COLUMBUS — Ohio State University’s top trustees say insensitive comments by the university president have embarrassed and divided the university.
The trustees say in a letter to president E. Gordon Gee that his comments risk diminishing the collective efforts of the university and of Mr. Gee’s own good work.
The March 11 letter was obtained Friday by the Associated Press.
It lays out several steps Gee must take following the revelation of remarks he made last year jabbing Notre Dame, Roman Catholics and the Southeastern Conference.
Those steps include issuing personal apologies and getting help from professionals to revisit Gee’s personal communications and speechwriting processes.
Trustee chairman Robert Schottenstein and trustee Alex Shumate, who led the search committee that hired Mr. Gee in 2007, also say Mr. Gee must reprioritize what speaking engagements he accepts.
Earlier Friday, Mr. Gee apologized in a statement for his remarks.
He said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten conference because the university’s priests are not good partners, joking that “those damn Catholics” can’t be trusted, according to a recording of a meeting he attended late last year.
Mr. Gee also took shots at schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville, according to the recording of the December meeting of the school’s Athletic Council that the Associated Press obtained under a public records request.
OSU called the statements inappropriate and said Mr. Gee is undergoing a “remediation plan” because of them.
Mr. Gee was on a long-planned family vacation and unavailable for comment, Ohio State spokesman Gayle Saunders said.
“The comments I made were just plain wrong, and in no way do they reflect what the university stands for,” Mr. Gee said in the statement. “They were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate. There is no excuse for this, and I am deeply sorry."
Mr. Gee, who has taken heat before for his remarks, told members of the council that he negotiated with Notre Dame officials during his first term at Ohio State, which began more than two decades ago.
“The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week,” he said to laughter at the Dec. 5 meeting attended by Athletic Director Gene Smith, several other athletic department members, professors, and students.
“You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that,” said Mr. Gee, a Mormon.
The Big Ten had for years courted Notre Dame, but the school resisted as it sought to retain its independent status in college football. In September, the school announced that it would join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football and hockey but would play five football games each year against ACC teams.
In the recording, Mr. Gee referred to the Rev. Ned Joyce, Notre Dame’s longtime executive vice president, who died in 2004. “Father Joyce was one of those people who ran the university for many, many years,” Mr. Gee said.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown called the remarks regrettable. He pointed out that Father Joyce had “served Notre Dame and collegiate athletics so well and for so long.”
Mr. Gee apologized to Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, and it was accepted, Mr. Brown said Thursday in an email.
Mr. Gee has been in trouble before for his offhand remarks, most recently during a memorabilia-for-cash and tattoos scandal that cost football coach Jim Tressel his job.
Mr. Tressel had known about charges that players were trading game paraphernalia for money and tattoos but didn’t tell the university in violation of his contract and NCAA regulations.
Mr. Gee was asked in March, 2011, whether he had considered firing the coach. “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me,” Mr. Gee said.
Mr. Tressel stepped down three months later.
In November, 2010, Mr. Gee boasted that Ohio State’s football schedule didn’t include teams on par with the “Little Sisters of the Poor.”
Mr. Gee later sent a personal check to the real Little Sisters of the Poor in northwest Ohio and visited the Sacred Heart Home in Oregon in August, 2011. Sister Cecilia Mary Sartorius, mother superior, told Mr. Gee that he had been forgiven.
The university president was escorted through the nursing home by Mother Cecilia, stepping into some of the residents’ rooms, visiting commons areas, and stopping to chat with people in the hallways. He met with Mother Cecilia for several minutes and then stepped to a lectern for a news conference.
He said his self-described “interesting comment” about the Little Sisters was among the top 10 gaffes he’s made in his life but that he was glad to have turned it into a positive opportunity by raising awareness of the sisters’ mission to help the poor and elderly.
He thanked Mother Cecilia for her graciousness and said that “sometimes out of inadvertent humor come great deeds.”
“After I made my unfortunate statement, she could have thrown me under the bus,” he said. “Instead she put me on her bus.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor was founded in France in 1886 and has 2,700 nuns with 30 homes for the aged in the United States, including three in Ohio, and 200 worldwide.
Last year, Mr. Gee apologized for comparing the problem of coordinating the school’s many divisions to the Polish army, an off-the-cuff remark that a Polish-American group called a “slanderous” display of bigotry and ignorance.
Mr. Gee has one of the highest-profile resumes of any college president in recent history. He has held the top job at West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University.
He was OSU president from 1990 to 1997 and returned in 2007.
Named the country’s best college president in 2010 by Time magazine, he is paid about $1.9 million annually in base pay, deferred and performance compensation, and retirement benefits.
OSU trustees learned of Mr. Gee’s “offensive statements” about Notre Dame in January, met with the president, and created the remediation plan for Mr. Gee to “address his behavior,” board president Robert Schottenstein said.
During his comments to the Athletic Council, Mr. Gee also questioned the academic integrity of schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville.
The top goal of Big Ten presidents is to “make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity,” he said.
“So you won’t see us adding Louisville,” which is also joining the ACC.
After a pause, he added that the Big Ten wouldn’t add the University of Kentucky, either.