OSU President Emeritus E. Gordon Gee during an interview with The Lantern Oct. 21. Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

OSU President Emeritus E. Gordon Gee during an interview with The Lantern on Oct. 21, 2013. Credit: Lantern File Photo

More than $4 million in university funds, donations and fundraising dollars were sent through a higher education policy center that Ohio State shut down in October 2018 after administrators questioned its usefulness.

The Center for Higher Education Enterprise was created in 2013 to keep former University President Gordon Gee involved with the university shortly after he announced his retirement from Ohio State.

Gee did not stay long. He left after six months to take the interim president position at West Virginia University.

Five years later, the center was shut down after Interim Director Joshua Hawley said there were other offices at the university that could do its job. Hawley said the work of CHEE had strayed from its original mission.

“In short, there was a fundamental difference between the mission planned by Dr. Gee and the mission enacted by Dr. (Terrell) Strayhorn,” who succeeded Gee, Hawley said.

Gee told The Lantern that the creation of the center stemmed from ideas he had during his tenure at Ohio State, which focused on financing education; working more effectively with the federal government; rewarding and recognizing faculty and staff; and recruiting students.

“We are the people’s university, so we can’t simply be all about numbers, SAT scores or grades,” Gee said. “We need to be about community building.”

Hawley said the mission of CHEE changed when Terrell Strayhorn was the director of the center. Strayhorn’s resignation after he was director of the center from 2014 to spring 2017 was followed by an investigation that exposed misuse of university resources, which resulted in him accepting as much as $200,000 in speaking fees.

“I’m proud of the good work that CHEE team accomplished when I was at Ohio State,” Strayhorn said in an email. “Despite CHEE’s closure, I hope that the mission of accountability, affordability, engagement, and excellence will continue.”

Single contributor provides largest donation

The George A. Skestos fund provided the largest donation of $1.5 million toward operating costs of the center, according to an email and University Senate document.

The document also said the donation was paid in three separate installments in which it noted the money was matched by an Ohio State commitment of $1.5 million in operating funds.

According to the Ohio State’s university awards website, Skestos is one of Ohio State’s most engaged and dedicated partners, contributing three decades of leadership and philanthropy.

Neither the university nor Skestos responded by time of publication as to why Skestos donated the money.

For 25 years, Skestos led the Homewood Corporation — a land development and residential construction company that he founded in 1963. Since retiring, he has dedicated his life to public service.

In 2013, Skestos was recognized for his service with the Distinguished Service Award. He has served on the boards of University Hospital, University Hospital East and the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State.

According to the senate document, $708,566 was available for use at the beginning of 2018. From the fund, $675,000 remained unused by the time the center closed and was allocated to the College of Veterinary Medicine based on the donor’s preference, university spokesman Ben Johnson said in an email.

Tina Skestos — George Skestos’ wife — is an advocate for Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, according to Ohio State’s university awards website.

Besides Skestos’ donation, the center brought in gifts and philanthropic grants that amounted to more than $400,000, according to information provided by Johnson. Other donors included the Center for Inclusion, Diversity and Academic Success; CHEE Fund; and USA Funds.

According to the senate document, the center sponsored project funding between 2014-18, raising external funds, including $3,243 in 2014, $284,094 in 2015 and $345,349 in 2017.

Decrease in expenses

Hawley said at the time of the center’s closure there were other institutions on campus in which CHEE’s mission overlapped, and closing CHEE would cause no disruption because its budget had already been cut, and no staff were currently employed.

CHEE’s budget was comparatively small for 2018. According to the University Senate document, CHEE’s budget for the year was $152,437 which was down from about $730,000 in 2017, according to the senate document.

“The current budget is primarily the funding for the Interim Director, and funding for staff/students who were promised funding by the prior director for the 2018 year,” the document read. “Expenditures are almost entirely on Personnel ($113,000) and space ($38,000) as the center still has an obligation for space in the Stadium.”

The document also noted staffing costs included a large number of student workers, as well as four full-time staff members, and “virtually all” funding ran through the operating budget for the center, not from grant funding.

“Given CHEE is a recently developed center; the annual budgets do not provide a stable staffing profile to explain potential use of funds in subsequent years,” the document said.

Continuing CHEE’s mission

Following the center’s closing, Hawley’s report said many institutions on campus will be able to carry on CHEE’s mission. Places mentioned include the University Center for Teaching and Learning, the Kirwan Institute, the Bell National Resource Center on the African Male and the Ohio Education Research Center — where Hawley servers as director — which he cited in the report specifically for public policy and education work.

Ohio State has continued to find other places to carry on CHEE’s mission.

CHEE focused on “finding creative and enterprising ways to improve student success outcomes for public higher education.” In January, Ohio State announced in a press release a new office dedicated to academic success during students’ tenures at the university after 21 units were merged to form the Office of Student Academic Success.

The release said much of OSAS’ function is to increase diversity, improve retention and graduation rates, increase affordability and produce resources and tools to help students succeed academically, which aligned with CHEE’s focus on student affairs and diversity.

Gee told The Lantern that he believes CHEE would have worked if he stayed, noting Strayhorn as the issue.

“The director they appointed after me, frankly, created great problems for the center,” Gee said. “I think there is a great need for this kind of a center. I think if I would have decided to stay, it would have been very successful.”

Updated 12:08 p.m. on Jan. 24 with comment from Strayhorn.