Gordon Gee’s sudden retirement from Ohio State (after a widely reported, off-the-cuff slur on Catholics) probably ends a remarkable career of academic leadership almost without parallel in American higher education. For a university president to survive 10 years as president of one institution or 25 years in total as president is very unusual, yet Gee lasted 13 years at Ohio State and 32 years at five universities, ranging from the distinctly non-elite West Virginia University to tony private schools like Brown and Vanderbilt.
I think the same qualities that made Gee arguably the best university president in America (an accolade Time gave him in 2010) from an institutional perspective arguably also made him the worst president as well from a societal point of view -Gee is probably the single individual who did more than anyone else to perpetuate an academic arms race that has pushed up college costs for millions of Americans, arguably spawned a tuition bubble and what may be the beginnings of a reversal of decades of enrollment growth.
Gordon Gee used a legendary work ethic and humor to become a premier fundraiser. A university president seeking high pay and job survival raises buckets of money to fulfill the needs of key constituencies -you bribe the faculty with good pay, low teaching loads and parking; you appease fellow key administrators with huge salaries and lots of assistants to do the heavy lifting; you win over the students by being accessible and allowing them to study little for high grades in order to facilitate their voracious drinking and sexual habits; you wow the alumni by fulfilling their fondest dreams, often stellar athletic teams, and you wine and dine the trustees and top donors continuously and opulently. Above all, you con taxpayers, students, and rich donors to foot the bill.
As one who interacted with Gee on several occasions, I can say unequivocally I have never seen a better academic hustler. Gordon is funny, he is bright and articulate, and he knows what academic excellence is and how to get it. When Gee went to Ohio State in 1990, it was viewed as a middling quality Big Ten school -not the academic equal of Illinois or Wisconsin, for example, not to mention Michigan or Northwestern. Today, that perceived quality gap has been narrowed -he has contributed to the rising quality of numerous academic programs and the medical school.
Gee has been a prodigious spender -partly on himself. He spent fortunes renovating presidential houses at Brown and Vanderbilt, not to mention OSU (he recently spent $532 on a shower curtain for the presidential bathroom). His travel/entertainment bill exceeded one million dollars a year. I have been to parties hosted by Gee at both Vanderbilt and OSU. They were nice, arguably too nice for institutions financed largely by taxpayer subsidies and tax exemptions. A year or so ago he handed out nearly $30 million in bonuses to key employees -a few of them one million dollars. His pay today in inflation adjusted terms is several times that of Big Ten university presidents of, say, 1980.
What is so bad about his behavior? Enormous amounts of other people’s monies were spent, often for things that mean a lot to academics but of scant value in the real world. The amount of money spent on the president’s administrative cabinet has exploded at OSU, with lots of $500,000 or more vice presidents. Lovely facilities abound. But tuition at OSU has gone up a lot, the debt obligations of students have increased. But are the students learning more? How would we know? Is the expenditure of hundreds of millions on luxury dormitories (a current Gee plan) truly necessary to the advancement of higher education in the U.S.?
(Photo: Gordon Gee. Credit: Columbus Dispatch.)