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President Gee's Last Gaffe

June 5, 2013

July 1, 2013 will be a momentous day in higher education. It will be the first day since 1981 that E. Gordon Gee will not be a university president.

Gee, one of the country’s most prominent higher education leaders, a six-time university chief and current president of Ohio State University, announced Tuesday that he would retire as president at the end of the month, likely bringing to an end a long career in higher education management.

”By any measure, Gordon has been a transformational leader for Ohio State,” the university's board chairman, Robert H. Schottenstein, said in a statement Tuesday. “His service to Ohio State has been superb. This man has been an inspiration to many people, including me, and we all are forever grateful for his friendship. His thoughtful and unique leadership style has taken the University to new levels.”

The retirement comes immediately in the wake of a controversy over a recording of an Ohio State athletics council meeting in December in which Gee made disparaging remarks about the University of Notre Dame and Roman Catholics, said the Big 10 was "is worth more money than God,” and conveyed other gossip about the conference. A letter from the trustees to Gee obtained by the Associated Press called on Gee – who has a history of gaffes and controversial statements – to refrain from making controversial statements in the future. "Should future instances take place, they could constitute cause for even more punitive action, including dismissal,” the letter stated.

On a call with reporters Tuesday, Gee and Schottenstein repeatedly stated that Gee’s retirement was not tied to the controversy over his comments, despite the timing and the unusually short window between his announcement and his last day. Instead, Gee said he decided to retire after a vacation with his family this past week. “I have apologized for those statements, and I am incredibly sorry for those statements,” Gee said when asked about whether the furor over the remarks played into his decision. “But I have moved on, I really have moved on. Those statements played very little into my own decision other than the fact that I live in a turbulent world.”

“I’m 69 years of age, so I’ve been thinking about transition for some time,” Gee said later in the call. “As I’ve said, I live in a world of turbulence. In fairness, turbulence does bring about a focused conversation with family.”

Regardless of the motivation for his retirement, Gee will likely leave a significant legacy in higher education, both on the campuses he ran and in the sector as a whole. At Ohio State, he has been a prolific fund-raiser, attracted top talent to work with him and generally reworked the financial model to keep costs to students and families down.

"Few leaders in the past 25 years have had such a profound impact on American higher education as E. Gordon Gee," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, in a statement released Tuesday. "He is an iconic leader, unparalleled in skills and widely respected among presidents, chancellors, policy makers and business leaders at both the state and federal levels. He has left an indelible mark on each institution he has served, and during two tenures spanning 13 years exceeded every measure at The Ohio State University."

Gee's leadership style, which involves a charismatic demeanor, engagement with students and a high profile around campus and in his state, can be seen in other presidents such as New York University President John Sexton. Gee’s penchant for speaking freely, while it has occasionally gotten him in trouble, likely helped him more than it hurt him, he said. “I’ve been at this for 30 years, so if anything I can say that humor is a sustaining force,” Gee said in response to a question about whether his experience should serve as a warning to others.

But Gee's retirement does underscore the precarious position of public university presidents these days. He joins several other university presidents who have resigned in the past few years amid, if not because of, scandals. In the past two years alone, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Oregon and the Louisiana State University system have all named new leaders in the wake of controversies.

Remark-able Retirement

Despite Gee and Shottenstein’s protestations, it’s hard to dismiss the notion that there is a connection between the controversial statements and Gee’s retirement. Most retiring presidents give their boards time to select a successor. Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, who is stepping down this month, informed her board in September. Holden Thorp, who will step down as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on July 1, also informed his board in September.

While Gee has faced criticism over verbal gaffes in the past, there is a sense that this time was different, or at least a final straw. The board's letter to Gee called on him to engage a coach who could help him "facilitate and foster a healthy, open and diverse twenty-first century higher education institution," better select his public speaking engagements and find communications professionals who could help with his speech writing process and communication strategy.

"There have been occasions on which your comments were insensitive and inappropriate and have offended others," the letter states. "As a result, instead of your words promoting and uniting us, they have sometimes embarrassed and divided us. As the leader of a pre-eminent higher education institution in the twenty-first century, those inappropriate comments, particularly about certain groups or classes of people as a whole, do not align with what we know you believe and with what we are and aspire to be as a university."

But Gee, at 69, is in the sixth year (of his second term) as president of Ohio State, close to the average length of service of a public university president these days, so it’s not inconceivable that he’s stepping down for reasons other than or in addition to his recent statements, and that he’s the victim of bad timing. His contract grants him significant deferred compensation for serving more than five years, an obligation he has met.

Gee has also survived controversial statements before, as well as an athletics scandal, and to many the current controversy doesn’t seem any worse than what he has dealt with in the past. When he has run into controversy in previous positions, such as faculty pushback during his tenure at Brown University, he has simply left for other presidencies. Given his track record of leadership, the desire for experienced administrators and the rapid turnover of university presidents, there’s a good chance that, if Gee wanted another presidency, someone would hire him.

On the question of timing, Gee said that if he “had more common sense” he would have made his decision sooner. He said he hadn’t been thinking about the issue but that the recent statements, a cruise with his family and an impending strategic planning process beginning this week forced him to evaluate his situation.

Gee said a long transition would deflate the institution’s momentum. “I’ve been through more transitions than anyone in this business,” Gee said. “I hate that in this business it’s a ‘the king is dead, long live the king.’ Long transitions are a pain to everyone, particularly yourself.”

He also said Joseph A. Alutto, the university’s executive vice president and provost, was on the verge of taking a different interim job. Calling Alutto the “architect” of the upcoming planning process, Gee said wanting to keep Alutto involved also forced the timing of his decision. Neither Gee nor Alutto would say what the job was, but they noted that it was an interim position and not a university presidency.

End of a Long Road

When Gee left Vanderbilt University to go back to Ohio State in 2007 – after previously serving as president there from 1990-97 – it was widely speculated that it would be Gee’s last presidency. The move was an unusual one, particularly because Gee was moving from a private university to a public, where presidents must deal with state politics, more pressure on athletics and open records laws. Public universities also rarely have the resources to compensate a president on the same level as their private counterparts.

“I am following my heart and returning to a place that I consider my home,” Gee said at the time. “My decision is that simple and that complex."

Gee entered his first presidency, at West Virginia University, at age 37, just two years after he became dean of the university’s law school. After four years there, he moved on to become president at the University of Colorado. Then came his first stint as president of Ohio State, followed by the top jobs at Brown and Vanderbilt before returning to Ohio State.

At Vanderbilt and Ohio State, he was regularly one of the highest-compensated presidents in the country.

Outside his own campuses, Gee has been a prominent force in higher education. He chairs the American Council on Education’s Commission on Higher Education Attainment and is co-chair of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Energy Advisory Committee. He is a regular participant in the ACE Fellows program, in which administrators serve as mentors to aspiring leaders. The administrators he mentored include several university presidents as well as current ACT, Inc. Chief Executive Jon Whitmore and Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Schottenstein said Gee’s quick departure will not leave Ohio State “in a precarious position.” He said he had confidence in Alutto to manage the university until a permanent president is selected. Alutto previously served as interim president in 2007.

On the call with reporters, Gee said he has “no expectation to do anything other than continue with the university” as a faculty member. But given his track record, it’s hard not to wonder whether Gee will be content in that role.

 

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