History of the Ohio Fellows Program

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The Ohio Fellows Program: A History

by Abigail Tardiff

There, nestled in the middle of a rather ordinary university, sat the most radical educational program ever conceived: a program based on a single question: How do you identify young people of extraordinary talents, and prevent a four-year traditional college from turning them into conformists who aim low and think small, who never learn to trust their own gifts, who never dare great things, who never take great risks, and who never become all that they could?

—Lynn Shostack1

The Ohio Fellows Program, originally known as The Ohio Plan, was a short-lived project at Ohio University, in existence only from 1964 to 1970, but its effects are disproportionately lasting and extensive. The genius of the Program’s designers and directors consisted of both a recognition of what traditional education is lacking, and the creation of a methodology for filling that void. The result was a radically new contribution to our understanding of education. The founders’ insights into the goals and means of fostering leadership in talented students are still vital today.

The Goals of the Ohio Fellows Program

It was John Gardner whose identification of the deep-seated problems in traditional university education inspired the Program’s founders to find non-traditional solutions. Gardner said that contemporary higher education tends to produce not leaders, but experts and professionals2 who are proficient only at “tending the machinery of that part of society to which they belong.”3

Such professionals are lacking in true leadership, because true leadership is action-oriented. The goal of the Ohio Fellows Program was not merely to give students the knowledge or even experience they needed to become leaders; it was to encourage them to take responsibility for “managing the lives and activities of others.” Leadership consists of more than keeping society’s machinery running; it consists of “pursuing a vision of what the total society needs.”4 Leadership means assessing the suitability of the very design of the machinery, and taking on the task of remaking it.

What was missing in traditional university education was, in a word, action. And the prerequisite for action is the assumption of responsibility. “Before I came to Ohio,” says Dr. Vernon Alden, President of Ohio University during the founding of the Program, “my impression was that at many state-assisted universities, students were moving in lock-step through required, often unimaginative curricula.”5 Lynn Shostack, assistant to J. Leslie Rollins and director of the Program during the 1968-69 academic year, explains that traditional four-year college programs are about conforming and getting good grades; students who are extraordinarily gifted are almost always, by their very giftedness, people who do not fit in with the groups around them—they are “outside the boundaries.”6 If the goal of traditional education is to make such students conform to the systems that are already in place, but what society actually needs is leaders who will not merely “tend the machinery,” but take on the responsibility of redesigning it—then traditional education systematically destroys the very abilities that leaders need.

It is this systematic destruction of ability that Gardner refers to, in his seminal essay, as the “anti-leadership vaccine.”7 Fifteen years later, in his book On Leadership, Gardner summed up the problem:

If, despite all the discouragements, a spark of enthusiasm for leadership is ignited in any of our young people, our educational system may well snuff it out... [T]he education system—not necessarily with conscious intent—persuades the young person that what society needs are experts and professionals, not leaders. Thomas Jefferson envisaged an aristocracy of talent, but most of today’s aristocrats of talent feel no responsibility to lead or to help develop leaders...”8

Gardner’s essential focus is on responsibility; and for this reason, the Program was designed to emphasize not only the passive acquisition of theories and knowledge, but especially a first-hand experience in decision-making and the carrying out of decisions once they are made.

The Program, then, was designed as “a means of nurturing future leaders.”9 A complete statement of the unifying purpose of the Program is found in an early unpublished document dated July 5, 1965: “Questions and Answers about the Ohio Plan”:

The final cause, the hoped-for end of the Program is a generation of responsible socially-concerned people of high ability and promise who will not only achieve positions of leadership in society, but also wherever they serve, be aware of and devote substantial energy to the solving of the basic social and human problems which are so deeply a part of our society as it now is. More than any other, this is the theme which holds the Program together.10

Because the designers of the Program recognized the need for leadership in all areas, and not just in the public forum, the Fellows were chosen from all fields of study. There were, for example, artists and pre-medical students, as well as students who hoped to enter business or politics. The point of the Program was to push the Fellows towards excellence, and, ultimately, leadership in whatever field they chose. The letter of acceptance into the Program explains: "Our major concern from this point forward is to make available to you a series of educational experiences designed to assist you in developing your own interests and abilities." [emphasis added]11 And because the Fellows were chosen from across the curriculum, the group they formed was all the more diverse, which furthered the Program’s end of increasing their awareness of human problems in all areas.

Identifying leadership talent

As one reads early statements of the Ohio Plan’s purpose and also later reflections on how the Program was carried out, one notices a consistent emphasis on two principles that might easily threaten to occlude each other: first, that leadership is an innate talent that must be identified; but that at the same time, there is a methodology to teaching leadership. There is no contradiction between these two principles, but it is to the founders’ credit that they were able to insist on the simultaneous preservation of both. A talent for leadership may be inborn, but if it is not nurtured—provided with the proper “high powered plant food,” in the words of one Fellow12—it will be inoculated into dormancy. Leadership ability is both inborn and teachable. The feeding and developing of talent is not to be left to chance; a very specific methodology is to be put into action.

The designers of the Program grasped the magnitude of the first half of their project, the identification of those students who were especially gifted with leadership ability. This job of seeking out students with leadership potential is always emphasized in descriptions of the Program—one always finds the two goals, identification of talent and nurturing of talent, stated together. The Program was “...designed to identify young leaders and provide them with experiences in business, problem-solving, art, urban life, and responsibility”;13 its point was “...to identify those unusual individuals who...will make a difference in the world and to provide them with the right kind of high-powered plant food to seize the imagination”;14 its “major goal...is to seek out and help to educate young people who are willing and able to assume major responsibility in public affairs.”15 [all emphases added]

“If there is a young Albert Einstein or Robert Frost on campus and we can’t find them and help them, then we will have failed,” proclaims the original description of the Ohio Plan.16 J. Leslie Rollins, a retired assistant dean of Harvard Business School, was recruited by President Vernon Alden to help select the first class of Fellows. His great genius, says Terry Moore, who himself participated in the Program as both a student and a director, was to recognize that students who were right for the Ohio Plan would not necessarily identify themselves, for the Ohio Fellows Program was not an academic honors program, designed for students who distinguish themselves by their good grades. The founders were looking precisely for those students who could excel outside of the boundaries of academics. What they were looking for, says Moore, was passion.17

This kind of passion and talent is difficult to measure by the sort of quantifiable qualities that can be identified by, for example, scores on standardized tests. Terry Moore recalls that J. Leslie Rollins, who helped select the first class of Fellows, liked to talk in football analogies: What if you had a team, he would say, in which every player must weigh at least 250 pounds? That might be a way to guarantee a successful team—but it would exclude some great talent.18 What Rollins and his colleagues were trying to avoid was the adoption of narrow quantifiable criteria that may have succeeded in identifying students with abilities, but which would have disqualified some extraordinarily talented students. Rudolph Rousseau, class of 1968, says that the Program was especially looking for students from backgrounds which had not allowed them a wide variety of experiences that would help launch them into meaningful careers19—another group in danger of falling through the cracks in the traditional methods of identifying gifted students.

How does one go about identifying passion in university students? The initial application was submitted on paper, and consisted of essay and résumé questions. From these, 100 were chosen and sent to the steering committee, which chose 30. These 30 students were given a series of interviews, which formed the criteria for the final selection of the 15 students, out of an entering class of about 4500, to whom the opportunity to participate in the Program would be offered.

Since true leadership is about the making and implementation of decisions, the interview process used imaginary scenarios that required the student to make choices in difficult situations. Karen Buckley recalls that much of the selection process involved putting the candidates together in groups to see who stood out—who placed himself naturally in the role of leader.20 Dr. Rollins also used Harvard Business School interview techniques, says Lynn Shostack, who directed the Program during the 1968-69 academic year: one technique was the “stress interview,” in which the candidate would be ushered into an office, and left there while the interviewer went about his work, completely ignoring the candidate. Then the interviewer would simply “wait to see what you would do.”21 Facing this kind of challenge requires much more than the ability to achieve good grades by successfully absorbing and processing information; it requires the ability to take control of a situation instead of merely reacting to it. It is a test that shows whether a student is merely able to tend the existing machinery, or whether he is able to put new plans into action.

Because the method of the Program was to train leaders by giving them practical experience in leadership, the Ohio Fellows were always involved in the running of the Program. In the later years, it was the current Fellows who were given the responsibility for identifying the next year’s incoming Fellows. The original system of paper applications followed by interviews was not always followed—the directors of the program apparently felt free to by-pass the process when they had identified a student with leadership talent, and, perhaps, the necessary passion. Rudolph Rousseau remembers being called mysteriously, during the spring of his freshman year, for an interview with Dr. Chandler, the Program’s director at the time, after which he was simply informed that he had been accepted into the Program. Other Fellows were brought into the Program at the recommendation of current Fellows; and still others were never officially part of the Program, but benefited from the same mentorship and opportunities as the Fellows did.22

Mixing “learning and theory with responsibility and experience”23

Once the students with the ability and passion for leadership were identified, the project was to cultivate these talents by adding new dimensions to their education. When Dr. Vernon Alden became the president of Ohio University in 1961, one of his main goals was to “provide special opportunities for unusually gifted students.”24 These “special opportunities” were experiences that transcended the traditional classroom lecture: one of the founding principles was that “the non-academic experience of the students participating in the Ohio Plan is at least equal in importance to the academic experience.”25 These non-academic educational experiences, explains John Chandler in a letter inviting students to enter the Program, are designed with a view to preparing the students especially for “service in the area of public affairs.”26

An undated and unattributed description of the Ohio Fellows Program gives an overview of the Program’s methodology:

The Ohio Fellows Program is in a sense a super-catalyst. Its components are (1) people who have potential for becoming extraordinary human beings (2) the advantages of an intensified educational experience centering on exposure to people and ideas, exploration of the self, and opportunities to use one’s knowledge in an actual way. When these factors mesh, the whole result is vastly greater than the sum of the parts.27

Throughout all the plans and descriptions for the Program’s methods for training leaders, we see an emphasis on these two components: the exposure of the Fellows to new ideas, and the opportunity to put these ideas into practice immediately—not just in some future career. The unifying principle of the Program is that the students are to be given “concrete opportunities to mix learning and theory with responsibility and experience.” The point is not merely to help the students understand the problems of leadership; it is always to help them experience these problems. The Program was built on the conviction that “...one learns to lead by leading.” For this reason, Fellows are “...encouraged to take responsibility now for actions and programs of significance to the University community and to the community at large.”28 We will see later how some of the Fellows took this challenge to heart.

One of the problems the Ohio Fellows Program was designed to rectify, though not mentioned explicitly in any of the official O.F.P. documents, was the simple fact that Ohio University was a large school. The entering freshman class at the time of the founding of the Program consisted of 4,500 students. If the students who were identified as having special talents and passion for leadership were to have access not only to ideas, but also to people and experiences that would cultivate their potential, they needed to be a part of a smaller world within such a large institution. Dr. Alden refers to the Ohio Fellows Program as “a small microcosm within the traditional larger university.”29 And so it was.

Access to great minds

The key to creating such a microcosm was giving the Fellows access to great thinkers and leaders. This was done in two ways: the students were given mentors among the faculty and administrators of the university; and special well-known speakers from many fields were brought to campus to meet privately with the Fellows. Students on a traditional college campus may have access to many great minds among their professors, but all of these great minds are the minds of academics; and talented people do not all become academics. The Program intended to supply students with role-models and advisors from outside of academia.

“What was interesting,” says Steven McCafferty, summing up his experience as an Ohio Fellow, “was the access.” The students were given time to spend with the special speakers who were invited to the campus. McCafferty remembers being sent to the airport to pick up Norman Jewison and being invited to dinner at President Alden’s house with Robert Penn Warren.30 Michael McConnell uses the same word, “access,” to capture his experience as an Ohio Fellow, remembering especially his opportunities to spend time with Dr. Alden. “The Ohio Fellows was the group that the president would go to when a distinguished lecturer was on campus.” In this capacity, the Fellows served simultaneously as “...an outreach tool for the University.”31 This double emphasis on learning and acting was typical of the Program.

Commenting on this on-going and frequent access to great minds, Michael McConnell says, “What [the] experience did more than anything else was it gave you a kind of confidence...to meet powerful people and find out they’re just people.”32 This confidence is a great help in resisting being intimidated at a job interview, for example. “When you have an extraordinarily gifted person,” explains Lynn Shostack, “you need to get them onto a bigger stage...you need to expose them to things that may be only mythological in their mind.” As an Ohio Fellow, a student was “given any impetus to believe that people of great accomplishment were people like you”—not “of a whole different nature.” This conviction would not only serve to free a student from intimidation, but it would assure him that he was capable of achievements as great as those of the famous speakers who visited the Ohio University campus. It was made clear to the Fellows that the top people in any field “had built their reputation...by doing what they were passionate about and not swerving.”33 The way to greatness was thereby mapped out for the Fellows.

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Ohio University


With the assistance of the Richard King Mellon Charitable Trusts of Pittsburgh, Ohio University established the Ohio Fellow’s Program in 1964. The program is maintained through contributions from the Mead Corporation and other companies and foundations.


The Ohio Fellows steering committee attempts to identify during the freshman and sophomore years, college men and women who have exemplified that they have a leadership potential or the potential to have an impact or influence in their field. The need for such a program is predicated on the belief that many students with real potential are not able to fully express their capabilities or to exploit future possibilities in a normal college experience. Seldom are they offered concrete opportunities to mix learning and theory with responsibility and experience. This program is intended as a means of making opportunities available to the Fellows in various forms for understanding and experiencing the problems of leadership, formulating their own solutions, and comparing them with the methods and procedures of recognized individuals in their fields. The Fellows are offered various opportunities to understand and develop their own potential, and are encouraged to develop their unique and individual personalities, rather than conforming to a previously established definition of leadership.


The organization consists of a director, a summer coordinator, and a faculty advisory committee. The fall quarter is planned by a summer coordinator in conjunction with the faculty director. The summer coordinator is an Ohio Fellow who is using the Program as an internship. From their planning, the Fellows and Advisors meet for a weekend early in the fall to discuss and decide upon the activities and goals of the program for that year. Beside the activities planned, the Fellows have at their disposal the resources of the Fellows Program and counseling opportunities with Faculty Advisors.


The activities of the Ohio Fellows Program are geared to fit the purposes of the individual Fellows as well as purposes of the organization. The activities vary from year to year, but they can be classified in five broad areas: