Leadership & Governance

Gordon Gee, Ohio State's Gaffe-Prone President, Will Retire

Ty Wright for The Chronicle

E. Gordon Gee: "I live in turbulent times, and I've had a lot of headwinds, and at almost every occasion I have just moved on."
June 04, 2013

E. Gordon Gee, who is known as much for the foot in his mouth as the bow tie on his neck, is calling it quits as president of Ohio State University.

Mr. Gee, 69, has been under fire since last week, when jokes he made at the expense of Roman Catholics and other universities were made public by the Associated Press. The president has apologized for his remarks, including the assertion that the University of Notre Dame had never been invited to join the Big Ten Conference because "those damn Catholics" cannot be trusted.

Mr. Gee made the comments at a December meeting of the Ohio State Athletic Council. The AP obtained a recording of the meeting through a public-records request.

In a news conference held with reporters by telephone on Tuesday, Mr. Gee acknowledged the "turbulence" surrounding him at the moment but played down the notion that the recent controversy was what had finally sent him packing.

"I live in turbulent times, and I've had a lot of headwinds, and at almost every occasion I have just moved on," he said. "But remember, I am 69 years of age, and I had been thinking about a transition for some time. In fairness, turbulence does bring about focused conversation with family."

Mr. Gee has spent nearly half his life as a college president. His first presidency began in 1981, at West Virginia University. He subsequently led the University of Colorado system, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, and Ohio State, where he served from 1990 through 1997 before returning for another term in 2007.

Ohio State's Board of Trustees has routinely come to the defense of Mr. Gee, whose high pay, big spending, and frequent verbal gaffes often make national news. But something changed with this latest episode. In a letter to the president dated March 11, about a month after trustees were notified of Mr. Gee's most recent controversial remarks, board members warned that one more slip of the tongue could lead to the president's dismissal.

Robert H. Schottenstein, chairman of the board, said on Tuesday that the trustees felt the letter was "required." But he heaped praise on Mr. Gee and repeatedly called him a "transformational" leader.

"This decision today stands on its own," Mr. Schottenstein told reporters. "This decision today is not about that letter, and it's not about dwindling board support."

Mr. Gee's decision to step down on July 1, rather than wait for a successor to be named or even allow a national search for a new president to take shape, is abrupt for a president leaving of his own accord. The departing president, who described himself as "quirky as hell" and unbound by traditional practices, said he wanted to avoid the long transitions common to higher education.

"I've only got a month to ruin the university," he quipped. "I gotta get at it."

Gaffe Machine

Among those who have worked with him closely, Mr. Gee is often described as a hyper-focused chief executive whose eccentric appearance and giggly demeanor betray his abilities.

"Because of his personality, people sometimes underestimate his intellectual firepower," Alex Shumate, a member of Ohio State's board, told The Chronicle last fall.

Mr. Shumate, a lawyer, played a critical role in luring Mr. Gee back to Ohio State from Vanderbilt. The courtship began during a secret meeting at the home of Mr. Shumate, who was chairman of the presidential-search committee at the time.

"I said, 'Ohio State is a very different place than when you were president here,'" Mr. Shumate recalled. "I never will forget what he said. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I'm a very different president. I'm better.'"

By the time Mr. Gee returned to Ohio State, some of his most memorable controversies were behind him. A 2006 Wall Street Journal investigation detailed efforts by Vanderbilt trustees to rein in Mr. Gee's spending, and also carried the revelation that Constance B. Gee, Mr. Gee's wife at the time and a professor at Vanderbilt, had used marijuana in the president's mansion.

Constance Gee said she had taken the drug to treat a rare inner-ear condition. She recounts the controversy in a recently published tell-all book, Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion.

By hiring Mr. Gee away from a private institution, where he was paid handsomely, Ohio State changed the landscape of compensation for public­-college presidents. In 2007-8, Mr. Gee earned $1.3-million, making him the first public-college leader to cross the million-dollar threshold in The Chronicle's annual analysis of presidential pay.

In The Chronicle's most recent analysis, which covered 2011-12, Mr. Gee earned $1.9-million, and he was joined by three other presidents who also received more than $1-million.

Mr. Gee's pay made him an easy target when controversies arose, and he started no few of them on his own. In off-the-cuff remarks in recent years, he has:

  • Compared the job of coordinating the university's several divisions to managing the Polish army.
  • Referred to colleges in less-prestigious athletics conferences as "the Little Sisters of the Poor," saying he had unwittingly disparaged a small group of nuns.
  • Joked that Jim Tressel, Ohio State's football coach then accused of covering up improper payments to players, might fire the president, rather than the other way around.

Most recently Mr. Gee said of Notre Dame's leaders that "the fathers are holy on Sunday, and they're holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday."

He went on to suggest that institutions in other athletics conferences, such as the University of Kentucky, in the Southeastern Conference, and the University of Louisville, in the Big East, would not be added to the Big Ten, because they lacked "academic integrity." Both of Mr. Gee's lines drew laughter from the crowd, the AP reported.

Rock-Star Status

Few if any presidents of large research institutions have a rapport with students like Mr. Gee, who is treated as a rock star on the streets of Columbus.

Although he is a Mormon who does not drink alcohol, Mr. Gee is known to pop in at local bars on weekends to glad-hand with students. They pursue him with camera-phones like crazed paparazzi.

Taylour Hoyt, an Ohio State senior who invited Mr. Gee to her 21st-birthday party last October, said in an e-mail on Tuesday that she was "devastated" to hear the president was stepping down. Ms. Hoyt added that she would be incredibly disappointed if Mr. Gee had been pressured to resign.

"I will always remember and appreciate the effort President Gee made to make my birthday a special one," she wrote. "And speaking for other students that have had the same experiences and opportunities, I hope he knows how thankful we are to have known such a personable, friendly, and spirited president."

"It will not be the same experience," she added, "knowing I could not finish my journey as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University without President Gee."

The very traits that often got Mr. Gee into hot water publicly endeared him to students, who described him as genuine.

It could be argued that Mr. Gee's story suggests college presidents should just keep their mouths shut, but Mr. Gee said that his decades in higher education proved that "humor is a sustaining force."

"I have regrets when I have said things that I shouldn't have said," Mr. Gee said. "But I have no regrets about having a sense of humor, and having a thick skin and enjoying life. There has not been one morning I haven't woken up, including this morning, in which I haven't taken great joy."

Correction (6/5/2013, 11:06 a.m.): This article originally misstated which athletic conference the University of Louisville is in. It belongs to the Big East, not the Southeastern Conference. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.