Ohio State president Gee retiring on heels of controversial comments
COLUMBUS, Ohio --Gordon Gee, rehired by Ohio State University in 2007 to great fanfare, boldly declared, "This is Ohio State's time."
He made good on the boast by reshaping the university into a leading academic institution. Yet Gee, also known for painful verbal gaffes, couldn't stop staying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Gee, 69, announced his retirement Tuesday after his latest remarks, jabbing Roman Catholics and the University of Notre Dame, became public. Even then, he couldn't play it straight at the end of a hastily called news conference.
"I've only got a month to ruin the university," he joked. "I've got to get at it."
Gee said the furor over the remarks was only one of several factors that led to his decision. He also cited his age and the start of a long-term planning process at the university, which includes a trustee meeting Wednesday to talk about Ohio State's future.
Gee's remarks, jokingly referring to "those damn Catholics" at Notre Dame and poking fun at the academic quality of other schools, were first reported last week by The Associated Press. Ohio State at the time called them unacceptable and said it had placed Gee on a "remediation plan" to change his behavior.
Gee said he didn't regret the way he conducted himself as a higher education leader.
"I have regrets when I have said things that I shouldn't have said, but I have no regrets about having a sense of humor and having a thick skin and enjoying life," he said.
Gee gave more explanations for his retirement at a news conference Wednesday morning, citing everything from a desire to spend more time with his identical twin granddaughters to seeing more of a "significant other" in California whom he didn't name. He also said he couldn't escape the fact he is now 69 and "a little bit slower."
"I don't want to be the president of the university and run it like a 69-year-old," Gee said. "I want to run it in the way that I can run full tilt. And so I don't ever want to ever lose a step." He said his health is good.
Gee, wearing one of his trademark bowties, said he'll likely stay and teach at the law school and help raise money.
He downplayed the role of the Notre Dame remarks, saying if anything, they helped him reflect on what he wanted to do next.
"It played that role, but not a defining role in terms of my own conversation with myself," Gee said.
According to a recording of a Dec. 5 meeting obtained by the AP under a public records request, Gee, a Mormon, said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten athletic conference because "you just can't trust those damn Catholics."
He also took shots at schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville, according to the recording of the meeting of the school's Athletic Council.
Gee apologized when the comments were disclosed, saying they were "a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate."
Robert Schottenstein, who as chairman of the university's board of trustees condemned the remarks last week as "wholly unacceptable" and "not presidential in nature," deflected questions about whether Gee had been forced out by the board.
"It's really about a decision to retire for the reasons that Gordon has articulated," Schottenstein said.
He called Gee "a unique person" with "sort of a one and only style."
"That unique style and his very thoughtful leadership candidly has taken Ohio state to new levels and put us in position where we believe that we have enormous opportunity," Schottenstein said.
Ohio State, one of the biggest universities in the nation, with 65,000 students, named provost Joseph Alutto as interim president.
Gee, a familiar figure on campus with his bowties and owlish glasses, has repeatedly gotten in trouble over the years for verbal gaffes. Tuesday's news lit up Twitter, with numerous posts using the hashtag (hash)savethebowtie.
Ohio State trustees learned of Gee's latest remarks in January and created the remediation plan. In a March 11 letter, the trustees warned any repeat offenses could lead to his firing and ordered him to apologize to those he offended. But it appeared that several of Gee's apologies came only in the last week or so as the school prepared to respond to the AP's inquiries.
Gee said Tuesday he waited until recently to apologize in person to the Notre Dame president, the Rev. John Jenkins, because they had a long-scheduled meeting. Schottenstein said the board was satisfied with Gee's response to the letter.
In the recording of his meeting with the Athletic Council, Gee said the top goal of Big Ten presidents is to "make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won't see us adding Louisville." After laughter from the audience, Gee added that the Big Ten wouldn't add the University of Kentucky, either.
When asked how to respond to SEC fans who say the Big Ten can't count because it now has 14 members, Gee said: "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing."
Notre Dame and the SEC had no comment on Gee's retirement.
Gee came under fire in 2011 for some offhand remarks he made during a scandal on football coach Jim Tressel's watch. Asked whether he had considered firing Tressel, Gee said: "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
Last year, Gee apologized for saying that coordinating the school's many divisions was like running the Polish army, a remark that a Polish-American group called bigoted.
In 1992, in a moment of frustration over higher-education funding, Gee referred to then-Gov. George Voinovich as "a damn dummy."
Gee was named the country's best college president in 2010 by Time magazine. He has held the top job at West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt. He was Ohio State president from 1990 to 1997 and returned in 2007. He makes about $1.9 million a year in base pay, retirement benefits and other compensation.
He is a prolific fundraiser and is leading a $2.5 billion campaign at Ohio State. He is omnipresent on campus, attending everything from faculty awards events to dormitory pizza parties.
"I've never heard anyone say anything negative about him. He's great," Ohio State cheerleader Taylor Rudy, 20, a junior from Tipp City, said Tuesday. "I don't feel like it'll be the same here. That's so terrible."
The president of the American Council on Education said Gee, who is a board member, left an "indelible mark" on each institution he served.
"He is an iconic leader, unparalleled in skills and widely respected among presidents, chancellors, policymakers and business leaders at both the state and federal levels," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said in a statement.