MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- He showed up Tuesday fittingly attired -- right down to a newly purchased bow tie to augment the hundreds he owns, but the only one with West Virginia University's blue and gold colors.
Speaking to reporters and to well-wishers welcoming him back to campus, E. Gordon Gee, 69, said rather than be a caretaker president, he would work to ensure the research university of 33,000 students continues its forward push as the state's "singularly important institution."
And he pledged that he would try to remember during his temporary tenure something he did not fully grasp at age 36, the first time he became WVU's president more than three decades ago.
"The power of the university is that we are one university, that we are not a collection of colleges connected by a heating plant," he said. "You just don't have a health sciences center and you have a college of arts and sciences and you have college of engineering."
He said WVU's real strength is in "its size and its scope and the integration of ideas and opportunities."
Mr. Gee, one of American higher education's most colorful figures and president emeritus of Ohio State University, was reintroduced to the campus that launched his career as a university president. In less than a month, he begins a temporary stint as president while WVU looks for a permanent successor to Jim Clements, who has announced he will leave at year's end to head Clemson University.
Mr. Gee seemed right at home in the Erickson Alumni Center on Tuesday as he accepted applause at a campuswide reception preceded by a news conference. Wearing a blue jacket andV-neck sweater, he donned a WVU ball cap -- a gift presented to him during the news conference -- and seemed to relish the limelight as news photographers captured the moment.
Introduced by trustees chairman Jim Dailey II, Mr. Gee said he was grateful "for the opportunity I have to return to a place that I love and a place that I appreciate. But I most importantly want to thank the people of West Virginia. At age 36, they gave me an opportunity to have an extraordinary life."
He pledged to work with the school's faculty and spoke of the importance of land-grant universities such as WVU in "opening the door to the American dream to everyone." WVU, he said, is "a singularly important institution in a very significant time in this state. And I am grateful that I will be here to be a part of that."
He told reporters he is coming to a place that has "a tremendous amount of institutional momentum, has found its place in the world has a nobility about it."
But he said such status is not necessarily measured in the Nobel prizes. "Someone asked me ... 'Would you like to find people who are going to win Nobel Prizes?' Obviously," he said. "But I think that Nobel prizes are not the greatness of an institution What is the greatness of an institution is its people and their belief in the place."
Mr. Gee was named Friday to the $450,000 post. He will be president effective Jan. 6 on an interim basis, but his official title at WVU will not be "interim president" but rather "president." It is a distinction that Mr. Gee said he asked for because "it's very important to be engaged in decision-making."
He is taking an unpaid leave from Ohio State, where he remains a faculty member.
This will be the seventh presidency for Mr. Gee.
He was twice the president of Ohio State, from 1990-1997 and again from 2007 until July. In between, he was at Vanderbilt University from 2000 to 2007, Brown University from 1998 to 2000 and the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1990.
He was WVU's president from 1981 to 1985. Before that, he was dean of WVU's college of law.
Earlier this year, Mr. Gee's stint at Ohio State ended abruptly when he announced his retirement from the job amid controversy over remarks that included comments about Catholics. Asked about the remarks Friday, Mr. Gee told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "I did apologize ... I think it's all part of the process of 33 years of learning from one's own mistakes."
At the news conference Tuesday, Mr. Dailey noted Mr. Gee's mark in higher education as he introduced him and said he was struck by the man's enthusiasm.
"We're blessed to bring back that knowledge, that experience, that dedication," Mr. Dailey said.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published December 10, 2013 3:54 PM