Reflecting on academic excellence

Academic Voices: A Provost's Blog

Picture of 2023 commencement in the shoe. Graduates performing O-H-I-O.

Reflecting on academic excellence

At the end of every spring semester, The Ohio State University engages in some of its most enduring traditions. These ceremonies and celebrations provide opportunities to reflect on the achievements of our university community. As I always do, I enjoyed sharing in the accomplishments of our faculty and staff for their remarkable contributions to scholarship, teaching and learning, and service. Sunday’s Commencement and the presence of families and friends marked an important milestone in our students’ lives. Honorary degrees and distinguished service awards were given to individuals who are living impactful lives worthy of the highest accolades a university can bestow.

Recognitions of accomplishment also delimit the faculty lifecycle. To ensure that we are doing our utmost to support that lifecycle and its own milestones, this past November we released Ohio State’s Academic Plan, which charts a strategic direction for academic excellence at Ohio State. One of the Plan’s central pillars — appropriately — is faculty eminence. To implement the Academic Plan, in January, the Office of Academic Affairs (OAA) hosted deans, chairs, and directors for the Academic Leaders Forum to share insights, inspire positive change, and develop strategies aligned with advancing faculty eminence.

Clearly, there is eminence to advance. During the spring semester of each academic year, I read the dossiers of those faculty being proposed for promotion and/or tenure. These dossiers contain the faculty member’s descriptions of their work and also the assessment of external experts. It is with tremendous gratification that I read words such as, “The case for promotion is as clear as possible. It is no exaggeration to say that he is by far the strongest researcher within seven years of receiving a doctoral degree, certainly within the United States, and quite probably in the world.” Or as another reviewer stated, “She has an impressive record of achievement and has gained national and international recognition for her work. She has, and is, advancing the field.”

Awarding tenure is a tremendous responsibility, and each of Ohio State’s tenure-initiating units (TIU) must establish the highest standards and apply them rigorously in determining to whom to award promotion to a tenured position. It is vital that colleagues in every TIU reflect critically on a candidate’s past achievements and gauge their potential for ongoing achievement of the highest-quality work. I would add that this is true not just for promotion and tenure but also for every appointment and reappointment the unit makes.

Provost Gilliam welcomes honorees at the 2023 Faculty Awards Celebration.


To support our faculty through all these milestones, we must focus on excellence in every aspect of faculty life. Through my conversations with faculty on Ohio State’s campuses, I have identified areas of opportunity. People want an inclusive culture in which everyone’s contribution is valued; laboratories, offices, and classrooms in which they can do high-quality work; their staff colleagues to feel valued; and opportunities to be heard when they have insights or concerns.  

As part of the Academic Plan, we created the Office of Faculty Affairs, under the leadership of Senior Vice Provost Patrick Louchouarn and Vice Provost Helen Malone, who are leading our efforts to make Ohio State the best university to be a faculty member. This office is focusing on faculty development; appointments, promotion, and tenure; faculty life; and awards and recognition. Further, I am delighted to welcome Kaprea Johnson, a professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology, who will lead the program in faculty development. Vice Provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement Jason Reece will contribute to this work by supporting community-engaged scholarship at Ohio State.

This year, the Office of Faculty Affairs established a Promotion and Tenure Readers program, which is designed to increase the depth of review and deepen the pool of individuals who can identify and understand academic excellence across a wide number of disciplines. The insights from the Readers Program will be shared with TIUs so they can advance the quality of the local reviews. In addition, the office is undertaking a painstaking review of appointment, promotion, and tenure documents to ensure that TIUs rise to a uniform standard for the university.

Earlier this spring, the Faculty Affairs team hosted a session devoted to promotion and tenure that featured a topic on guiding faculty about how best to tell their own story, a key element in the promotion and tenure process. Although our faculty are experts in their disciplines, it can be challenging for them — like so many of us — to step back and articulate the why behind what makes them extraordinary as scholars, researchers, teachers, and mentors.

We’re doing still other things to promote faculty eminence. For example, the Provost’s Midcareer Scholars: Scarlet and Gray Associate Professor Program was launched in the fall and is designed to honor and recognize tenure-track faculty who have recently been appointed to the rank of associate professor with tenure and have demonstrated significant accomplishments in their respective disciplines. I am proud that the 10-member inaugural cohort was recently selected.

Also this spring, OAA, in partnership with the Ohio State Foundation Board, released the Working Group on Endowed Positions report. Among the report’s findings, although Ohio State is a leader in filling endowed positions, as an institution, we have opportunities for enhancing our impact. In addition, we are working with the academic deans to develop policies for endowed positions, increase the overall number of endowed chairs and professorships, and ensure that our existing positions and funds are awarded.

We are also working intentionally to support faculty in gaining external prizes and awards. Efforts across the institution are paying off. Recently, David Weinberg, Distinguished University Professor and chair of astronomy, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can receive in the U.S. In addition, three faculty were nominated to the National Academy of Engineers, and David Nagib in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was awarded the Brown Scholarship. Two other faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences — Kendra McSweeney, professor and distinguished scholar in the Department of Geography, and Claudia Turro, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry — were elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences for 2023.

There is no clear path to academic excellence, though our Academic Plan serves as a roadmap. Achieving academic excellence and faculty eminence requires academic freedom and open discourse, a diverse community that will bring new perspectives and opinions, an inclusive community in which people feel a sense of belonging, the resources and facilities to dream big, and a commitment to rigor. Fortunately, academic excellence is as much an Ohio State tradition as any of those we have just celebrated.

A young woman jumps for joy on the Oval after commencement.