E. Gordon Gee, come home.
The one-time president of West Virginia University—and four other major institutions—should be under serious consideration as interim president of WVU, while the search for a permanent replacement to Jim Clements is underway.
And if the Board of Governors offers Gee the job, I hope he takes it.
The last time we heard from Gee was back in June. It had just come to light that, in a poor attempt at humor, Gee made an off-color comment about Catholics when speaking about the possibility of Notre Dame entering the Big Ten Conference.
“The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell the rest of the week. You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or Friday,” Gee said, trying to make a joke.
Gee, who sees himself as the funniest guy in the room—and often is—apologized, but some at OSU believed he had gone too far. Whether it was that specific comment or the cumulative effect of gaffes over the years, Gee resigned the presidency, accepted a position as president emeritus at Ohio State and now teaches at the OSU Law School.
The occasional faux pas by the quirky Gee does not seriously diminish a lifetime of remarkable achievements in higher education. In 1981, he became president of WVU at 37, making him the youngest university president in the country at the time. He previously served as Dean of WVU’s Law School.
After four years in Morgantown, Gee was hired as president of the University of Colorado. Stints at Brown, Vanderbilt and Ohio State (twice) followed. Along the way Gee gained a national reputation as a dynamic leader and a relentless fundraiser. He is credited with raising $1.6 billion for Ohio State.
At 69, Gee is at the twilight of his career, but the man with the trademark bowties and wonkish glasses is still hard at work. In fact, I’m told he’s expected to teach at Harvard Law next semester, something he’ll have to withdraw from if he comes to Morgantown.
I suspect he’s intrigued by the opportunity at WVU. I’ve talked with him a few times over the years and I know he has a special fondness for the University. Knowing Gee, he would not be content as a seat-warmer for the next president. He would be out in front, the recognizable face of the institution.
His presence would also draw the attention of candidates for the permanent position. Gee’s willingness to return to Morgantown after a storied career would send the message that WVU is a special place.
College presidents rarely have star power. The public usually knows more about the football or basketball coach than the head of the institution. Gee is different. He would be the main attraction in the room, whether it’s a board meeting, an alumni gathering or the halls of the State Capitol.
That alone enhances the image of West Virginia University.
Along the way, Gee will probably say or do something that will cause folks to cringe. After all, he’s the college president who rode the mechanical bull at a bar during one of WVU’s bowl trips. But Gee’s quirkiness is not malicious; it’s part of his unique character. And, when he keeps his foot at least a short distance from his mouth, it’s part of his charm.
This feels like an opportune convergence; WVU needs an interim president and Gee could be ready for a new challenge. Gee has been away for awhile, but I suspect he still remembers that country roads take you home.