COLUMBUS - E. Gordon Gee was not only back yesterday as the next president of Ohio State University, but he was already inviting himself to student parties.
"I am home," he said after the university's board of trustees voted unanimously to offer the bow-tied, rapid-speaking Vanderbilt University chancellor a seven-year contract worth potentially $1 million a year to return to Columbus.
Occasionally fighting back tears, the 63-year-old devout Mormon from Vernal, Utah, cited the Biblical story of the "Prodigal Son."
"I am that son," he said. "I left. I experienced the world. I made my way in a different way and in a different time, but this place, this magnificent institution never forgot me, and now it has forgiven me and welcomed me home."
Board Chairman G. Gilbert Cloyd said Mr. Gee's contract is still evolving. But a draft of that contract calls for a base annual salary of $775,000. He would receive an additional $225,000 a year if he stays beyond five years.
That would put him among the highest-paid public university presidents. His pay would be nearly double the total compensation of $562,031 that his predecessor, Karen A. Holbrook, was earning, an amount considered generous among taxpayer-supported schools before the latest round of pay raises, deferred compensation packages, and signing bonuses for higher-education chief executives.
His Ohio State paycheck, however, would still be below the roughly $1.3 million he is earning at Vanderbilt, among the biggest paychecks at any university. In his last year at Ohio State in 1997, Mr. Gee's base salary was $231,012.
Mr. Gee will have the distinction of having served as Ohio State's 11th and 14th president. But he emphasized that the university is not the school he left in 1997 for Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island, and that he returns a more mature and hopefully thoughtful academic leader,
"This is not Back to the Future. It is not Halloween II, and I do not intend to be the Grover Cleveland of university presidents," he said, referring to the only U.S. president to serve non-consecutive terms.
Mr. Gee's resignation with Vanderbilt will take effect Aug. 1, but the draft contract calls for his employment with OSU to begin three months later.
Trustee Douglas G. Borror was a member of the search committee that refused to take "no" for an answer from Mr. Gee. He said the committee asked itself whether Mr. Gee could truly go home again.
"As we talked to Gordon throughout this process, we realized that Gordon's enthusiasm, his leadership, his vision, and his goals for this university far outweigh any baggage that he may have with him," he said.
Mr. Gee said he was enticed by state government's renewed investment in higher education.
"This is Ohio State's time," he said. "This university, since 1990, has moved from good to excellent. ... I believe that, with the right decisions and the proper academic plan, the university is now poised to move from excellence from eminence."
The popular Mr. Gee enjoyed mostly smooth sailing for seven years at Vanderbilt after surviving rougher seas for two years at Brown.
"There was a lot of media focus on his leaving Brown, but he always expressed the view that Vanderbilt was a better match for him," said D. Catherine Fuchs, recent chair of the Vanderbilt Faculty Senate and an associate professor of psychiatry.
"I think it was a good match," she said. "He settled in, but he was in Ohio before. It's my sense that Gordon enjoys a challenge and chooses a job that he thinks he'll enjoy."
He had served as president of West Virginia University and the University of Colorado before he was Ohio State's president from 1990 to 1997.
Mr. Gee was recognized as a prodigious fund-raiser for Vanderbilt, something that brought the prestigious private university in Nashville unwanted media attention.
"There was a lot of attention last fall when a Wall Street Journal article focused on the chancellor's salary, spending, and the university endowment," said Bruce Barry, Vanderbilt's new Faculty Senate chair.
In reaction to questions about heavy spending on renovations to the president's mansion, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust toughened its oversight of Mr. Gee. Mr. Gee said he has asked Ohio State to do the same.
Mr. Gee also ruffled feathers when he eliminated Vanderbilt's athletics department as a separate entity and got rid of the athletic director position, a move that ultimately did not seem to hurt the performance of Vanderbilt teams on the field.
He said yesterday that Gene Smith, Ohio State's athletics director, has nothing to worry about.
"If I tried that at Ohio State, I'd be pumping gas in Vernal, Utah," he said.
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