E. Gordon Gee: Tied to Education

Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee ’71 says in the new economic order, universities must change or risk becoming dinosaurs

By James Vescovi

Winter 2010

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America’s current financial turmoil will reorder the economy, and universities
that fail to adapt will become “dinosaurs,” says Ohio State University President
E. Gordon Gee ’71, who is known for his colorful bow ties, as well as his
mutually colorful language. “At Ohio State, we’re an elephant on our way to becoming
a ballerina.”

The peripatetic Gee oversees a large research institution with nearly 62,000 students, and if he had his way, he would meet everyone single one. He certainly gives it the old college try, walking the campus, eating in dining halls, and meeting students on their turf. Should you phone him at midnight, you might find him chatting with students at the campus recreation center or a party.

“These things provide me with keen insight into ways to improve the university’s mission,” he says. 

While some might call him a showman, Gee is only being himself, something he came to realize was of paramount importance to him soon after being named president of West Virginia University in 1981. Within months of his appointment, board members asked then-36-year-old Gee to appear more “presidential.” That meant not only exchanging his bow ties and argyle socks for gray suits, but acting more stand-offish.

“I was miserable, so I went back to being myself,” recalls Gee. “If I was going to fail, I’d do it on my terms.”

Gee has done anything but fail. In 1985, he left West Virginia to become president of the University of Colorado, followed by stints at Brown and Vanderbilt. Now in his second presidential term at OSU (the first spanned from 1990 through 1997), Gee expects to drive himself harder than ever.

“If I perform at the same level [as before], Ohio State has made a mistake in hiring me,” he says.

What Gee and Ohio State must achieve is nothing short of a radical reorganization of the American university, he says. “Traditionally, universities are structured vertically. We need to remake ourselves horizontally.”

For Ohio State, that means organizing the university around ideas and institutes, as opposed to fiefdom-like schools. Gee prefers the term “trans-institutional” to “interdisciplinary” because he believes that traditional disciplines will have to change, or at least possess very permeable borders. Curricula must be quickly adaptable to meet society’s needs, and new relationships must be forged with state governments, business, and nonprofits.

“Fifty years ago, biologists and chemists didn’t mix much,” Gee says. “Today, bio-chemistry is a huge field. Universities are the future economic catalyst, and they must take a stronger leadership role in society.”

Gee, who grew up in a small town 100 miles east of Salt Lake City, developed an interest in education as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. He cultivated that interest in New York City, where he earned his J.D. at Columbia Law School and an Ed.D. at the Teacher’s College. His dissertation focused on legal problems confronting educational institutions.

“It begins with the university president. I have to create the environment that will allow people to achieve great things,” he says.

While Gee is perennially ready to share his ideas, he is often asked about how bow ties—of which he has more than 900—came to be his trademark.

“I was a teenager sitting in a doctor’s office when I laid eyes on my first one. The guy untied and then retied it for me. I was hooked,” Gee says. His unconventional nature has limits, though. Has he ever worn a clip-on? “I’d shoot myself first,” he says.

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Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee '71 with OSU cheerleaders