By Jeff McCallister
If there’s one thing that is crystal clear during a conversation with Robert H. Schottenstein, current chairman of Ohio State’s Board of Trustees, it’s that he feels intensely passionate about this university and its role in the future of the state and the nation.
Schottenstein recently sat down for an interview with onCampus, during which he discussed topics ranging from public education and entrepreneurship to classic movies and Woody Hayes.
The following are excerpts from the chat:
onCampus: What do you see as the role of a public university in the present climate, and as we move into the future?
Robert Schottenstein: That’s really THE question, isn’t it? It would be hard to overstate the importance of the public university today, the role that public universities play in quality of our lives. It’s extremely important, an indispensible piece of that which makes our lives, our communities and all the things around us better.
When you look at any community across this country and wonder what makes that a nice place to live, the first or second thing that anyone mentions is the quality of the schools. The reason they say that is because what strengthens society is strong, quality education. You can’t have a strong city without strong schools, and that doesn’t stop at 12th grade — it continues at the university level because of the role that the university plays in providing high levels of education. If we didn’t have public schools, from elementary to college, we’d find ourselves going back to a time when very few people had access to any education at all, because it was all private. Education would again become something that only the elite or privileged have access to. As a result, society would be insufficiently served and our quality of life would be less. Public universities are the capstone on what I consider to be the whole education system in our country. It’s hard to overstate their importance. With public universities, the masses are able to go to school, to take advantage of all the doors that education opens, and that’s where greatness emerges, for individuals and for nations.
onCampus: How about the particular role of a land-grant university?
Robert Schottenstein: If you go back to the time when public universities were first established, what breathed life into the public university system was the land-grant legislation of 1862. It was Lincoln’s vision for providing higher education to the people of the country, which really was extraordinary. At a time when the country was mired in a devastating Civil War, Lincoln had a vision for America that would provide for the creation of public universities and completely redefine who had the opportunity to get a college education, to go to college. Before that, it was only a small minority of Americans who could even imagine the opportunity to go to college. As a result of Lincoln’s vision, that all changed.
It’s still a process, and we still have a long way to go, but his extraordinarily successful vision has allowed the people to be educated, and when the citizenry has access to higher education through the land-grant universities, the people’s universities, it materially strengthens our country. In many ways, I believe that OSU is the embodiment of Lincoln’s vision for the American public university.
onCampus: So more people now have access to education, but a lot of them are piling up a lot of debt to make it happen. How does the issue of student debt factor into your thinking?
Robert Schottenstein: It’s at the top of just about everything we’re thinking about. Concerns with this issue began in earnest at the board level under the chairmanship of Gil Cloyd and gained momentum during Les Wexner’s term as chair.
As we looked at our growing budget — and it was growing in order for us to get better, not just bigger — and as we looked out at the macroeconomic landscape that we’re living in, we saw that state funding was likely to keep decreasing because of the pressures on the state budget. We saw an economy in a recession and as a result, the ability of families to afford tuition without scholarship assistance was under pressure. At the same time, federal spending on research and student aid was also under pressure as the federal government was looking to cut back. Capital markets were in turmoil, which affected endowment returns and further affected other sources of revenue. We looked at all those things and said, “These arrows are all going in the wrong direction, what are we going to do?”
Clearly, a university, just like a business, must be financially strong in order to fulfill its mission. So the discussion at the board level and with (President) Gordon (Gee) became very strategic, and we all came to the collective realization that there was a compelling need for Ohio State to examine its financial operating model and become more entrepreneurial — and I use that word very carefully. We knew we had to be more entrepreneurial, not just for the sake of being entrepreneurial, but so we would have the financial capacity to strategically invest in our academic mission, to keep tuition as affordable as possible while taking other steps, such as additional faculty hiring, to continue to strengthen Ohio State and move into thetop 10 of all public universities — again, not just getting bigger, but getting better.
If we can keep tuition at low levels and generate new sources of money, that will help us provide greater amounts of student scholarships and that all helps mitigate the level of student debt.
onCampus: What does becoming more entrepreneurial mean at a public university?
Robert Schottenstein: Well, it is a whole bunch of things. We are looking at ways to improve efficiency, to strengthen our efforts at commercialization of our innovation and technology. We are looking at ways to reduce expenses, identifying where there is waste in the system. We know we have to strengthen our efforts in advancement — that is, the combination of alumni relations, communications, fundraising and annual giving, and we are looking at how we might monetize certain non-academic assets.
We are doing all these things with a view toward generating additional revenue so we wouldn’t have to rely as much on third-party revenue sources that have come under such pressure.
Look at what we’ve done in the past 18 months. We’ve had some big wins — notably the issuing of century bonds and the leasing of parking rights. Those two entrepreneurial actions alone created $1 billion in new revenue. The question is, what are we going to do with it? And that’s one of things our board, Gordon and his staff are focusing on: How to use those funds to best serve the academic mission, to help keep tuition down and strengthen the university.
onCampus: What is the role of the board in all this?
Robert Schottenstein: It’s the role of the board to see to it that the university is properly managed; it’s not the board’s role to manage the university. This begins with having the right leader. the board has tremendous confidence in Gordon and his leadership. The board’s role is to challenge, to question, to understand strategy and management of the university and ask “Are we on right course?”
I’m a big football fan, and I like to win like everybody else. Like Woody Hayes said, you win with people. It matters who’s on the team, and it matters even more who our coaches are. In the same way, universities also win with people. It matters who the president is, who the provost is, who the CEO of the academic medical center is, who all the deans are. You win with talent.
onCampus: What do you see as your greatest challenge ahead during your term and how you will deal with it?
Robert Schottenstein: In a few words, continuing to get better. We’ve made tremendous strides over the last five to seven years, we’ve made enormous progress on a lot of fronts — academic standing, the quality of our student body, the quality of our student life, the remarkable things our faculty are doing. We have a lot of tangible examples of how those things have gotten better. We’ve made inroads to improve our financial standing, and we’ve got to continue to get better in all these areas.
onCampus: What leadership figure from history do you most admire?
Robert Schottenstein: Well, Lincoln is right up there. So is George Washington. Moses, too.
onCampus: What’s your favorite place on campus?
Robert Schottenstein: For 359 days a year, it’s the Oval, though on six fall Saturdays a year, I have to admit that I love being in Ohio Stadium.
onCampus: What’s the last movie you’ve seen?
Robert Schottenstein: Oh boy. I actually think it was Madagascar 3 with my 8-year-old daughter, though we also saw Argo and we loved it.
onCampus: And what are your favorite movies?
Robert Schottenstein: I have a lot of them. Right off the top, I’d mention Animal House, Butch Cassidy, Patton, My Fair Lady. I’m not really sure what that list says about me…
onCampus: Who was your favorite professor from your own college days at Indiana or Capital University?
Robert Schottenstein: I was a business major — accounting and finance — but I always had an interest in music, and Indiana had one of the top two or three music schools anywhere. The director of the IU opera taught mostly graduate courses, but I took a basic music appreciation course from him. Later on, I petitioned the dean of Arts and Sciences to let me as a business major take a few upper-level music courses from him. Ross Allen was his name. Spectacular teacher and a spectacular guy.
onCampus: You’ve been a successful lawyer and homebuilder … if you had to choose another line of work from here what would it be?
Robert Schottenstein: I have no idea. I’ve been very lucky because I love what I do. I honestly don’t think about doing anything else. I love being on the OSU Board of Trustees, it’s one of the great honors of my life. And you know, it’s interesting: I know that the wonderful people I work with share that view. The board is truly a tremendously talented and dedicated group of people. It’s a great honor to serve with them, a tremendous responsibility and a lot of work, but I have a great love and energy for OSU.