Two recent controversies at the Ohio State University, the flagship educational institution in the Buckeye State mostly known for its football prowess, underscore that institution’s shift from its original liberal arts land grant mission to corporate shill and Republican Party booster.

Under the direction of President William E. Kirwan, two new courses were added to the University’s general education curriculum: The Art of Scabbing 101 and Intermediate Snitching 250. During the recent Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 4501 strike, Sarah Blouch, Director of Transportation and Parking Services, personally instructed the overwhelmingly white student scabs on the joys of scabbing against the predominantly minority and vastly underpaid service and staff workers. She proudly informed the Lantern on May 8 that, “Our students have been the backbone of our [bus] service.” Blouch saw nothing wrong with the fact that “the student drivers are working more than 60 hours a week.” Perhaps she can become the advisor to a new student group, Future Scabs of America.

Precisely how the practice of using inexperienced OSU students as overworked scab bus drivers fits into OSU’s educational mission, and how such workers fit into the institution’s goal of safety for bus drivers and pedestrians alike, remains unexplained. Although President Kirwan and Provost Edward J. Ray wrote in a letter at the time to non-union staff that “The University is functioning in a safe, healthful, and educationally sound manner.”

Maybe Kirwan was secretly working with the Max Fisher School of Business and its key local booster, Les Wexner, to offer OSU business grads a seminar on Non-Factually Verifiable PR. Kirwan would have us believe that making use of work study students “. . . by having them hand-deliver” campus mail, as reported in the Lantern, is a positive use of federal educational funds.

Not only are students to be exploited and overworked as OSU pack mules, but University administrators encouraged them to function in the long tradition of Hitler’s Youth Corp. and act as surveillance agents. When scores of teaching assistants, lecturers and faculty displayed their solidarity with the striking CWA workers by teaching their classes on the Oval or in Bricker Hall, where sympathizing students were sitting in, Kirwan and Ray sent a letter to students’ homes telling them: “. . .you should expect all your classes to meet in a normal fashion, focusing on the subject matter that is outlined in course syllabi. If you feel that your instructors are not respecting your right to the education for which you have registered and paid, please contact Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Martha Garland at 292-5881. . . .”

The Kirwan-Ray letter encouraged student snitches to report not only on those instructors who refused to cross the picket lines, but those that deviated from their syllabus and discussed the strike in class.

Some of the administration’s threats against strike supporters were far more explicit. OSU officials targeted untenured faculty and graduate students. Professor Valerie Lee, Vice Chair of the Department of English, warned graduate Teaching Assistants in an email communication against not only canceling classes, but even moving them to any alternative location. Professor Lee’s message ended with a less then subtle threat, warning that: “Some . . . have taken actions that may jeopardize their reappointments.”

OSU’s strong arm tactics couldn’t mask the fact that current University pay rates prior to the strike were 10-25% below market rates in Columbus. In the last twenty years, particularly in the last decade, Republican governors and Republican-dominated legislatures increasingly cut the percentage of the budget allocated for higher education. Ohio dropped from 37th in the nation in public support to 43rd, according to the Ohio Board of Regents. The University compensated by paying its workers lower wages than state employees were earning in comparable positions. A fourth of Local 4501 members made less than $8 per hour and half less than $10 in the highly-touted “boom” economy at the time of the strike.

Shortly after the contentious strike ended came the bizarre arrests of family and friends of Oona Beesman, an M.A. graduate in Women’s Studies, at commencement. Their crime, apparently, was silently turning their backs during Republican J.C. Watts’ graduation address. One can only wonder what President Kirwan was thinking when he invited the head of the Republican Congressional Conference, and the nation’s foremost black reactionary, to speak at graduation. Watts has distinguished himself by calling Jesse Jackson a “poverty pimp,” attacking gays on TV as “blasphemous” and running interference for likes of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Representative Robert Barr when they were challenged on their ties to a white supremacist group, the Conservative Citizen’s Council.

While some faculty grumbled over the choice of Watts as speaker as inappropriate and politically-motivated, there was an immediate outcry from many faculty members over the arrests. Professor Wendy Shaw, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, charged that the family was “unlawfully arrested.” In a letter to the entire faculty she wrote: “The more the administration realizes the extent to which their actions have embarrassed and shocked our community, the more effective our protests will be in aiding this family that has suddenly fallen into a situation of duress, in which they face the need to hire a criminal lawyer to defend them at a trial brought against them by the City of Columbus on behalf of our University.”

“Frankly, I am still in a state of shock that this is the punishment meted out to individuals who dare to engage in what was ultimately a very quiet form of protest,” Professor Judith Mayne, Professor of French and Women’s Studies, wrote Kirwan. “In the twenty-four years I have been a faculty member at OSU, I have attended many graduation ceremonies. If every individual who stood up and obstructed someone else’s view of the stage were arrested, there would not be enough police officers or holding cells in the city to accommodate the offenders,” Mayne observed.

Particularly troubling to supporters of the arrestees was the fact that they were not only detained at Ohio State, but were also sent to the Franklin County Jail, where they weren’t released until 10pm that evening. The OSU police could have simply issued them a summons on the two charges of “persistently disrupting an official event” and disorderly conduct. The OSU police spokesperson on NBC4 news managed, with a straight face, to claim that they also arrest people who stand up at football games and obstruct other’s view. Observers of OSU football games have frequently witnessed rowdy, drunken obstructionist behavior – and that’s just in the President’s private box – but never saw anyone arrested for standing and cheering, let alone standing silently.

The parent of a law school student, Claudia Eckhart, wrote Kirwan that, “Rep. Watts was a poor choice as a speaker for a school who claims that they have affirmative action and a poor role model for the graduates as they embark on their careers. He and his personal life are an abomination and a disgrace.” It would be hard for Kirwan to claim ignorance of Watts’ much-publicized shortcomings as a born-again Christian, since the Dispatch political editor, Joe Hallett, had pointed out a few weeks earlier Watts’ out-of-wedlock children, child abandonment and history of failure or pay taxes in Oklahoma. Or maybe Watts’ choice simply reflects Kirwan’s values and University’s obvious infatuation with talented ne’er do well jocks as role models.

Dr. Seth Rosenberg, a post-doctoral researcher in Physics, sent a letter to Kirwan expressing “outrage” and pointing out that the individuals arrested “were not part of the organized protest,” referring to the graduates demonstrating against Watts, but guests of the University at the ceremony.

“They did nothing more than stand, face away from the speaker, and applaud the protestors. These arrests, along with the arrest of a student, Andre Banks, at a demonstration a few weeks ago, show that the OSU police are willing to arrest members of our community for doing nothing more than expressing a dissenting opinion,” Rosenberg stated.

Curiously, the same OSU police officer arrested both Banks and those at the commencement.

Andre Banks was singled out and arrested at an Afrikan Student Union demonstration in support for more diversity on campus. Students repeatedly crossed the street blocking some traffic, until campus police arrived and allegedly pushed past two white protestors to grab Banks, and African-American with the largest Afro at the demonstration.

The CWA strike, the Banks and the graduation arrests and the continuing struggle of the Afrikan Student Union to demand an end to what they see as institutional racism and a more conducive educational climate for minorities has led to formation of a new campus coalition called the Columbus Network. Network members recently argued on a WSMZ radio talk show that the primarily low-paid minority workers, advocates of free speech and human rights and students of color on the campus face a hostile right-wing Republican OSU Board, and a compliant president who seems too willing to do their political bidding no matter how reactionary it might be.

The Network claims it is organizing this summer for a series of fall actions linking workers, community and student interests.

It’s been 30 years since the original Free Press emerged from a similar mood of unrest on OSU’s campus.

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