matter, what assurance is there that Toledo, Lucas County, and the rest of northwest Ohio will get seats on an expanded board and share in setting university policy?
We hope this scheme doesn't merely serve to feed the political cesspool that laps a little higher every day around the Statehouse.