Universities can't afford clowny leaders
Former West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee cultivated a colorful persona in the gray world of higher education. Bow ties, owlish eyewear and zingy quotes helped him draw
attention and money to one institution after another.
But in December, Gee overplayed his hand.
In remarks to Ohio State's athletic council, he insulted the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame, members of the Southeastern Conference, Louisville, Cincinnati, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and ex-Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema.
A recording released last week revealed that Gee said Bielema's departure to Arkansas was "a blessing for Wisconsin," that "[Athletic director] Barry Alvarez thought he was a thug," and that "he [Bielema] left just ahead of the sheriff."
In March, Robert Schottenstein, chairman of Ohio State's board of trustees, condemned Gee's remarks as "wholly unacceptable" and "not presidential in nature."
The board ordered him to make apologies, put its $1.9 million-a-year president on a "remediation plan," and warned him that repeat performances could lead to his firing.
Gee made a round of apologies for what he called "a poor attempt at humor."
This week, he abruptly resigned, saying he had been considering retirement for a while.
Gee, 69, had served as president of WVU, the University of Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt before serving as president of Ohio State from 1990 to 1997. He returned to that post in 2007.
This was the man Time magazine named the country's best college president in 2010.
Institutions of higher learning have given Gee a lot of rope over the years because he was a spectacularly good fund-raiser.
But Schottenstein got the tone right here. Universities, if they wish to be taken seriously, can't afford clownish presidents.
Money isn't everything - even in higher education.