For years, Ohio State University trustees applauded E. Gordon Gee’s every move as he deftly led one of the largest public universities in the country. Decked out daily in bow ties, argyle socks and suspenders, Gee charmed students, alumni, lawmakers and others with his quick wit and knack for getting a laugh from any audience.
But that same humor landed him in trouble again and again, causing image-minded OSU trustees to cringe. Gee’s cracks about Polish Americans and the Little Sisters of the Poor and a quip that the head football coach had the power to fire the university president landed with thuds.
Former insiders at Ohio State say Gee’s penchant for lavish parties, luxury housing and first class travel was not a problem for trustees, who essentially beckoned Gee back to Columbus with a lucrative contract and a generous expense account. “All of that is something that comes with Gordon. It was the case the first time he was here. These are not unknown pieces of his character,” said Ted Celeste, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Columbus who served as an OSU trustee 1990 to 1999.
Instead, the verbal blunders began to chip away at the once solid support that trustees had long extended to him. After his Dec. 5 riff on a multitude of targets, some religious in nature, word got back to the trustees that Gee had done it again.
In a 25-minute span, Gee managed to disparage Catholics, priests at the University of Notre Dame, the academic quality of the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky and the basic reading and writing abilities of the entire Southeastern Conference. More than 20 people heard Gee’s remarks to the Athletics Council, which was recorded.
The 19-member OSU board, which is stocked with heavyweights such as retailers, a sports commentator, a federal judge and property developers, learned of the remarks at the end of January. By March 11, they put limits on Gee, telling him to carefully pick public speaking engagements, hire a communications coach and issue apologies to those he has offended.
Another poorly worded, offensive comment “could constitute cause for even more punitive action, including dismissal, and the Board will have no choice but to take such action,” the sharply worded three-page plan said.
It was an extraordinary rebuke about a man who, just last November, was called “one of the most accomplished leaders in higher education” by Trustee Alex Shumate at a board meeting in which Gee was given a raise and bonus.
“Our football team is 10-0. We want to be 10-0 in everything and you are helping to make it happen, Gordon,” Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Schottenstein said at the meeting.
Gee has had other quick good-byes in a career that has seen him lead five universities since 1981.
He was serving as chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 2006 when the Wall Street Journal published a front page story about a multi-million dollar renovation of the president’s mansion, an exorbitant entertainment budget and Gee’s then wife smoking marijuana there.
According to Constance Bumgarner Gee’s memoir, published last fall, Gee saw it as “an assassination attempt” instigated by a handful of Vanderbilt trustees. According to the memoir, Gee’s “old pals” Jack Kessler and Lex Wexner called him immediately after the Journal story and asked ‘Why didn’t he come back to where he was loved?’”
Gee soon left Vanderbilt — and his wife, whom he was divorcing at the time — and returned to Columbus for a celebrated homecoming.
Under Gee’s leadership, Ohio State has seen a 25 percent increase in new grants and contracts for research projects, opened offices in China, India and Brazil, seen the average ACT score for incoming freshmen climb to an all-time high of 28, kept a $1 billion medical center expansion on budget and on time and raised more than $1.5 billion of a $2.5 billion fundraising goal.
As president of Ohio State, Gee oversees a complex institution with a $5 billion budget, 65,000 students, 40,000 employees and 500,000 alumni.
Still, his second stint at the place “where he was loved,” has included a number of controversies, some related to the university’s treasured football program.
In December 2011, the NCAA imposed a post-season ban on the program over a scandal involving 14 players accepting improper benefits and head coach Jim Tressel keeping quiet about it. Tressel resigned under pressure in May 2011.
Last fall, an investigation by this newspaper documented that Gee had spent $7.7 million on since October 2007 on housing, travel, entertaining and other discretionary spending and that he failed to report more than $150,000 in travel on his state financial disclosure statements.
Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said the problems began to mount for Gee, who was “getting to be kind of a high-risk guy.”
“I think diminishing returns sets in on a presidency,” Vedder said. “The typical president lasts six or seven years.”
Insiders say the verbal gaffes grated on trustees, who publicly have heaped only praise on their outgoing president. But the remediation plan was a signal, said one insider, that Gee’s relationship with the board was deteriorating.
The March 11 letter, signed by Schottenstein and Shumate, essentially told the 69-year-old Gee to get with the times. “As the leader of a preeminent 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 what we are and aspire to be as a university,” the letter stated.
Gee’s remarks about Catholics and Notre Dame, along with the board’s sharp rebuke, remained quiet until May when the Associated Press made a public records request and broke the story. Within days it became clear this wasn’t a storm that would quickly blow over. What had been a quiet personnel matter had turned viral, and Gee was now a national punchline and lightning rod for criticism.
Rick Pitino, the coach of the national champion Louisville Cardinal basketball team, called Gee a “pompous ass.”
Gee said in a press conference Wednesday that the turbulence over his comments triggered self-reflection, which led him to conclude that he’d like more time with his “significant other” in California and with his 7-month-old identical twin granddaughters and that it was time to move on to the next phase in life.
JoAnn Davidson, former speaker of the Ohio House and an OSU trustee from 2001 to 2010, said she takes him at his word.
“This is a grueling job, as you know, at Ohio State, which means you have very little time to do most anything…I don’t know how Gordon has done it. I think frankly he wants to spend more time with family. Now that he has twin granddaughters it gives him that kind of an opportunity,” Davidson said.
At Gee’s final board meeting as president on Friday, three trustees concluded their comments to him with the words “we love you.” U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley said Buckeye Nation would miss his leadership, passion and “larger than life personality.”
After more than 30 minutes of glowing remarks, Gee cracked, “Thank you, now I know how a funeral feels.” In seriousness, though, he said Ohio State has been a constant in his life, especially during times of profound personal loss — the death of his first wife and the moped accident that killed his son-in-law and severely injured his only daughter. And he said Ohio State is a land grant university with a global mission with a reach from rural Ohio to rural India.
“I’m not a victory lap guy,” Gee said of his sudden announcement to retire. “I have had more transition than any guy in America. And the last thing I want to do is be queen for a day. I want to move on. I want the university to move on. And I want to be able to do what I do at the university next in a way that really makes sense to me.”
Facing reporters after the meeting, Schottenstein refused to comment on Gee’s severance package, saying the details will be worked out and then released.
“The love for this man and the respect for this man and the honor for this man is genuine,” he said. When asked if he doesn’t want Gee to leave, Schottenstein replied: “We wish him very well. We love him and we’ll miss him.”
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