- By Laura A. Bischoff Columbus Bureau
Just weeks after Dr. Michael V. Drake took over as president of Ohio State University, he faced an investigative report showing that wildly successful director of the OSU marching band turned a blind eye to a culture of sexual harassment and hazing.
In July 2014, Drake fired OSU band director Jon Waters – a move that led to lawsuits and blistering criticism — saying “We expect every member of our community to live up to a common standard of decency and mutual respect and to adhere to university policies.”
Drake now faces two high-profile investigations that will test how OSU adheres to its policies and holds powerful university officials to account.
On parallel tracks, the university is investigating: whether Ohio State Head Football Coach Urban Meyer failed to properly report to his bosses allegations of domestic violence against Zach Smith, an assistant coach; whether a former team doctor, Richard Strauss, sexually abused students and student-athletes in his care from 1979 to 1998 and identify who failed to stop him.
“This is a high-wire act. Everybody watches while the high-wire walker is crossing and wonders whether he’ll fall. But President Drake has shown that he can balance these different interests carefully and I think he’ll be successful,” said Mark Weaver, an attorney and crisis communications consultant. “He put together processes that no matter what the outcome is, it’ll be defensible and largely accepted.”
Drake was not made available for an interview since the investigations are ongoing.
Strauss investigation to go back decades
In April, Ohio State announced it hired outside counsel to investigate allegations against Strauss, who died by suicide in 2005. The investigation comes on the heels of Michigan State University agreeing to pay a $500-million settlement to victims abused by Dr. Larry Nassar. So far the Strauss investigation has found more than 100 former male students reported first-hand accounts.
Adding national political attention to the case: U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, a contender for House Speaker, is accused by former wrestlers of failing to report Strauss’ abuse. Jordan served as an OSU assistant wrestling coach from 1986 to 1994. Jordan has maintained that he did not know of any abuse.
University power brokers from the Strauss era — coaches, athletic directors, administrators — are largely gone from Columbus.
The Strauss investigation, handled by law firms Porter Wright and Perkins Coie, has no timeline yet for its conclusion.
Panel to wrap up Meyer investigation soon
The Meyer investigation, being overseen by a panel of Columbus and OSU insiders with assistance from an outside law firm, is expected to conclude this month, according to the university.
Ohio State put Meyer on paid administrative leave on Aug. 1 while the panel investigates what Meyer knew about domestic violence allegations against Zach Smith, an assistant coach, former Meyer player and grandson of OSU coaching legend Earl Bruce. A key question is whether Meyer properly reported what he knew.
The latest version of Meyer’s contract, signed March 27, added a provision that he is required to report to OSU’s deputy Title IX coordinator for athletics any known violations of the university’s sexual misconduct policy, which covers behaviors including intimate violence and stalking, by any student, faculty or staff.
In announcing the contract extension, the university said: “Meyer’s program culture at Ohio State stresses accountability, promotes respect, prepares young men for life after football and develops talents at an unsurpassed rate.”
Ohio State is a major institution with a $2.5-billion payroll, 40,000 workers, 65,000 students on multiple campuses, a world class medical center and a highly successful sports operation, anchored by its football program.
Meyer, who is paid $7.6-million a year, wins games — lots of games.
In six seasons at Ohio State, Meyer’s record is 73-8, including 6-0 against the University of Michigan, two Big Ten championships and a national championship.
Like Waters’ firing as band director, the Strauss and Meyer investigations are receiving national media attention. Last week the New York Times pushed out links to stories on both investigations in its daily briefing.
Other issues facing the university
On top of those investigations, Ohio State has been fielding other issues: in May it agreed to pay out $765,000 to settle an age discrimination lawsuit and review its equal employment opportunity processes; in June it closed its office on sexual civility and empowerment over concerns of mismanagement and complaints; and in June OSU Diving Club, former coach Will Bohonyi and USA Diving were named in a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that female athletes were coerced into sex acts with Bohonyi, including when one was a minor.
The diving suit alleges that OSU failed to take action. Ohio State said in a statement that in 2014 when it first received the diving club complaint, it put Bohonyi on leave, opened an investigation, notified authorities and fired Bohonyi.
Columbus area attorney Fred Gittes, who represented the plaintiffs in the age discrimination suit, said the investigations and lawsuits show a pattern of problems.
“I believe there has been a long standing problem at Ohio State University. A combination of how discrimination complaints of all kinds are handled, the problems with the investigations of those complaints and the adequacy of upper management’s review of those complaints,” Gittes said.
He added, “I’m not sure if they’re finally getting the message: they got a problem. Their EEO system is broken.”
Dayton area attorney Gary Leppla, an OSU band alum who is highly critical of how Drake and the trustees dismissed Waters, said the stakes are high for Drake as he weights what to do with Coach Meyer.
“They say it’s up to President Drake so it’s all on him.”
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Leppla is still bitter about Waters’ dismissal as band director and believes the university should apologize to him. When it comes to the Meyer investigation, Leppla said he is glad to see the university put him on paid leave during fact finding.
Three generations of Leppla family members have attended OSU over the past 80 years.
“My hope is they do the right thing,” said Leppla. “They take a courageous stand that is based up on the facts and they take the time to get the facts.”