Geek-chic president takes over at Ohio State

Gordon Gee
Gordon Gee, who has been the president of six universities, speaks  after taking over Ohio State University on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.Jay Laprete / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With his horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties, Gordon Gee embodies the geeky college president. And right now geeky is in — along with a stellar fundraising portfolio and an affable manner.

Gee took his sixth job leading a major university Thursday, returning to the nation's largest public school, Ohio State.

"Some people view it as such a burden and so difficult. Every day's tough," said Bill Funk, a headhunter who recruited Gee to job No. 5 at Vanderbilt University. "Gordon gets up every day — assuming he sleeps at all — and I think he must run out of the bedroom."

Six jobs at the top is rare in his field, where holding one or two such positions is far more common, said Sheldon Steinbach, a veteran Washington, D.C.-based higher education lawyer.

But Gee, now age 63, makes a good president because he relentlessly promotes his schools, mixes easily with students and rakes in donations.

Legislative support for the University of Colorado grew almost 40 percent during his tenure. At Vanderbilt, Gee raised records amount of money — including $1.75 billion in construction dollars. He increased the endowment by almost 50 percent, to more than $3 billion.

The first time around at Ohio State, he dropped by off-campus bars to get a sense of student life, especially in years of troublesome post-football game riots. He chatted with Frisbee-tossing students on the campus quadrangle. A teetotaler, he still hung out at fraternity parties and even stayed in dorms. Guess who ordered the pizza.

The school of 51,818 students on its main campus is well-known for sports — it's currently the national runner-up in football and men's basketball. Gee's bow tie fit in well at games and practices, but he was criticized for continuing to support former football coach John Cooper, who struggled to beat rival Michigan.

Gee famously declared the teams' 13-13 tie in 1992 "one of our greatest wins ever."

Left Brown after two years
The once and current president hasn't won them all, either. The fact that Gee is not a renowned scholar — he's a lawyer with a doctorate in education — and his enthusiasm for sports didn't serve him as well at Brown University, where he went after his last stint at Ohio State.

The feeling was mutual. Despite raising $100 million in his second year, he left after only two years for Vanderbilt, saying Brown wasn't a good fit. Faculty and students said they felt betrayed.

Controversy hasn't seemed to slow his stride.

He disbanded Vanderbilt's athletics department and drew scrutiny for the $6 million renovation of the chancellor's mansion, detailed by The Wall Street Journal. The university also paid $700,000 annually for frequent parties and a personal chef at the mansion.

Gee's wife, Constance, also drew some attention, with the Journal reporting that she smoked marijuana at the chancellor's mansion for health reasons.

The couple announced in February they were divorcing.

There's no guarantee Gee will stay at Ohio State. Despite his professed love of the school, he accepted the presidency at the University of California system while at Ohio State in 1995, then backed out a day before his confirmation.

And he originally expressed great enthusiasm for the job at Brown.