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Rallying Around Gordon Gee

September 27, 2006

As E. Gordon Gee moved from presidency to presidency in his career, he wasn’t always beloved by professors. But at Vanderbilt University, where he has been chancellor since 2000, there was strong evidence of his campus backing on Tuesday, as faculty and student leaders rallied around him following publication of a newspaper article critical of “loosey-goosey” oversight of Gee’s spending.

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page story used Vanderbilt to illuminate the trend toward greater pressure on trustees to oversee presidents and their compensation packages. The Journal reported that Gee, whose annual compensation package of $1.4 million makes him among the most highly paid college leaders, oversaw the expenditure of $6 million for improvements to the chancellor’s mansion, Braeburn, without full board approval. The article also reported that Vanderbilt spends more than $700,000 annually on parties at the residence, described a potential conflict of interest surrounding a contract with a parking vendor, and, in a particularly personal turn, reported allegations that the president’s wife, Constance, an associate professor of public administration and education, used marijuana in the house for medical reasons. The newspaper also noted that Constance lowered an American flag to half-staff outside Braeburn after President Bush’s re-election.

On many a campus, such an article might encourage professorial critics to pounce. But it was striking that faculty and student leaders Tuesday were strongly endorsing their chancellor.

In an e-mail message sent to the Vanderbilt students and professors Tuesday, and posted online by the student newspaper, Gee said that the article “presented an incomplete portrait of Vanderbilt,” and referred readers to a Web page describing the university’s accomplishments under his tenure.

“Much of what the article portrays is ancient history,” said Vanderbilt spokesman Michael Schoenfeld. “In general, the story portrayed a university that is successful by every financial and academic measure, thanks to Gordon Gee’s leadership, and a board that is addressing the same governance issues that every private university in the country is dealing with.” Schoenfeld said the university underwent a governance review about a year ago and has since adopted new policies, including a tightening of internal procedures and the creation of a new trustee committee that scrutinizes spending by the chancellor.

“The article articulates the importance of oversight by the Board of Trust for spending, and I am confident that the Board of Trust at Vanderbilt has a strong working relationship with the chancellor,” Catherine Fuchs, chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of psychiatry, said in an e-mail.

Gee enjoys immense popularity among students and faculty members at Vanderbilt where he has overseen the successful completion of a $1.25 billion fund-raising campaign two years ahead of schedule, a 50-percent spike in applications and corresponding increase in selectivity, a doubling in research funding, a tripling in financial aid for undergraduates, a 50-percent increase in minority enrollment, and a 100-point increase in average SAT scores. Gee has also personally involved himself in recruiting faculty members -- and has helped attract stars, most recently in literary and African-American studies.

“From my vantage point, Gordon Gee has had and continues to have the respect, admiration, and enthusiastic support of the great majority of the faculty,” said Norman Tolk, vice-chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor of physics. “Chancellor Gee has as his stated objective to bring an already excellent university into the front ranks of the great universities in the world. He has made significant progress in this direction. The article, I believe, makes this point very well. On a personal level, I have never met a man who is more concerned with the well-being of the people he has responsibility for, faculty staff, and students.”

Boone Lancaster, president of Vanderbilt’s Student Government Association, echoed Tolk’s enthusiasm. “When it comes to popularity with the students it would be difficult to imagine anyone that is more appreciated and well-liked than Chancellor Gee. He always makes it a point to be out and about frequently talking with students in our dining center, dorms, and during the weekends at football games. From a student leader perspective there is no doubt in my mind that he truly cares for Vanderbilt and ensuring that we are an ever-improving university, and knowing that the board proactively addressed any possible concerns of financial oversight only furthers my confidence in Vanderbilt and our chancellor.”

The Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper, quoted students as backing the chancellor -- and published a photograph in which one dormitory let Constance Gee know that she was now considered an honorary resident there. An editorial noted that Gee had let many on the campus know that a critical article was coming, and said that many considered the piece "old news." While the editorial said it was important for the university's trustees to have more oversight over spending, the newspaper announced that it was "unimpressed" by the Journal article.

Kane Jennings, associate professor of chemical engineering and a Faculty Senate member, added that he thinks concerns regarding renovation costs for the chancellor’s mansion are misplaced, as it serves as a nexus for fund-raising and college events. Schoenfeld said that since renovation of 90-year-old Braeburn in 2001, more than 20,000 people have attended events there.

“I just don’t really see a big deal about spending money to renovate it when it is such a central forum for university relations with faculty, students, and others,” Jennings said.

Gee has previously served as president of West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Ohio State University, and, most recently, Brown University. He left Brown after just two years to come to Vanderbilt in 2000, amid a sense by Gee and some at Brown that it was not a good fit for either the president or the institution.

 

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