COLUMBUS — E. Gordon Gee, the colorful, highly paid president of Ohio State University who has been embroiled in a series of embarrassing gaffes, abruptly announced Tuesday he would retire July 1.
Mr. Gee, 69, has been apologizing recently for remarks he made in December at a Ohio State Athletics Council meeting. In talking about why Notre Dame was not in the Big Ten, he said: “The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week. You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday.”
Mr. Gee also took shots at schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville.
The remarks were first reported last week by the Associated Press, and Ohio State called them unacceptable and said it had placed Mr. Gee on a “remediation plan” to change his behavior.
Mr. Gee said in a teleconference call Tuesday that the furor was only part of his decision to retire. He said his age and the start of a long-term planning process at the university also contributed. “I live in turbulent times, and I’ve had a lot of headwinds, and so almost every occasion, I have just moved on,” he said. Mr. Gee explained away the abrupt timing by saying he was “quirky as hell,” and hated long transitions.
He also said he didn’t regret the way he conducted himself as a higher education leader. “I have regrets when I have said things that I shouldn’t have said, but I have no regrets about having a sense of humor and having a thick skin and enjoying life.”
His decision to retire was first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
He apologized when the December comments were disclosed, saying they were “a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate.”
Robert Schottenstein, who as chairman of the university’s board of trustees condemned the remarks last week as “wholly unacceptable,” and “not presidential in nature,” deflected questions about whether Mr. Gee had been forced out. “It’s really about a decision to retire for the reasons that Gordon has articulated,” Mr. Schottenstein said.
Ohio State, one of the nation’s biggest universities, with 65,000 students, named Provost Joseph Alutto interim president.
Mr. Gee, a familiar figure on campus with his bow ties and owlish eyeglasses, has repeatedly gotten in trouble for verbal gaffes. Tuesday’s news lit up Twitter, with numerous posts using the hashtag #savethebowtie.
Ohio State trustees learned of the latest remarks in January and created the remediation plan. In a March 11 letter, they warned any repeat offenses could lead to his firing and ordered him to apologize to those he offended.
Mr. Gee said he waited until recently to apologize in person to Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, because they had a long-scheduled meeting. Mr. Schottenstein said the board was satisfied with Mr. Gee’s response to the letter.
On Monday, Mr. Gee withdrew as Saturday’s commencement speaker at a Catholic high school in Columbus, saying he wanted the focus to remain on the students.
In the recording of his meeting with the athletic council, Mr. Gee said the top goal of Big Ten presidents is to “make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won’t see us adding Louisville.” After laughter from the audience, he said the Big Ten wouldn’t add the University of Kentucky, either.
When asked by a questioner how to respond to SEC fans who say the Big Ten can’t count because it has 14 members, Mr. Gee said: “You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing.”
Notre Dame and the SEC had no comment on Mr. Gee’s retirement.
He came under fire in 2011 for offhand remarks made during a scandal on then-football coach Jim Tressel’s watch. Asked whether he had considered firing Mr. Tressel, Mr. Gee said: “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Mr. Tressel, later forced out by the university, said Tuesday it had been an honor to work with Mr. Gee.
Last year, Mr. Gee apologized after saying that coordinating the school’s divisions was like running the Polish army, a remark a Polish-American group called bigoted.
In 2011, he made national news for his comment that the Buckeyes football team faces tough opponents and “do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor.”
Mr. Gee said, he was just quoting an old saying and didn’t know the religious order existed. After the nuns from the local Oregon facility sent him a letter correcting him, he apologized and visited the northwest Ohio convent and made a sizable donation.
He most recently visited Toledo on May 13 as as keynote speaker for a Rotary Club of Toledo gathering.
In 1992, in a moment of frustration over higher-education funding, Mr. Gee referred to then-Gov. George Voinovich as “a damn dummy.” Mr. Voinovich said there were no hard feelings and he considered Mr. Gee one of his best friends.
Mr. Gee didn’t edit himself much Tuesday during a teleconference announcing his retirement, joking about the imposition of “this damn telephone call.”
“I’ve only got a month to ruin the university,” he quipped. “I’ve got to get at it.”
Mr. Gee was named the country’s best college president in 2010 by Time magazine. He has held the top job at West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University. He was Ohio State president from 1990 to 1997 and returned in 2007. He makes about $1.9 million a year in base pay, retirement benefits, and other compensation.
For several years, he was the highest-paid public university president in the nation. But last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education said his $1.9 million annual compensation made him third on the list.
Mr. Gee is a prolific fund-raiser and is leading a $2.5 billion campaign at Ohio State. He is omnipresent on campus, attending everything from faculty awards events to dormitory pizza parties.
Allison Roda, 22, one of many OSU students stunned by the news, lamented she’d have to graduate without him. “This is just so upsetting. He just represents everything great about college life,” Ms. Roda, a senior from Broadview Heights, said as she walked on Ohio State’s giant green, dubbed the “Oval.” She said she is a Catholic who considered attending Notre Dame and wasn’t offended by his remarks.