Gordon Gee was—and still is—a bona fide celebrity at Ohio State. From his his bow ties and round glasses, to his off-the-cuff manner and comfort with crowds, Gee is an accomplished self-promoter, and has leveraged his fame to not only become a tremendous fundraiser, but to become adored by many in the Buckeye state. For all his skill, Gee’s recent nudge from the president’s office was a self-inflicted affair reflective of a career that became known more for gaffes than achievements.
Gee is a man of competing concepts. He abstains from alcohol as part of his faith, but he attended OSU social events (including Greek and dorm parties) regularly. He’s an outsider from Utah (schooled in Utah and New York), who was accepted almost unabashedly as a transplanted Ohioan. And despite the transplant, he left OSU, yet was still admired enough to be rehired. He reignited the core Columbus campus with a spate of land buys and construction, yet traveled the state and the school’s other campuses enough to be seen as an advocate for all of Ohio.
His CV might suggest a nebbish scholar, but he’s best used in emptying donors’ pockets and aiding OSU’s—he seems most comfortable spotlit as a charismatic, driven figure , as his success in a current $2.5 billion campaign suggests. Finally his public persona is warm and caring, yet his most controversial actions are seen by many as calculating, self-serving, even heartless. One striking example, if true, is his ex-wife, Constance Gee. She claims Gordon divorced her at the behest of Vanderbilt trustees, who threatened their then-president with termination if he didn’t distance himself from Constance’s publicly-exposed use of medicinal marijuana.
Gee holds the dubious honor of creating controversies of some sort at each of the five institutes he’s helmed, whether the Vanderbilt scandal, his corporate-style revamping of (and sudden departure from) Brown, allegations of sexist comments at Colorado—even his stint at WVU had a hint of the unusual, as he was bit of wunderkind having taken the post at the age of 37. The past three years brought heaps of criticism that, hard to believe, relates most to his handling of the Buckeyes’ football team—the same team that exited a cheating scandal by hiring an upgrade over their fired BCS Championship leader.
He was also a man who learned from his mistakes, only to create new ones, and sometimes come full-circle on old problems. Most tellingly, Gee keeps a list of the one-liners and comments that’ve caused him the most trouble in public, and it’s quite a list: calling a sitting governor a “dummy,” making a Polish joke, and his “Little Sisters of the Poor” quip are some notables. Despite having so many learning experiences, the cause of his departure has been a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes, beginning with an ill-advised quip on Jim Tressel’s importance (made during the midst of an NCAA investigation), and now concluding with jabs at Catholics and Southerners. It seemed Gee thought himself immune to recriminations for his stand-up routine, or perhaps had little self-control over his own mouth, though both are hard to fathom for a man of his experience and position.
He also continued his methods of changing the university climate, which to many faculty and alumni tarnished the university. Tuition and fees were raised and lowered in see-saw fashion, and much of the university’s parking space was leased to QIC, a private firm in Australia, for 50 years and $483 million. Raising the ire of landlords and students alike was his plan to build more student housing for second-year students, which would pull them out of the city and suburbs and into the ever-growing main campus. He also oversaw a curriculum that gradually pushed more teaching responsibilities on GTAs whose stipends were lower than those of peer institutions. Since most of these changes occurred during the recession, opinion was split on whether Gee was pointing OSU in a sensible direction, or merely taking advantage of circumstance in implementing his vision.
There was also an inevitable element of timing that likely hastened Gee’s ouster. Gee’s return to OSU was fortuitous—his second term followed the resignation of Karen Holbrook. Holbrook was in many ways about as different from Gee as two presidents of the same school could be. A biologist who steadily worked her way up the career ladder (without incident) to the provost’s spot at UGA, Holbrook had few of Gee’s concerns. While her academic progression plan was established in part by Gee, she was the first to honestly carry it out, and she did so through consensus-building and collaboration. She also ended the school’s policy of open admission for Ohio residents, which drastically changed the campus’ student culture.
Both Gee and Holbrook were respected as fundraisers, though Holbrook took a patently academic route, as her big successes were with federal research entities, not alums and friends of the school. In the eyes of many, OSU’s first female president was most concerned with tamping down the Buckeyes’ football culture, particularly boozing and tailgating. I find it hard to fault her much in this regard—she had barely settled in when OSU’s 2002 victory over Michigan erupted into the school’s largest-ever riot. And this is coming from a school with a reputation of rioting for no particular reason. On one trip to Columbus, I remember seeing copies of The Lantern, the student newspaper, with front page shots of street riot. Many of the participants were captioned with requests for identification tips.
In fact, Holbrook’s resignation letter mentions football only in that the sport (along with things like “random warm spring weekends”) was a cause of riots, and that this had been tamed under her watch. OSU also won a national title on its way back to dominance under her, though this gets no mention, as tangential as her participation might’ve been. Worsening her perception in the eyes of Buckeye fans was when portions of a later interview with USF were made public, particularly her stinging comments on rioting at OSU.
It’s been six years since Gee took over for Holbrook, and among the faithful, memories of the bad old days aren’t nearly as strong, and perhaps even forgotten. Since then the inevitable divide of “academics vs. athletes” has gradually worsened. You can see it in the message board posts and hear it in conversations among fans. The tone of conversation has moved to a different point most recently, with OSU supporters seeing the entire institution’s value as being sullied by Gee’s remarks and the mishaps that occurred under his watch.
Perhaps most important is that the university seems to be a perpetual motion machine when it comes to fundraising and major sports. The upshot is that the sense of gratitude towards Gee has diminished, as has the need for him. In the eyes of the trustees, it seems the aging president could only screw up the good thing they had going: he wasn’t a bad leader or even a bad person, just an embarrassing and erratic one.
Rightly or wrongly, they think he can be easily replaced—easily enough to warrant a carrot-and-stick expulsion from his post. The carrot was a generously compensated “President Emeritus” role that would ask him to still raise money and hobnob with elites; the stick was publicly chastising him with a letter of rebuke that promised stern consequences for future errors made during his presidency, and a demand that he essentially enroll himself in a supervised etiquette program. My guess is that any replacement will come without Gee’s public missteps, yet lack the star-power that was so critical to Gee’s fundraising abilities. Unless of course they fellow Maurice Clarett’s advice and hire Jim Tressel to take the post.