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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — He showed up Tuesday fittingly attired — right down to a newly purchased bow tie to augment the hundreds he owns, but the only one with West Virginia University’s blue-and-gold colors.
Speaking to reporters and to well-wishers welcoming him back to campus, E. Gordon Gee, 69, said rather than be a caretaker president, he would work to ensure the 33,000-student research university continues its forward push as the state’s “singularly important institution.”
And he pledged he would try to remember during his temporary tenure something he did not fully grasp at 36, the first time he became WVU’s president more than three decades ago.
“The power of the university is that we are one university, that we are not a collection of colleges connected by a heating plant,” he said. “You just don’t have a health sciences center and you have a college of arts and sciences and you have college of engineering.”
He said WVU’s real strength is in “its size and its scope and the integration of ideas and opportunities.”
Mr. Gee, one of U.S. higher education’s most colorful figures and president emeritus of Ohio State University, was reintroduced to the campus that launched his career as a university president. In less than a month, he begins a temporary stint as president while WVU looks for a permanent successor to Jim Clements, who has announced he will leave at year-end to head Clemson University.
Mr. Gee seemed right at home in the Erickson Alumni Center as he accepted applause at a campuswide reception preceded by a news conference. Wearing a blue jacket and v-neck sweater, he donned a WVU ball cap — a gift he received at the news conference — and seemed to relish the limelight as news photographers captured the moment.
Introduced by trustees’ Chairman Jim Dailey II, Mr. Gee said he was grateful “for the opportunity I have to return to a place that I love and a place that I appreciate. But I most importantly want to thank the people of West Virginia. At age 36, they gave me an opportunity to have an extraordinary life.”
He pledged to work with faculty and spoke of land-grant universities such as WVU in “opening the door to the American dream to everyone.” WVU, he said, is “a singularly important institution in a very significant time in this state. And I am grateful that I will be here to be a part of that.”
He said he’s coming to a place with “a tremendous amount of institutional momentum, has found its place in the world, has a nobility about it.”
But he said such status is not necessarily measured in Nobel prizes. “Someone asked me … ‘Would you like to find people who are going to win Nobel Prizes?’ Obviously,” he said. “But I think that Nobel prizes are not the greatness of an institution. What is the greatness of an institution is its people and their belief in the place.”
Mr. Gee was named Friday to the $450,000 post. He will be president as of Jan. 6. His official title will be “president,” not “interim president.” It’s a distinction he said he requested: “It’s very important to be engaged in decision-making.”
He is taking an unpaid leave from Ohio State, where he remains a faculty member.
This will be Mr. Gee’s seventh presidency. He twice led Ohio State, from 1990-1997 and from 2007-July. He also led Vanderbilt University, 2000-2007; Brown University, 1998-2000; the University of Colorado, 1985-1990, and WVU, 1981-1985. Before that, he was dean of WVU’s college of law.
Earlier this year, his stint at OSU ended abruptly when he announced his retirement amid controversy over remarks that included comments about Catholics.
On Friday, Mr. Gee told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I did apologize … I think it’s all part of the process of 33 years of learning from one’s own mistakes.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Dailey noted Mr. Gee’s mark in higher education as he introduced him and said he was struck by the man’s enthusiasm. “We’re blessed to bring back that knowledge, that experience, that dedication,” Mr. Dailey said.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill Schackner is a reporter at the Post-Gazette.
Contact Bill Schackner at: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.