For the second time in a 16-year span, E. Gordon Gee has sent Ohio State searching for a new leader.
Gee left his first term as OSU president, which began Sept. 1, 1990, when he was elected as president of Brown University by the university’s governing body in June 1997. Gee remained at OSU until Jan. 2, 1998, roughly six months after his plan to depart was announced.
His second departure, however, was much more sudden.
Gee announced his retirement from the presidency June 4, days after controversial comments he made about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference, among others, during an Athletic Council meeting Dec. 5 became publicly criticized.
Herb Asher, OSU’s senior vice president for Government Affairs and counselor to the president, was a member of the presidential office staff for both of Gee’s presidential terms.
“There was a much greater level of surprise this time,” Asher said of Gee’s retirement.
Gee is the only president in OSU history who has served two distinct terms, though Edward Harrington Jennings, who was the president from 1981 until the start of Gee’s first term, returned as interim president for a time in 2002. Joseph Alutto is serving his second term as interim president, having previously held that role prior to Gee’s second term.
The experience Gee gained at Brown and Vanderbilt, spanning nearly 10 years, made him a better leader during his second term at OSU, he said.
“I was a lot younger, I was also probably not as tuned to the nature of a significant complex institution,” Gee said in an interview with The Lantern Oct. 21 about his first term, which began when he was 46 years old. “Even though I’d run two big institutions before, Ohio State is so much different. Ohio State is the difference between an aircraft carrier and a speed boat.”
By his second term, the president emeritus said he learned to trust OSU’s “very talented” faculty.
“What you do is become more of a catalyst for change and engage in a stronger visionary leadership role,” Gee said. “So the second term was substantially different from the first term for me.”
Asher agreed Gee’s second OSU presidency was a better one.
“The second term was more focused, more disciplined, more a sense of prioritizing,” Asher said. “In the first term, there were so many things that needed to be considered and decided, and I think in the second term, I think we had really then charted a path that the university would be taking.”
Overall, Asher said Gee’s leadership made a “tangible and intangible” impact on the university.
“Whether you’re talking about the quality of the student body, you’re talking about the quality of the academic programs, whether you’re talking about the physical plan, I think there’s been so much change and so much progress,” Asher said.
Although Gee no longer holds the university’s top leadership position, he is not leaving OSU entirely this time around. While he plans to teach at Harvard University during Spring Semester, he still has an office at OSU — albeit a smaller one than his former suite in Bricker Hall.
“I want to be an active member of the university family and make certain I am contributing in any way possible to the success of the institution,” Gee said.
While Asher said the transition is different than the end of Gee’s first term because Gee is not leaving the university, he does not think Gee’s continued involvement will be a “major issue one way or the other.”
“It makes it a little different,” Asher said. “I don’t think it creates any problems. Not sure it makes it smoother or not … Obviously Gordon’s a higher-profile person than a lot of ex-presidents, but we’ve certainly had examples here at Ohio State where the former president stayed on campus.”
Undergraduate Student Government President Taylor Stepp, who is a member of the Presidential Search Committee, said he thinks Gee will still have a “prominent role” in the university moving forward.
“(Gee’s) role will shift,” Stepp said. “It’s really compelling that we have so many leaders in higher education around Ohio State right now. I think it’s an asset. I think it’s something that leaders take advantage of. Leaders should take advantage of the wise counsel around them.”
Some other OSU students were also glad Gee will stick around.
“(Gee’s) kind of like the royalty in England, a bit of a figurehead,” said Katie Lemon, a first-year in education. “He doesn’t actually do as much anymore, but he’s still there.”
Lindsey Schultz, a third-year in sports management, said Gee’s presence could still positively affect OSU post-retirement.
“It’s great to stay involved in any university that you were once a part of,” Schultz said.
Gee, who has also been president of West Virginia University and University of Colorado and chancellor of Vanderbilt University, said he does not plan to pursue another presidency.
As for the transition process itself, how long it will take has not yet been determined. Presidential Search Committee Chairman Jeffrey Wadsworth said July 19 the process of finding an outside candidate takes approximately 300 days.
Alutto, who came to OSU during Gee’s first term in 1991 as the dean of the Fisher College of Business, then served as executive vice president and provost during Gee’s second presidential term, acknowledged Sept. 23 during an editorial board meeting with The Lantern that the transition away from Gee could be difficult given the former president’s prominence.
“Ultimately, this is about Ohio State, not about who is the president,” Alutto said. “It’s an issue a new president will deal with. I think it’s an issue that we’re dealing with now. And Gordon is helping in the sense that he knows that there is a need for some distance between himself and the next president.”
While Gee remains an integral part of the institution, he believes the university community will support the next president.
“This is a very embracing place and they’ll be very supportive of the new president,” Gee said. “Whoever that is.”