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Published: Saturday, 7/14/2007

1-hour phone call led Gee back to OSU

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - E. Gordon Gee said it was a one-hour phone conversation with Ohio higher education Chancellor Eric Fingerhut that served as the "watershed moment'' in his decision to return as president of Ohio State University.

Ohio's first cabinet-level chancellor convinced the highly paid Vanderbilt University leader that state government had truly come around in terms of prioritizing higher education.

"In that hour, I had never heard from the leadership of this state what I heard from him ...,'' he said. "I spent seven years, not in the wilderness, but really in an adversarial role with state government, even though I had many friends there.

"It was roads, it was sewers, it was prisons, and then it was universities,'' he said. "We just weren't their priority.''

After half a decade of low-to-moderate increased funding for colleges and universities, Ohio's Democratic governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly nearly unanimously enacted a two-year, $52.3 billion budget last month that dramatically boosts funding for colleges, student scholarships, and research recruitment.

"It's about time,'' Mr. Gee said.

Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) pointed to Mr. Gee's recruitment as proof the investment is paying off.

"We've made a concerted effort to reverse the 'brain drain' in Ohio,'' he said. "It appears it is already working.''

A 63-year-old Utah native who boasts of owning more than 900 bow ties, Mr. Gee has agreed to a seven-year tentative contract worth potentially $1 million a year. That's nearly double the total compensation of $562,031 his predecessor, Karen Holbrook, was paid, but well below the estimated $1.3 million he earns at the private Vanderbilt. He was paid $231,012 in base salary in 1997, the end of his first seven-year stint as OSU president.

Ohio State's search committee aggressively went after Mr. Gee.

"We discovered that Chancellor Gee is a more seasoned and more mature leader, an incredibly successful university president,'' said Trustee Alex Shumate, search committee chairman. "He is committed to the power of public education and he continues to prove that he's the consummate fund-raiser.''

Mr. Gee hinted at an upcoming $2.5 billion fund-raising campaign announcement: "Open your wallets,'' he said. "No wallet is safe in this state.''

In addition to a major professional change, Mr. Gee is going through personal changes. He is divorcing his wife of 23 years.

Constance Gee, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt, was reprimanded by the Vanderbilt Board of Trust when the Wall Street Journal reported that she had smoked marijuana in the chancellor's mansion, reportedly for an inner-ear ailment.

The article also questioned the Gees' spending practices, including $6 million in renovations made to the Vanderbilt-owned chancellor's mansion.

"She and I are engaging in a very civilized dissolution of our marriage,'' Mr. Gee said. "Constance and I are classic cases of being victims of public life. When one lives in this glass house , you try to develop your private life or public life - sometimes it suffers.

"The truth of the matter is, I am a very devout Mormon," he said. "I've joked about the fact that I've been living in a polygamist relationship. One of the two members of the relationship is Constance and the other is Vanderbilt.''

He characterized the investigative stories as a "five-month colonoscopy.''

"I am probably one of the most scrutinized guys in America,'' he said. "I was the highest-paid university president in the country. I knew the opportunity was going to come for me to have something like that happen.

"Obviously, [the report] had a few things in there that I was not necessarily happy about, but they did point out that the house did need to be renovated,'' he said. "It was in total disrepair.

"I raised $1.5 billion dollars [in fund-raising] on a $6 million home,'' he said. "That was a pretty good investment. The three days after the Wall Street Journal report were the three highest days in the history of fund-raising at Vanderbilt University. Our people supported us.''

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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