WVU hires ex-head of Ohio State as interim president

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As one of American higher education's most visible leaders, E. Gordon Gee's name often surfaced when universities sought new presidents, and that apparently occurred in searches at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University.

In a phone interview late Friday, hours after being named West Virginia University's president on an interim basis, Mr. Gee, 69, said that representatives of both Pitt and Penn State approached him early on in their still ongoing searches and "inquired as to whether or not I might have an interest" in being considered.

The president emeritus of Ohio State University declined, saying as he often does that he was committed to his current work.

But Mr. Gee said the WVU offer was different -- a temporary position at the same institution that gave him his first presidency more than three decades ago.

"The reason I'm returning to West Virginia is the fact that they'd given me an opportunity at age 36 to become president, and I had the most marvelous career that anyone could imagine," he said.

But while it will be a homecoming of sorts -- and perhaps a career coming full circle -- there still are adjustments to be made, even to his assortment of more than 1,000 bow ties, none of which carry WVU's colors.

"None of them are gold and blue. A president of Ohio State could never wear blue and gold because of [rival] University of Michigan," he said. "I'll have to go out and get some."

Mr. Gee will serve as president while WVU seeks a permanent successor to Jim Clements, who announced in November his departure at year's end to lead Clemson University. Mr. Gee's appointment is effective in January, and his annualized salary will be $450,000, university officials said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said "the presidential search process is a confidential process and I can neither confirm nor deny the identity of any candidates. The search is ongoing."

Pitt declined comment.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission approved the appointment Friday morning, a day after Mr. Gee received a unanimous nod from WVU's board of trustees.

"He's president on an interim basis, but his official title is not interim president. It's president," said WVU spokesman John Bolt.

Mr. Gee said he asked for the title, noting "it's very important to be engaged in decision making." He will take an unpaid leave from Ohio State, where he remains a faculty member.

"I am delighted that Dr. Gee has accepted our invitation to lead our state's flagship, land-grant university while we conduct a national search for a new WVU system leader," board chairman James W. Dailey II said in a statement. "He is a seasoned and respected higher education leader who has served five major universities over 33 years, and I am confident he will continue the great work going on here and the momentum this university is enjoying.

"What's more, he understands the national higher education landscape and is very familiar with our university. We're thrilled to welcome WVU's 19th president home."

Mr. Gee was twice the president of Ohio State, from 1990-1997 and again from 2007 until July. In between, he served as president of Vanderbilt University from 2000 to 2007 and Brown University's leader from 1998 to 2000 and the University of Colorado's president from 1985 to 1990.

He was WVU's president from 1981 to 1985. Before that, he was dean of WVU's college of law.

Mr. Gee's most recent presidency at Ohio State ended abruptly when he announced his retirement from the post amid controversy over remarks that included comments about Catholics.

The Associated Press reported at the time that it had obtained recorded comments Mr. Gee made last December at an Ohio State Athletics Council meeting. They involved a discussion of why Notre Dame was not in the Big Ten.

"The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they're holy hell on the rest of the week," Associated Press quoted Mr. Gee as saying. "You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday."

Asked about the remarks that sparked controversy shortly before Mr. Gee retired from Ohio State's presidency, officials at WVU said the comments were not enough to disqualify him.

"We know there have been some controversial comments," Mr. Bolt said. "But we also are aware that he has apologized for them and we are focusing on the present and future.

"His leadership and commitment around higher education are undeniable."

In the interview, Mr. Gee said: "I did apologize ... I think it's all part of the process of 33 years of learning from one's own mistakes."

Earlier this year, Mr. Gee said fallout from the matter was only partly why he was stepping down and that he had been weighing the move for some time for reasons that also included his age and where Ohio State stood in a long-term planning process.

"I live in turbulent times and I've had a lot of headwinds, and so almost every occasion, I have just moved on," he said at the time and described himself as "quirky as hell" and not one who likes long transitions.

Mr. Dailey said WVU's board hopes to have a permanent president in place by the fall.

Mr. Gee said that during his temporary tenure, he will look for ways to improve quality while moderating costs. He said WVU faces significant financial challenges "as do all large public universities," adding he hopes to help address those issues "and improve the opportunities for raising money."

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. the Associated Press contributed. First Published December 6, 2013 1:01 PM

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