Quick: Name the most well known university president in existence.
Before your brain even begins to form the double Gs, you’ve already constructed a visual…
…the argyle socks, the bowtie, the simple eyeglasses – and the affirmed, affable smile permanently formed on the lips of Elwood Gordon Gee.
That mouth has delivered more than a few miscalculated quotes over his three-and-half decades as an administrator, such as “we do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor,” describing his job as directing “the Polish Army,” or “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday,” the latter of which was reported by the Associated Press last May from a December 2012 meeting of OSU’s Athletic Council. He resigned from this second stint as the university’s president days later.
Yet, it’s still Gordon’s mouth that is the best tool in his bag. His unmatched ability to engage has enabled him to become one of the most gifted fundraisers in the country – in higher education or anywhere. And often, those he’s offended have become the benefactor of his fundraising, too.
Just days after he accepted the interim presidency at West Virginia (where he started his career as the nation’s youngest president at age 36), Gee closed the oft-revolving door of his office in the new Center for Higher Education Enterprise (where he shares a wing with John Glenn) for an hour with (614). He will return this summer to continue work on the Center.
In an hour, quite a bit gets left on the cutting room floor (his divorce from his second wife, the privatization of several factions of Ohio State, like parking and licensing). In the absence of a complete biography session, what remained was a congenial, confident 69-year-old Gee, unafraid to reflect on his mistakes and eager to embark on a new phase of life. Instead we focused on his “positive midlife crisis,” humor, and his uncompromised sense of self.
We began in the most appropriate way I could think of…
Tell me a joke.
Yeah, I think I’ll wave that one off right now. Maybe towards the end [of the interview], I may have a couple of them.
Does someone have to tell you what ‘retired’ means? I mean, are you aware you’re supposed to–
I tell you, I retired from the presidency, but I didn’t retire from the things I now think are important, which is the whole issue of education institutions in this country, the nature of what universities ought to be doing, my belief in the land-grant mission and reaffirmation of the land-grant institution as a leading force for change in the nation.
I never did have the midlife opportunities, so now I’m having a positive midlife crisis – I’m going back and doing things I wasn’t able to before. I’ve got a great new book on the politics of higher education coming out. All of these strands are coming together. None of these things I could have done while sitting in the president’s chair, because running Ohio State is a massive job. It leaves little for the conceptual nature of what I’m trying to do.
Are you saying that now you feel you have the ability to approach things more from a big picture standpoint, rather than be university-centric?
Right. The thing about Ohio State is it’s a marvelous platform. It’s one of the most accomplished universities in the country, but also it’s a six-billion dollar institution. The day-to-day business doesn’t allow you to step back one step. Besides, when you’re the president of a university, as I’ve discovered, what you say has consequences (laughs).
You get to be Gordon Gee a little bit more than Gordon Gee-comma-president.
Right – Gordon Gee commentator, Gordon Gee thinker…it’s very empowering to have a megaphone again.
Well, that’s exactly why I wanted to sit down with you now.
Now we can have the unvarnished version.
The elephant in the room was addressed early on, although it really isn’t much of an elephant. Across from us in Gee’s office, behind his desk, he’s framed a New York Times story that published his “Top 10 Gaffes.” Owning it, one would say.
Let’s go back a little bit. At 36, you were running a university…being honest, were you scared shitless or were you just like, ‘Yep, I’m the guy!’?
People in West Virginia took a great risk in putting a 36-year-old in charge, and now that I am 69, I would never put a 36-year-old in that position – what where they thinking? (laughs) I had to learn on the job and it was frightening. All of a sudden, I realized I was playing on a big stage and I didn’t have the experience or the maturity to do it. It matured me very quickly. You’ll be amused about this – so I’m three or four months into the presidency and these two guys come in. I thought they were really old – they were probably 40 (laughs). One was the chair of English and the other was the dean of the libraries and they said, “You aren’t doing very well.” I said, “Well, tell me about it.” I was really struggling. I asked why. They said, “Well, you don’t look, you don’t act, you don’t talk like a university president. You wear argyle socks, you go out and party with the students, you wear bow ties and khaki pants…
Khaki pants – the nerve.
So I thought yes, that’s right, my idea of a university president is a tall, gray-haired, distinguished-looking guy…so I tried to change for a long time, you know? Three-piece suit, trying to be a little bit more dignified, and two things happened: one, I continued to fail, and second, I was miserable.
So I figured if I’m going to fail at this, I’m going to fail having fun. Thirty-three years later, I’m a university president and those guys are dead (laughs). But there’s a point; that was a great learning experience for me. When I tried to be what other people wanted me to be, I was very uncomfortable and very unsuccessful. I’m a very quirky guy. I kind of view the world through a different telescope than other people do. Sometimes I insert foot in mouth…but humor is the antidote to a lot of things, and certainly I think it is one of the most important components of leadership. I really learned my lesson from that point on, and I have been very much an individual. Sometimes it’s been uncomfortable for me or for other people, but it’s something that’s been very important.
Ironically, many may associate your iconic bowties and socks with exactly how a college president dresses.
(laughs) Yes. I think one of the dangers of academic administration at the leading universities is [that] people become very gray, very non-descript. I joke about the road to becoming a university president now is offending the least amount of people for the longest time (laughs).
Well, now you get to be a university president again, so it seems to be working for you in the long run.
Well maybe I’m the last of the wild men. How does that sound?
I like that. Sounds like a Western.
We could make a movie out of that. You could star, and I can be a horse.
This is what it’s like to interview Gordon Gee. Quirky, as he said.
Clearly humor is a big part of who you are. Where did that come from?
First of all, I grew up in a very small town and I was kind of the ‘geeky kid.’ Therefore, in order to be liked, I had to figure something out; I couldn’t play football or basketball so I had to figure out doing something else that would be a bit endearing.
What’s interesting about you is that you’re both well known for being loose-lipped in public, but also known as a very gifted fundraiser. Do you ever want to scream, ‘Hey, you can’t have one without the other?’
I think that one of the things I have learned over time is when you make a mistake, apologize for it, try to learn from it, and try not to make it again. And I’ve made plenty. I mean, I certainly don’t defend the things that I do which could be offensive. On the other hand, my greatest strength is my ability to make fun of myself. And so, when you’re me, and in that kind of comfort zone, sometimes things do happen. As long as people are forgiving…I will say, for example, both the president of Notre Dame and my friends in the Catholic religion live by Catholicism, so they are very forgiving. And Sister Cecilia, who is the head of the Little Sisters of the Poor, I’m now her chief fundraiser. (laughs)
I feel very comfortable with who I am, which is very important to me. I don’t want to be someone in private that I’m not in public and visa versa. I want to be genuine and I want to be thoughtful and I want to be supportive and I want to be a person of character, but I want to do that on my terms. I don’t want to have someone telling me that this is what I ought to do.
If you’re the same person in public as you are in private, doesn’t that get exhausting?
It can be draining, but it can also be very energizing. My daughter always jokes that my idea of a quiet night at home is to invite 400 people over for dinner (laughs). I think that’s sort of a DNA issue in some ways, and over time, that’s part and parcel of having been a college president for so long. I’ve had my calendar guide me through half-hour meetings for seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You get very comfortable with multi-tasking. But, I take a lot of energy from what I do.
I should say so. Otherwise you’d be dead. Or at least sleeping right now.
Well, yeah. Plus, it would be more distressing to not like what you do. And the issue of balance is also important. I tell everyone I’m a workaholic, and people agree with me. But that is neither a mark of greatness nor a badge of courage. I think a lesson for younger people to learn is that they can be much more effective in their professional lives if they take care more time to be effective in their personal lives. We don’t often get that kind of balance. At least I didn’t, anyway, early on…
Can you elaborate? I know you’ve mentioned in other interviews that your daughter had to bear the brunt of that.
With my daughter…I was an absentee father, until after her mother died, I really was. But, after her mother died, I drug her along to a lot of things, which she now views as a privilege. But I think she never really did have real “teenage years.” Obviously, my first wife died of cancer, and I was not the attentive husband that I should have been with my second wife. We got divorced because we were in a polygamous marriage – I was married to the University, and I was married to her – and that put a strain on things. So, on the personal level, I continue to have much to learn, but I do think that a balanced life makes for a better human being.
Talk to me about faith. How has it evolved?
My faith remains very strong. I’m a devout Mormon; I don’t get a chance to attend formal religious ceremonies as much as I would like, with all my travel and obligations, but it really is an important part of my life. To really be engaged in the religion, it really has to engage as a part of one’s lifestyle. As a practice…I drink no alcohol. I drink no coffee…I do drink Diet Dr. Pepper, which I think there is a special dispensation in heaven for that. (laughs)
You live in the Short North now. Are you discovering a whole different life beyond campus now?
I am. I’ve just fallen in love with being in an urban environment; this is something I’ve always wanted to do. Ya know, I’ve lived in university museums for most of my life. It’s such a neat area. As far as Columbus goes, I suspect that are few, if any people, that are bigger cheerleaders for Columbus than I am. I returned because I love Columbus. I think it’s become one of the really remarkable cities in America.
Especially in the last five years…
And, of course, I take full credit for it (laughs). When I came back, it just blossomed! And (614) started to publish, too. I take all the credit.
Ha! This is back to that positive midlife crisis. These aren’t things you got to do when you were between 30 and 40.
It’s been a very affirming time for me. And, the thing I love about Columbus – in addition to just the energy of the place and the great people – is that, sometimes when one goes through a change like I went through, what happens is, when power goes, your friends go. And, in this instance, I’ve just found it to be the opposite case. My relationships with people could not be stronger. I think that’s endemic to the city, to an extent.
You’ve stood out from your peers in a certain way, by the way you embrace athletics. Is that something that has always been with you, even before Ohio State?
Obviously, I never played a thing…look at me (laughs). Maybe checkers…but I think that athletics is a very important component of a university – if we do it well, and we do it right. If we use it to tell the story of the institution, and build spirit…
I think Ohio State does that very well. I think we set a very high standard, if not the gold standard, for the relationship between athletics, academics, the culture of the university, and the people of the state. Sometimes, it’s overpowering. But I’ve yet to be able to entice 100,000 people to watch a chemistry lecture. I can get 100,000 people to come watch a football game, and use that as a storyboard for tying back the issues and opportunities and challenges of the university.
What was your college life like? Have you been to more college parties as a college president or as a college student?
Some people could say I have. I was a serious student. I was a serious student, but I wasn’t a serious University president. (laughs) So there ya go.
Clearly, you’ve embraced the notion of yourself as a personal brand – which as you state is just Gordon being Gordon. Still, that comes with it its own pressures. How do you reflect on that now that you’ve (essentially) retired?
I think a lot about that. The cult of personality can be great, but it can also be very, very detrimental. There’s a fine line in that regard. I don’t sit here and calibrate about it, but I think that the bottom line is that this is who I am. If I had not been blessed to be the president of these magnificent universities, I would still be this way. I think, at least, for me, knowing in my heart that I am genuinely who I am is an important component of who I am.
More important than your legacy?
Absolutely. I think we all start thinking, at my age, about whether you made a difference…but one thing I do know is, I did remain true to me. •
After six months at WVU, Gee will return to his office in Columbus. In the meanwhile, keep up with him at www.facebook.com/gordongee.