Interview of Herbert B. Asher by Marvin R. Zahniser
Creators:Asher, Herbert B.
Contributors:Zahniser, Marvin R.
Subjects (LCSH):Higher education and state -- Ohio
Asher, Herbert B. -- Interviews
Ohio State University -- History -- Sources
Ohio State University -- Administration -- Sources
OSU President Edward Jennings
OSU President E. Gordon Gee
Subjects (Other):OSU relationship with Columbus community
OSU, budget, legislature, restructuring
MetadataShow full item record
Publisher:Ohio State University Archives
Series/Report no.:Ohio State University. University Archives Oral History Program. Ohio State University Oral History Project
Dr. Herbert Asher, distinguished Professor of Political Science, was for many years Special Assistant for Government Relations in the administrations of Presidents Edward Jennings and Gordon Gee. After his formal retirement he continued to serve as a Special Counselor to Presidents Gee, Kirwan, and Holbrook. He presents a unique insider’s view of various key issues including university budgets, funding, tuition, and describes rival interests that also compete for the same public and private dollars. These would include secondary and primary education, Medicaid, the twelve other four-year state universities in Ohio, and the prison system. Some comparisons are made to other public universities in Ohio, including Miami, Cleveland State, Ohio, and Toledo, and the work of the Inter-University Council, and institutions in other states, such as Illinois and Michigan. The issue of the rivalry between Ohio State University and “downtown” over construction of either one or two large public arenas (“the arena wars”) is examined. Ultimately, of course, Gordon Gee decided the university must have its own, and Schottenstein Center was built at Ohio State, and Nationwide Arena downtown. During both the Jennings and Gee administrations there was concern that the academic ranking of Ohio State was less than it should be. It was decided to move from conditional to selective admissions, and to provide special funding to departments to recruit and finance distinguished faculty. The legislature was generally supportive of the move to selective admissions since this would reduce the need for remediation. Conditional/Unconditional admissions were instituted which warned students that if they lacked a set number of high school credits in key areas such as English, math, foreign language, etc., that these must be made up at Ohio State, without earning credits for graduation. It was a non-cost method to get students to do in high school what they should have been doing all along. Another positive innovation was the introduction of the Selective Excellence package that included Eminent Scholars and chaired professorships. A controversial issue that surfaced in the 1980’s was the use of animals for research. A coalition of state universities and other groups succeeded in defeating a proposed bill that would have placed serious limitations of the use of animals. One animal rights advocate when asked by a legislator “If we can’t use animals for research, what should we do?” replied, “We should use prisoners.” This remark helped kill the proposal. On campus researchers who used animals for research were often stridently challenged. Another key legislative issue was the need to clarify the rules by which Ohio State could better protect intellectual property, and to allow faculty and universities to benefit by commercialization of their discoveries. Dr. Asher also took an active role in opposing two proposed constitutional amendments that would have repealed all of the recent tax increases and require that any future tax increases be approved by a super-majority of 60% of the Ohio legislators. He also describes his methods of interacting personally with legislators and other lobbyists. The university also opposed the imposition of term limits on Ohio legislators. Gordon Gee gave serious thought to running for Governor and, as Asher explains, this never happened. Had Gee done so, it was unclear to Asher if he would have run as a Democrat or a Republican. Gee had been unusually successful in his dealings with legislators, local leaders, editors, and alumni groups around the state. He endeavored to visit all 88 counties in Ohio, and took faculty with him on these visits. He spoke frequently at high schools. He strengthened ties with the Cooperative Extension Service including the 4-H program. His successful outreach efforts helped gain support from the legislature for Gee’s advocacy of promoting OSU as a great national sports center, with all the buildings and equipment needed in support. Since most of the substantial costs incurred in building various state-of-the art athletic facilities came from non-taxpayer sources, the legislators, many of whom were football fans, raised few objections. The one substantial investment of state monies was $15 million for construction of Schottenstein Center. Gee seemed to think that he could sell the OSU academic side better if he had a strong athletic program. He believed it built a sense of community, a sense of identification, and opened some doors. Asher was less convinced of this and doubted that a potential big giver would give less to the university if the football team were not doing well. Nor did he see any connection in the legislature between appropriations and athletic success. Many faculty members did not understand why reconstruction of the football stadium took precedence over remodeling the library. Occasionally Asher worked with forums outside the legislature. He worked with the Board of Trustees on the issue of divestiture from South Africa and indirectly with fundraisers. His close ties with legislators, and numerous contacts around the state, provided much useful information. During the Gee administration Asher was a member of the Governor’s Task Force that was, among other things, was charged with adopting a two-tier system of higher education, with Ohio State and Cincinnati to be designated as the two comprehensive research institutions. Other state universities feared their own programs would suffer, and Governor Voinovich was also opposed. The proposal was dead on arrival. It was determined to seek to achieve the same result through other means. Much was said about Ohio State being the “flagstaff institution” of the state. Ads were placed touting OSU as the “number one university in the State of Ohio,” although, as Asher says, it was “not exactly an impressive accomplishment to say you’re number one in Ohio.” One basic problem was that Ohio had too many universities trying to do the same thing. Most of these had aspirations to become a higher ranked research institution. Clearly the state could not afford this proliferation. There was also some serious talk of converting the branch campuses to community colleges, a proposal that caused an outcry in Marion, Lima, Mansfield, and Newark. Other state universities had their own branch campuses, including Ohio, Miami, Kent State, and Youngstown. Dr. Asher also played an important but lesser role in working at the national level, particularly in the area of health sciences and medical education. It was largely a role of largely keeping in touch with friends and contacts in Washington, especially the Ohio congressional delegation. There was also “The Midwestern Universities Alliance,” a consortium of some of the Big Ten schools and several other institutions. Federal work was done largely in the context of this organization, although other groups that also helped were the National Association of State Colleges and Land Grant Universities, AAU, and some others. Certain powerful interest groups within the university, notably agriculture and medicine, had their own, independent outreach programs at both the state and federal levels. Asher had an excellent working relationship with President Jennings and Gee, and they, in turn, worked quite well with faculty. Jennings, for example, allowed Asher to continue as Chairman of the Steering Committee of the University Senate, at the same time he also worked as a Special Assistant to the President. Usually he felt comfortable telling Jennings of possible problems, although Asher now regrets he never shared with Jennings his distrust of the former athletic director, Rick Bay. In particular he refers to Bay’s “treachery” in going public one week before the end of the football season, contrary to Jennings’ specific instructions, that football coach Earl Bruce was to be fired. Asher’s work with two different presidents gave him an increased awareness of the wide influence of the presidents beyond the university community. On the state level they were free to pick up the phone and call the Governor, the Speaker, or other key legislators. At the invitation of Leslie Wexner, Gee was made a member of The Titans, a small but highly influential group of key leaders who enjoyed influence at both the local and state levels. For some years Asher taught a course on Ohio Politics, and his work in the president’s office gave him a much keener insight into political realities in the state. Ohio, he said, “really is a series of city states,” each much given to regionalism and localism. Consequently the proposal to designate Ohio State and Cincinnati as the two research universities could go nowhere. Asher had much respect for Vern Riffe, the Speaker of the House, an “incredibly talented” man who effectively dealt with local as well as larger issues. Riffe was known to complain about the ongoing demands of Roy Kottman, former Dean of Agriculture, that whatever monies the state appropriated for Agriculture that it was never enough. He had a much better relationship with Max Lennon, Kottman’s successor. Riffe was a genius in getting legislation passed that he favored. “He was as good as anybody in the political process.” Dr. Asher retired from Ohio State near the end of the Gee presidency, but he continued to be busy as a “Counselor to the University President,” a new post that Gee created for him. He served as a lobbyist for Ohio State until he was appointed to the Ohio Ethics Commission. Gee’s successor, Brit Kirwan, continued to use Asher as a counselor. He also served for two years as Interim Director of the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy. He worked effectively to get the Institute solidly launched and funded, it’s mission defined, and he was involved in plans for the renovation of Stillman Hall, the first home of the Institute. Asher has high praise for his successor, Debbie Merritt, as Director of the Glenn Institute. Community Research Partners, a partnership between the City of Columbus, United Way, and the University, was another successful entity within the Glenn Institute. Asher continued as “Counselor to the President” through the first year of the Karen Holbrook administration. At that time he resigned. He never held the title as Vice President, but felt this never limited his access or effectiveness with Jennings and Gee. He also worked closely with the OSU Alumni Advocates, a unit of the OSU Alumni Association, and grass-roots lobbying organization, which worked closely with state legislators especially on funding and tuition issues. In an era of term limits grass roots lobbying is more important than ever. Asher never regretted his decision to come to Ohio State. However, he feels that the university is under-appreciated. Despite the reservations of some Asher concluded that Ohio State is a major, major flagship institution, “a wonderful institution, with a wonderful history department and a wonderful political science department.”
Edward Jennings: President of Ohio State University (1981-1990), numerous references -- Gordon Gee: President of Ohio State University (1990-1997), numerous references -- Brit Kirwan: president of Ohio State (pp. 37, 90-91) -- Karen Holbrook: President of Ohio State (pp. 91-92) -- Bill Napier: Special Assistant to President Harold Enarson, and lobbyist (pp. 1-2, 37 ) -- Vern Riffe: Speaker of the House in Ohio Legislature, numerous references -- Stan Aronoff: President at times of Ohio State Senate, various references -- Patrick Sweeney: representative in Ohio legislature (pp. 8-9) -- Mike Stinziano, representative from Columbus who represented university area (p. 8) -- Paul Gilmore: President for a time of Ohio State Senate (p. 9) -- Jack Hollander: Research Vice President at OSU (p. 9) -- Bill Shkurti: Fiscal officer for OSU (p. 13) -- George Voinovich: Governor of Ohio, various references -- Inter-University Council, various references -- John Glenn: John Glenn Institute (pp. 89-90) -- Manuel Tzagournis: influential Dean of the Medical School (pp. 25-26) -- Paul Pfeiffer: Ohio State Senator and Supreme Court Judge (p. 30) -- Dick Celeste: Governor of Ohio (pp. 41, 52) -- Greg Browning: Budget Director, state of Ohio (p. 47) -- Robert Bennett: State Republican Chairman (p. 62) -- Gregory Lashutka: Mayor of Columbus (p. 63) -- Rick Bay: Athletic Director (pp. 76-77) -- Earle Bruce: football coach (pp. 76-77) -- Jim Rhodes: Governor of Ohio, several references -- Roy Kottman: Dean of the College of Agriculture (p. 83) -- Max Lennon: Vice President for Agriculture (pp. 83-84)