Ohio State University: University investitures have storied histories

On Nov. 19, The Ohio State University will celebrate the investiture of its 16th president, Kristina M. Johnson.

The ceremony occurs more than a full year into her tenure, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will bring together students, faculty, staff, trustees and the larger university community. But why is an investiture so meaningful in academia?

Investitures originated in medieval England as an homage to knighthood ceremonies. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge used these events to formally invest a person with honors or rank, said David Staley, associate professor of history and an expert in the history of higher education.


David J. Staley
Many early American colleges and universities were modeled after their British predecessors, and these ceremonies followed as well.

There will be pageantry, with a procession from representatives from the university – faculty, staff and trustees – and representatives from other institutions, including Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of Michigan State University. The university’s wind symphony, conducted by Russel Mikkelson, professor and area head of conducting and ensembles, will perform the event’s prelude, the National Anthem and “Carmen Ohio.”

The centerpiece of the investiture is the presidential address, which, Staley said, is an opportunity for the president to speak to the university’s constituents.

“It’s very much like the president of the United States,” Staley said of the occasion. “[The president] is beholden to a wide range of constituents: the legislature, the voters. And the same is true with the university president.”

Johnson’s presidential speech is expected to focus on Ohio State’s commitment to providing students with a far-reaching, foundational education. Her vision includes cutting-edge research, investments in faculty and a debt-free undergraduate education.

The idea of a presidential vision, something that has become a hallmark of modern-day university leadership, was not part of the university’s original leadership structure. Staley said that early Ohio State presidents were not seen as leaders, instead thought of as “faculty secretaries.” The board of trustees was charged with decision-making.

Not until Ohio State’s fifth president, William Oxley Thompson, who was president from 1899-1925, did the role take the shape it has today. After Thompson, presidents began to develop goals for their tenures, making significant changes that resulted in the Ohio State we know today, said Staley.

The university archives show the vision of a modern university was established at the very beginning. A manuscript written by Joseph Sullivant, a member of the university’s first board of trustees, poses questions about the nature of a proper education. Should students be taught Greek and Roman and rhetoric, like their European counterparts, or is there room for more practical, mechanical instruction in the sciences?

Sullivant’s desire was for the university to be both, for the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Ohio to also be “A School of Practical and Applied Science,” providing students a chance to learn as much as they could.

“And that our college may become the seat of true learning,” Sullivant wrote, “where the adult man, he of the learned professions, the farmer, the mechanic and the artisan, and those of all trades and professions, shall come for knowledge to help them to higher attainments.”

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