For the first time in more than three decades, E. Gordon Gee isn’t a university president. He’s traded his ornate Bricker Hall office for a smaller room tucked away across the Oval that’s still awaiting its permanent decor, his grand university mansion replaced by a leased condo in the Short North.
The downsize was a long time coming.
“I was 36 when I became university president, and one of the things that struck me about this whole thing is when right after I announced my retirement, my daughter came home to visit me, because we were downsizing. I’ve lived in these mega-homes for my whole life so I’ve never had to downsize, and we were talking and all the sudden I realized that she’s 36 and she’s the same age that I was when I became university president, and she’s having a wonderful middle part of her life … the truth of the matter is that I never did have that experience,” Gee said Monday in his first sit-down interview with The Lantern since his retirement.
In his new role, he aims to be “the academic equivalent of Jack Hanna.”
Gee has taken a step back from the top of OSU’s administration and has done it “joyfully so.” He’s working on three books, one in particular about humor in higher education, teaching at Harvard next semester and working on a state higher education initiative.
“My assistant tells me I need to get a real job because (of) the fact that I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life and enjoying it and having a wonderful time,” Gee said.
But Gee has had a “couple of tough years, starting with our football issues,” he said, spanning from the time of Tattoo-gate, which led to the resignation of former Buckeye football coach Jim Tressel after some OSU players were found to be receiving improper benefits.
There’s never a right time to retire, he said, but when he decided that was what he wanted to do, he wanted to make the change swiftly.
“I don’t like the long goodbye, so if I’m going to do something, I want to make the transition and do it,” he said.
Gee announced he was retiring from his role as university president June 4, days after controversial remarks he made at a Dec. 5 OSU Athletic Conference meeting came under public scrutiny. Comments about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference in particular brought national attention.
Gee also made comments about former Wisconsin football coach and first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, claiming Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez thought the coach was a “thug.” Gee apologized in a later email and said his remarks about the coach were “unfounded, inaccurate and unfair.” Gee also said Bielema accepted his apology.
A March 11 letter to Gee from Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Schottenstein on the subject of Gee’s offensive comments was obtained by The Lantern. In the letter, it was written that the inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated.
“On occasion your words that may be intended to bring a bit of levity to some significant issues have, in fact, had the opposite effect,” the letter said. “There have been occasions on which your comments were insensitive and inappropriate and have offended others.”
Future mishaps would result in punitive action, including dismissal, the letter said.
“A university president needs to always understand you set the standard for the institution. When you don’t, you should be ashamed of yourself, and I was not happy about those comments,” Gee said.
Gee called his comments, although made “in great jest,” inappropriate, but said it was gratifying that an official from Notre Dame and his Catholic friends had forgiven him. At 69 years old, Gee said he is “learning every day” and hopes the OSU community can find pride in how he handled the situation that grabbed national headlines.
It wasn’t the first time comments Gee made received backlash, and Gee said the “hiccups” will make an appearance in his book on humor.
“I always say to everyone, ‘The greatest learning experiences that I have, I think that everyone else has, is to learn from your mistakes and learn from the things you didn’t do right,’ and obviously, particularly in terms of a couple of the other books I’m writing, that will have to be very much apart of my story and what I take a look at,” he said.
His transition from the man-in-charge to a more behind-the-scenes role has gone smoothly but was somewhat challenging for the two-term former OSU president.
“If one gave me truth serum, do I miss the daily activity of the university? I do. Do I miss all the kinds of things that I did? Absolutely. I do not think one could do this for the period of time I have done it without missing those kind of things, but also it was time for me to do something different,” he said.
While Gee is no longer the university president, in many ways he remains the face of the university. Students still invite him to parties and stop him for pictures on the Oval and instructors still ask him to speak as a guest in classes.
He said he believes the OSU community will adjust well to the new president, but he hopes to remain an important part of the institution in a positive way.
“One of my friends used the analogy, that I thought was very interesting, of Jack Hanna. You know, Jack Hanna hasn’t run the Columbus Zoo for a long period of time, but has remained a very important part of the zoo. So maybe I’m the academic equivalent of Jack Hanna,” he said.
A university with history like OSU, though, is much bigger than one man.
“My goal should be to make sure the next president is the most successful president in the history of the institution,” he said.
This article is the first part of a three-day series exploring E. Gordon Gee’s role at Ohio State post-presidency. Check out The Lantern tomorrow for continued coverage.