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Many up in arms over President Gee’s Polish slip-up

Cody Cousino / Photo editor

After President E. Gordon Gee compared the task of coordinating 18 Ohio State divisions to that of coordinating the Polish Army last week, many Polish-Americans are up in arms about the comment.

During a speech at the Columbus Metropolitan Club on Jan. 11, Gee said, “When we had these 18 colleges all kind of floating around, they were kind of like PT Boats, they were shooting each other. It was kind of like the Polish Army or something. I have no idea what it was.”

Gee made the comment during the question-and-answer portion of an event about OSU’s ability to maintain a secure financial foundation and to further the university’s mission as a research institution. He immediately realized his mistake and, referencing previous slip-ups, said he had done it again and would now have to raise money for the Polish Army.

OSU’s Polish Club has had discussions about the comment and has spoken with other local Polish clubs about their reactions to the comments, said Caroline Krakowski, a third-year in psychology and president of OSU’s Polish Club, in an email. She said the club was insulted by the comments.

“We are extremely proud of our heritage and of the accomplishments of Polish people throughout history,” Krakowski said in the email. “The comments made by President E. Gorden Gee negatively impacted our mission and were an insult to our nationality.”

For some, such as Jerry Wiecek of Chicago, whose father survived the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen and who is active in the Polish community in Chicago, the comment was both ignorant and offensive.

“My first reaction was that for all that the country of Poland has been through … we all thought in our community that Polish jokes were behind us,” Wiecek said.

Gee is from what Wiecek called the “Archie Bunker generation,” referring to a character from the television sitcom “All in the Family” famous for his prejudiced remarks.

“(Gee) can say whatever he thinks with a laugh and a snicker,” Wiecek said.

To Wiecek, Gee’s comment about sending money to Poland was equally as offensive as his initial comment.

“What’s he gonna do, put $1,000 in an envelope and write ‘Poland’ on it?” Wiecek said.

In an open letter to Gee that provided background on some of the Polish Army’s accomplishments, Wiecek wrote, “Poland today has one of the strongest economies in Europe and is a driving force in the EU. So you can keep your money that you jokingly said you would have to raise to make amends for your idiotic remarks.”

The letter included history of the Polish Army, Polish-American communities and traditions, as well as information on famous Polish-Americans such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who was a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

And Wiecek wasn’t alone in sending a letter.

Alex Storozynski, president and executive director of The Kosciuszko Foundation in New York and the son of a decorated Polish Army veteran, sent a letter to the OSU Board of Trustees asking that Gee be publicly reprimanded for the comment and that the Board fund more Polish history classes at OSU.

“As Trustees, you are the governing body for a state university in a state that has nearly half a million Polish-American taxpayers and voters. Yet you offer few classes in Polish language and literature, and no classes in Polish history,” Storozynski wrote. “With your university receiving $493 million in state appropriations and $426 million in other government funding in 2012, surely you can afford to rectify this situation.”

The Kosciuszko Foundation works to increase “American understanding of Polish culture and history,” according to its website.

In response to backlash, Gee emailed an apology to the Chicago-based Polish-American Congress, saying, “As you might know, I made those ill-chosen remarks during a question-and-answer session after delivering a speech. I realized at the time that I had made a mistake.”

Gee did not respond to The Lantern’s request for comment.

In Wiecek’s letter to Gee, he called the apology a “further slap in the face in that it did not fully address the seriousness of (Gee’s) comments or their insulting nature.”

Storozynski called the apology “half-hearted,” saying, “Gee has a history of putting his feet in his mouth and having to apologize. Yet the Ohio State Board of Trustees has made him the highest paid college president in the United States, paying him $1.6 million annually.”

Storozynski wrote in his letter that America’s Founding Fathers gave Kosciuszko a plot of land on the Scioto River in Ohio for his service during the Revolutionary War. The land borders OSU and included what is now Riverside Drive Park in Dublin, Ohio. In September, the park was renamed Thaddeus Kosciuszko Park.

“If Mr. Gee is as much of a straight shooter as Polish soldiers, and has any semblance of decency, he should pay to erect a statue of Kosciuszko in that park,” Storozynski wrote. “With a salary of $1.6 million per year, Mr. Gee can clearly afford it.”

Wiecek said he would like to see Gee take a more hands-on approach at making amends. Wiecek referenced the thousands of Polish soldiers who fought alongside American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and said he would like to see Gee visit a Veterans Hall to either speak with American soldiers about what it was like to work next to Polish soldiers or to meet with Polish veterans and speak to them about their experiences.

“Just last week, there were eight members of the Polish Army killed in a roadside bomb in Afghanistan,” Wiecek said. “What do you say to the families of those Polish soldiers who are fighting and dying for our freedom?”

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