Welcome to Ohio State, where everything is for sale



I’m excited to announce that my university has changed its motto. Out with the old and in with: “Omnia Venduntur!

Our old motto, “Disciplina In Civitatem,” or “Education for Citizenship,” just sounded so, you know, land-granty, so civic-minded. It certainly doesn’t capture our new ethos of entrepreneurial dynamism and financial chicanery. Besides, the state legislature here, dominated for years now by the GOP, hasn’t been interested in either education or citizenship for a long time.

So instead: “Everything Is for Sale!” (Actually, the trustees originally wanted to carve “Every Asset a Monetizable Asset” into stone, but it turns out “monetizable” doesn’t have a Latin translation.) Yes, sir, we are open for business! And by “open for business” I mean: Make us an offer for something, and we’ll sell it to you like a pair of pants at a department-store closeout.

We’ve been moving in this direction for some time. We were among the first to become a “Coke campus,” which means that in exchange for some cash, we’ve agreed that Coke and Coke products are the only soft drinks permitted on campus. Periodically we all get helpful email reminders of our beverage obligations, which say things like: “If you go to the grocery store to purchase beverages for a university event, you must purchase Coke products regardless of the price of other items.” How else can the university hope to achieve its stated goal of moving from “excellence to eminence”?

The great Coke contract was merely a prelude to the game-changing deal we signed in 2012 to lease campus parking — all 37,000 spaces! — to an Australian investment firm for 50 years. This deal was worth almost $500 million. It was a brilliant move, and it took many of us back to those halcyon days before 2007, when financial wizards were free (and unregulated) to do the things they do so well. And if you’re wondering where that money will go, let me remind you that it’s rude to ask questions about money.

It’s true that some of the faculty opposed this deal (but only 84 percent, according to a survey), and it’s also true that since the Australian takeover, prices for parking permits have gone through the roof. But it is not true, as has been reported in some places, that faculty have formed hitchhiking co-ops because they can no longer afford to park on campus.

The important point here is that this deal puts the lie to the complaint we hear so often that college doesn’t prepare people for the real world. Our CFO, the guy who orchestrated this deal, has just landed a very lucrative job with the Australian firm he sold the parking to. It’s called synergy, baby! Look it up.

So you can understand the excitement we’re feeling with the announcement that the university plans to sell off its lights, wall outlets, and air conditioning. That’s right! We plan to lease out our heating, cooling, and electrical infrastructure and turn over energy supply to a private-management company. It’s early yet, and details remain to be worked out, but as the provost told us all in a memo, this deal “could provide new resources for our academic mission.” Yes, it could.

Lots of you people with bad attitudes complain and complain about the way your institution has become “corporatized,” by which you mostly mean that the size and expense of your campus administration has inflated like a birthday-party balloon while academic programs have had to engage in some more belt-tightening. I, for one, have no doubt that your assistant vice president to the executive vice president in charge of globalized enrollment communications is worth all of the $225,000 he gets every year.

We’re past that at Ohio State. Our administration went blimpy years ago, though, alas, we’re no longer No. 1 in public-college presidential pay, the way we were for several years. So we’re taking things to the next level by thinking squarely inside the private-equity box. You know how some private-equity firms work, right? They circle over a company like vultures over road kill, swoop down, pick the assets clean, and make a huge profit for investors.

At OSU we’re becoming our own private-equity firm. We’re selling off our own assets in order to make a big profit for some private-investment company. That’s how we fulfill our land-grant mission in the 21st century — making tons of money for a bunch of Aussies.

Because it’s all about “core mission.” See? It isn’t hard to learn a little business-speak so you can better communicate with the people who run the show. You don’t expect people in foreign countries to learn English just to communicate with you, do you?

And things like parking spaces for students and lights in classrooms just aren’t core mission anymore. Let’s be honest: Once you start thinking about core mission, lots of things around campus start to look like saleable assets. Just the other day I was talking with someone who was interested in trading the history department for four radial tires and an old washing machine. An intriguing offer, so I directed him to our associate executive vice dean in charge of T-shirt sales and exotic financial instruments to pursue the possibility.

I know what you’re thinking, and let me cut you off right there. You’re thinking, “Isn’t the football team the most valuable asset you have? If it were its own country, wouldn’t its economy be larger than that of many countries in the developing world? Wouldn’t it beat the Cleveland Browns seven times out of 10?”

The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but you have to look at this from the private-equity point of view. The athletics program actually makes money, while the library and the French department are loss leaders. The truly visionary university administrator realizes that the future lies with our ESPN contracts and our Nike endorsements, and with just enough online courses to keep the athletes eligible.

Remember: “Omnia Venduntur!” It’s all about core mission.

Author Bio: Steven Conn is a professor and director of the public-history program at Ohio State University.