E. Gordon Gee didn’t sound like a man who was thinking about retiring.
When I met with the president of Ohio State University during his visit to Toledo last month, he was characteristically ebullient. The week before, the university had scored the public relations coup of hosting President Obama as its commencement speaker.
Mr. Gee talked with enthusiasm about a variety of university initiatives: the new semester system, an overseas-study program, expanded internship opportunities, incentives to encourage freshmen and sophomores to live on campus. He was excited about what would happen next at Ohio State.
“We’re seeing a fundamental change of the university — we’re losing weight and gaining muscle,” he told me. “I’ve been [a university president] for 33 years, and I still feel privileged to be doing what I’m doing.”
We all know what’s happened since then. At a meeting last December of Ohio State’s Athletic Council, Mr. Gee cast aspersions on “damn Catholics” at Notre Dame and the literacy levels of public universities down South. After those comments became public in recent weeks, the president decided — evidently with help from OSU’s trustees and other university power brokers — that he will step down on July 1.
I won’t try to defend Mr. Gee’s dumb attempts at supposed humor. But his tenure at Ohio’s flagship public university deserves to be remembered for much more than the circumstances of his departure.
Mr. Gee was very good at what he did; his designation by Time magazine in 2010 as America’s best college president is just one example of the respect he earned. The state of Ohio is better off because of his work during his 13 years at the university’s helm.
Ohio State ranks among the best American public universities; its teaching hospital enjoys similar distinction. Its graduation rate is at an all-time high, well above the national average.
The university’s rates of student-loan debt and defaults are relatively low. Mr. Gee has worked hard and well to diversify the OSU student body, often in the face of political resistance to affirmative action.
Like other successful university presidents, public and private, Mr. Gee has been a master fund-raiser. Ohio State’s endowment approaches $2.4 billion, and it gets a ton of private research money. But unlike counterparts who have sought to impose a corporate model on their universities, Mr. Gee hasn’t shoved academic concerns into the background.
President Gee’s abrupt departure will force the Ohio State community to decide quickly what it wants in his successor. But that issue resonates beyond the Columbus campus, because as Mr. Gee noted: “Every corner of the state has OSU initiatives.”
The identity of the OSU president is important to all Ohioans, because the university dominates Ohio’s system of public higher education. No disrespect to the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University, which are vital elements of that system, but that’s the way it is and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
And that’s why the search process for Ohio State’s new leader needs to be as inclusive and transparent as it can be. Every step, from the solicitation and winnowing-out of presidential candidates, to the interviews with the finalists, to the trustees’ vote, should be public. (Based on our previous conversations, I suspect Mr. Gee would disagree with me about this.)
The next president’s salary is likely to become an issue during the search, just as Mr. Gee’s pay package of nearly $2 million a year has been a source of resentment — both sincere and manufactured — among some Ohioans.
But Mr. Gee has delivered a lot more value for money than many chief executives of private corporations who are paid even more. The university should be prepared to pay what it has to for the president it wants; this is no time for false economy.
The presidential search also offers the opportunity for Ohio State to review the role of its athletic program, and whether it needs to be limited. It seems that whenever Mr. Gee’s off-the-cuff pronouncements got him into trouble, it had something to do with sports.
That occurred not only with the gaffe that preceded his resignation, but also with his previous comments about the athletes’-memorabilia-for-cash scandal that former football coach Jim Tressel helped to cover up (“I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me”), and Mr. Gee’s loose talk about the Little Sisters of the Poor — although he redeemed himself by visiting the religious order’s home in Oregon to apologize.
During our conversation last month, Mr. Gee insisted that “the athletic program is not broken.” But as much as alumni and other denizens of Buckeye Nation love OSU sports, the question of whether a place for the university in a top football bowl game or the men’s basketball Final Four is worth the price paid to achieve it needs to be engaged urgently. This is as good a time as any.
I consider Mr. Gee to be Ohio’s most accomplished politician, and that’s not an insult or a joke. He has worked productively with elected officials of both parties to benefit his institution. That’s why the Democratic President came to campus to speak at graduation.
At the same time, Republican Gov. John Kasich recruited Mr. Gee to lead efforts aimed at linking state higher-education aid to improved graduation rates at all of Ohio’s public universities and community colleges, and at reducing the money-wasting competition among universities for capital funding. These are critical initiatives.
Less positively, Mr. Gee also serves on the board of JobsOhio, the Kasich administration’s hyper-secretive economic development corporation. But overall, Ohio State will do well to find another president with Mr. Gee’s political savvy.
It may be a good thing for both the 69-year-old Mr. Gee and Ohio State that he is going to do something else at the university now. But before his detractors stage too elaborate a victory dance, let’s see how his successor performs.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.