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Peripatetic President

July 12, 2007

Less than two weeks after stating that he had no intention of leaving his job as chancellor of Vanderbilt University, E. Gordon Gee is doing just that. Ohio State University will announce today that Gee -- president there from 1990-97 -- will return to his old job in Columbus.

The announcement stunned academics at Vanderbilt and many experts on presidential searches. While former presidents are frequently called in as interim leaders, historians of higher education struck out when trying to identify presidents who served two distinct terms as permanent president of the same institution. The move was also surprising in that Gee's lucrative salary and benefits at Vanderbilt -- in excess of $1.2 million -- suggested to many that he would be out of the price range of a public institution.

What the move means -- particularly beyond Vanderbilt and Ohio State -- remains to be seen. Some believe that it reflects a unique set of circumstances with regard to Gee and Ohio State. But other experts think that the job shift is a perfect indication of broader and, to some, troublesome trends in higher education, such as the reluctance of many trustees to seriously consider candidates who have not been sitting presidents at similar institutions and the way compensation for public university presidents continues to increase to sums that would have been hard to imagine just a few Gee presidencies ago.

On Wednesday, Gee wasn't saying much. After The Columbus Dispatch broke the story, Vanderbilt issued a press release confirming the move and a quick departure date for Gee of August 1 (officials say that Gee and Vanderbilt's board wanted an interim leader in place to welcome the new students). In an e-mail to Vanderbilt students and employees, Gee wrote, "I want you to know that I am not leaving Vanderbilt. Rather, I am following my heart and returning to a place that I consider my home. My decision is that simple and that complex."

Gee has had many homes in life and in academe. A native of Utah, he earned a law degree at Columbia University and started his administrative career in law schools, at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and West Virginia University. Presidencies then followed -- first at West Virginia and then at the University of Colorado, Ohio State, Brown University and Vanderbilt. The move to Brown was surprising to many; Gee had spent most of his career in public higher education and was deeply engaged in issues facing mammoth research universities with big-time sports programs. By all accounts, the time in Providence was not a good fit for Gee or Brown. When he departed after two years for Vanderbilt, Brown board members were openly critical of him for considering another position so soon after arriving.

At Vanderbilt, the fit has been much better for the bow-tie-clad president. He put money into creating new faculty positions and he personally helped recruit top scholars to move to the university. He oversaw a restructuring of the athletics department, designed to stress the extent to which athletes are students by putting sports programs under the student life division. Professors and students have talked about a sense of momentum that has been associated with Gee's agenda. One measure of his popularity there is the way student and faculty leaders had an almost blasé reaction to a lengthy article in The Wall Street Journal last year about his $1.2 million compensation package, with many on campus saying that they didn't begrudge their leader the money.

While Gee was able to ride out an article that might have destroyed many a presidency, there's little doubt that the last year has been a tough one for him. While the Vanderbilt board defended his compensation package, it also imposed tighter controls on his spending. Gee and his wife, who teaches at Vanderbilt, are getting divorced.

Sources familiar with the negotiations to lure him away from Nashville said that the wooing has taken place over several months. When The Columbus Dispatch first reported this month that university board members were trying to recruit Gee back, his response was almost Shermanesque. He issued a statement to the newspaper that his "commitment to Vanderbilt is unwavering and unshakable."

At Vanderbilt, people believed him. "The denials were emphatic and convincing," said Bruce Barry, president of the Faculty Senate and a professor of management and sociology. Barry, who said that Gee had led significant improvements at Vanderbilt, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Wednesday's news. Several sources said that Gee turned down Ohio State, but continued to listen to entreaties and at some point changed his mind.

Ohio newspapers are reporting that Gee's compensation package there is around $1 million. While Ohio State and Gee are not talking until today about the appointment, other knowledgeable sources say that Ohio State offered Gee huge financial enticements to move. A key to the recruitment drive and one of Ohio State's most generous donors has been Leslie H. Wexner, chairman and CEO of Limited Brands, on whose board Gee serves.

So what does the Gee move mean?

Some doubt that it means very much at all in the big picture of things.

"I think this is an anomaly," said Jan Greenwood, president of a search firm that bears her name. She has been involved in more than 700 searches and she said that while many search committees talk about qualities that they liked in previous presidents, she has never been asked to recruit a former president to come back. "The nature of the job changes so much." Several others involved in hundreds of searches said that they too had never received such a request from a committee.

"I don't think we'll see a rush of people doing this," she said. (Greenwood, like the other search firm officials quoted in this article, was not involved in the Ohio State search that led to Gee's selection.)

R. William Funk, who leads a search firm with his name and recruited Gee to Vanderbilt, agreed that there are any number of ways that Gee's latest move is unusual. He's going from private to public, for example, at a time many are moving in the opposite direction.

But for all the unusual factors, Funk said that that the Ohio State board's action was also emblematic of some broader trends. The buzz about the search, he said, was that the board wanted a sitting president for the job. That's not unusual these days. Funk just managed the search at Purdue University that led to the selection of France Córdova as president, coming from the chancellor's job at the University of California at Riverside, and he said that the board at Purdue had a strong preference for a sitting president.

Funk said that when he meets with board members on search committees, "it's almost immediately" clear if they want a sitting president, and that a growing number of them do. "Today's president's job is more external than before. It's fund raising. It's big-time athletics," he said, and many provosts don't focus on these issues. Boards fear that there is too much risk in going with anyone who hasn't done a similar job.

National trends back up this impression. An American Council on Education study released in February found that 28.6 percent of presidents hired since January 2004 had been presidents previously -- a figure that compares to 17.3 percent in a study in 1986.

Because sitting presidents tend to dislike open searches, he added, they may be especially likely to show up at places like Ohio State and Purdue, where searches do not involve public appearances or even the formal release of names of finalists. Picking someone who has not only been a sitting president, but been that institution's sitting president, may be the ultimate example of the trend. Funk said it pointed to a sense that "the pools are so shallow for proven, effective presidents."

Whatever Gee's new compensation package is at Ohio State may also be trend-setting. As is common these days, it will most likely involve a mix of sources, and state funds may be a relatively small share. But if it comes even close to his Vanderbilt salary, it may well top the compensation of any other public university leader, and make seven-figure compensation packages an option at public universities.

"Of course it's going to draw more attention: $1 million always raises eyebrows," said Charles Quatt, president of Quatt Associates, which advises nonprofit boards on executive compensation. "It's always going to be more eye-opening for a public than for a private school -- just by the nature that other public officials don't make nearly that kind of money," he added, although he noted that comparisons in other directions may be more favorable to Gee.

"When you think what the head football coach at Ohio State must be making," Quatt wondered whether Gee's compensation would upset people. (According to USA Today, Jim Tressel, the coach, has a package worth just over $2 million.)

Given that Ohio State's board specifically went after Gee, based on his past performance, Quatt said a high compensation package "doesn't surprise me."

What will determine whether the Gee package leads to an escalation at public universities will depend on how it is seen, Quatt said. Part of that is whether the full package, when it becomes public, is controversial. Another factor will be whether it is viewed as related more to Gee or the position. Is his package the going rate for Ohio State's president, or to attract Gordon Gee?

"The value of the person may be different from the value of the job, when people want a particular person, they may ask what is that person's value," Quatt said.

At the same time, the package could have an impact on other public universities. "It's like the housing market. If one house sells for a certain price and the market starts to change and someone fixes up their house a little better and selling for more, the prices start rising," he said.

One lesson that may come out of Gee's latest move is about what not to say. Gee's firm denials that he was leaving Vanderbilt are upsetting to many on the campus in light of the way things are turning out.

James P. Ferrare, president of Academic Search, said it was important to remember that Gee could have been being completely honest two weeks ago. "Sometimes you sincerely say to whoever your suitor is, 'I'm really happy where I am,' and something occurs that changes your mind," he said.

Ferrare's advice -- to those who haven't truly shut the door on a possible move: "Do not comment at all. That's the safest."

 

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