Jenkins: Gordon Gee, relatively speaking

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2013 

It’s yet another case of the behemoth of college athletics and all its sideshows taking down a university leader. Oh, this time it wasn’t an academic scandal or a money problem or loose reins on players’ connections with agents. But the sudden retirement of Ohio State University President Gordon Gee has a direct connection to how college sports can skew perspectives.

Gee has, in his 30-plus years as a university president, been beloved by trustees at the various schools he’s led for what’s said to be his genius at fund-raising. In almost every news story about the man who now is leaving Ohio State, it is noted that he has led one successful big-money campaign after another. That skill is valued in university presidents these days, perhaps more than it ought to be.

Gee’s done all right for himself as well. Moving from one presidency to another has been handsomely rewarding, with his current compensation estimated at something like $1.9 million. A fellow can buy a lot of professorial tweed jackets with elbow patches for that kind of money. Although Gee, 69, favors fancy bow ties and nicely cut suits.

But Gee’s ability to charm wealthy people to give big sums of money to whatever school he happens to head wasn’t enough to save him after his latest gaffe. In remarks last December (recently coming to light) before the university’s Athletic Council, Gee managed to perform the acrobatic feat of continuing to speak even after he’d put both feet in his mouth. An audio tape has gone viral.

What Gee, who has seemed to be the model for the modern university president (shaking the money trees) did was this. In that meeting with the Athletic Council, he reckoned that it was good Notre Dame wasn’t in the Big Ten Conference with his school and others because “The fathers are holy on Sunday and they’re holy hell the rest of the week. You just can’t trust those damn Catholics.”

Offend an esteemed university with legendarily high academic standards? Check. Offend all 1.2 billion members of the Catholic faith? Check.

But he wasn’t done. Gee also managed to imply that the schools in the Southeastern Conference were not much for academic standards, singling out the University of Louisville. Rick Pitino, the basketball coach at Louisville, didn’t sugarcoat his response, reckoning Gee to be a “pompous ass.”

This modern model has through the years landed as a butterfly on a number of schools in the course of his career: Vanderbilt, Brown, Colorado, West Virginia and Ohio State, twice. He was rumored a candidate for the UNC system presidency.

And he’s been in trouble for gadfly-type comments elsewhere, and other controversies. But it’s never mattered, because Gee was raking in the cash for his schools like a Vegas gambler with six aces. But in the end, it was a cockeyed analysis of athletics that got him.

We have in memory here in North Carolina a decidedly different model. The late William Friday, who’d proudly be called the old model, raised a lot of money over the years himself as president of the University of North Carolina system, working with individual donors, corporations and foundations. But he never believed that was the main duty before him. He once said that money-raising could become a “distraction” if a president weren’t careful about it. And he counseled other presidents, many of whom he trained, not to let it overtake the more important tasks of academic and practical leadership.

He didn’t wear bow ties, and bought his suits off the rack, on sale, at regular stores. He was hardly flamboyant or outspoken. He didn’t expect the president’s home on Franklin Street to be a symbol of wealth or exclusively a place to host bigwigs. (A legendary story recalls a student who wandered in one night and was allowed to sleep on the couch.) His own home near the campus, where he spent his last years with his wife, Ida, was modest, quiet and dignified.

He did not feel obligated to amuse athletics boosters with offhanded attempts at cleverness and warned many that problems with sports could infect an entire campus. And no, he didn’t move around, though he was offered many presidencies, and he couldn’t remember when last we talked about it whether he’d ever made $100,000 as a president.

Bill Friday had a good friend, one of his closest, who shared his philosophies about running a university and college athletics. Together they were the founding co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. This friend also declined the pretentions of power. Of course, simplicity was inherent in his line of work. He was, and he is, Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame. One wonders if he was included in that group of fathers Gordon Gee was talking about.

Now, of course, nobody cares.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at

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