A couple of years ago, I read an article that pegged The Ohio State University as having the most followers than any institution of higher learning in America. A recent trip to Dallas, Texas underscored this point. I stopped into a rather large bar and grill for dinner only to find the establishment decorated from the entrance to kitchen with Ohio State memorabilia.
The OSU family is known for incredible school spirit. The OSU Marching Band’s October 16, 2012 halftime performance went viral with over 15 million YouTube views in just 8 months. The Ohio State Flash Mob video registered over 850,000 YouTube visits. I am the consummate citizen of Buckeye Nation — even to the chagrin of friends who equally loathe my undergraduate Alma Mater.
And yet, on this day, I am particularly saddened by the news that E. Gordon Gee, 69, will be stepping down as President of The Ohio State University on July 1, 2013.
Gee’s Troubles with the Board
Gee’s departure comes amid criticisms of questionable spending and recently publicized comments — both being much to do about nothing. Last year, reports surfaced, questioning what some called “extravagant” spending that included $64,000 for bow ties and O-H paraphernalia. President Gee is the highest paid CEO of any public university in America at $1.9 million in 2012 salary, bonus, deferred compensation and supplemental retirement. However, Gee’s critics cite that lavish spending included $23,000 per month during April 2008 and June 2011 for events at Pizzuti House, the president’s 9,600 square foot mansion.
More recently, statements by Gee set off a firestorm of complaints. At a December 5, 2012 meeting, Gee, joking about the University of Notre Dame not being asked to join the Big Ten, added, “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics.” The university’s Board of Trustees subsequently sanctioned Gee on March 11, 2013 for comments made about educational standards at University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, University of Cincinnati, University of Notre Dame, and across the Southeastern Conference.
Gee’s relationship with the Board further soured after his failure to take actions to correct his tendency to make controversial statements was followed by his use of the term “thug” in reference to Bret Bielema, former University of Wisconsin Football head coach. Robert Schottenstein, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, publicly denounced the remarks, but denies President Gee’s departure is related to them.
The Other Side of Gee’s Troubles
When a loved one dies, we expect a eulogy (or words that speak well of) at the memorial. When a relationship dies, and particularly one involving high-profiled partners, bystanders often come to douse the remains with the fuel of negative observations. As such, we might be reminded of several things that make Gee’s leaving OSU little more than a set of sad lessons:
1. While Gee’s comments might have been a poor attempt at off-handed humor, the Catholic Church has larger fish to fry than this. Sex scandal after sex scandal is a far weightier matter. And if the Catholic Church is concerned about “forgiveness”, then surely church leaders might have exercised this by ratcheting down the criticism targeted at Gee by their own recognition of the poor humor, and nothing else; certainly not bigotry.
2. Gee was raised a Mormon. Does anyone seriously think he is insensitive about religious intolerance? For anyone to suggest that a member of an often maligned religion somehow disparages Catholics is like suggesting African Americans are insensitive to the history of Jews under Nazi Germany.
3. Negative reactions to Gee reveal the double standards that people hold, even in the world of religion. Had Gee said, “those damn Baptists”, I suspect the blow-back would have been marginal, if any. Raised a Baptist, I would have laughed about it and proceeded with things that actually impact my life. The phrase “those damned” is simply an American colloquialism. “Those damn Yankees” certainly preceded Gee. Ediberto Roman’s book entitled “Those Damned Immigrants America’s Hysteria over Undocumented Immigration” not only hit bookstores without a single protest to my knowledge.
4. The media’s preoccupation with Gee’s $64,000 items is a bit hypocritical. Ohio benefits from a healthy, popular, and successful OSU. Big deal that Gee purchased promotional items. Look at the university’s $5 billion annual budget and that $64,000 becomes a drip of water inside the Pacific Ocean. One has to wonder did a local paper with home city hostility towards Ohio’s largest and most famous institution stir the seeds of discourse for an institution that impacts every city in the state.
5. Complaints of Gee’s supposed lavish spending at his residence is also a bit hypocritical. We are talking about a top executive at an institution that is leading a $2 billion capital campaign. Once called by Ohio Governor John Kasich, “Ohio’s best politician”, Gee’s investment in a place to convene financiers is more than acceptable given the return on investment the university enjoys. But in the era of political correctness, speech police lose sight of the larger goals and respond to menial issues.
Gee is known to connect with students
6. The media scrambled to inform the public that Gee’s compensation surpasses all other public university CEOs. Rare, however, are comments that inform the public about Gee giving back $220,584 in 2009 as a personal donation to scholarship funds.
7. When a climate of hostility at an institution leads to a charismatic figure leaving, one would think the voices of students would be [seriously] considered. Gee is loved by the OSU student body as someone who has been available, not simply from his office, but also at his residence, at campus functions, and the myriad other touch points where students and university executives rarely come together. Unfortunately, students are drowned out by more influential forces. The timing of Gee’s departure comes after students have returned home for summer break. Next year, students will return with a very familiar face summarily gone.
8. Now the irony of ironies. In 2007, Judie Brown authored a book entitled “Saving Those Damned Catholics“. Yes, the same words that, to his critics, marred Gee’s tenure at The Ohio State University. If Gee is interested in reading Brown’s book, he can find a copy in [you guessed it] the library at Notre Dame!
Gordon Gee served The Ohio State University well in a marriage that should have lasted. This departure reminds the Buckeye faithful of the how even the seemingly best marriages can hit the skids. As for OSU students, this underscores the old adage, “When the elephants are dancing, get off the floor“. Make your departed President proud by turning in your best academic performance next year.
And here’s a thought. For the upcoming football opener, bring out Gee to dot the “I” in Script Ohio played by The Best Damn Band in the Land!
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