WVU leader Gordon Gee seems to be everywhere

Gee’s temporary university presidency is poised to become permanent

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Take a 70-year-old university president already known for showing up at all hours in unlikely places, give him a Twitter account and toss in a bow tie.

E. Gordon Gee has been attracting attention at West Virginia University ever since arriving in January for a presidency that started out as temporary but is poised to become permanent.

Even before WVU's board of governors voted Monday to forgo other potential picks in their presidential search for the man already on the job, Mr. Gee was making a case that he is engaged, using a social media platform some say eventually will be vital to the success of college presidencies.

There he is in one Twitter post to @gordongee, mugging after hours with students in a Downtown gathering spot. There he is in another tweet pictured with WVU's board, all wearing bow ties to the delight of the man whose outsized collection of them has become his fashion signature.

From the picture he tweeted of his meeting with a political science professor and her students, to another at a Mountaineers basketball game, to yet another of him posing in the student union during WVU's Up All Night, the guy in the blue-and-gold bow tie seems to be everywhere.

"I love to dance, so I had to check out the Dance Marathon today," he said in a tweet 10 days ago about a campus fundraiser. "Stop by Stansbury Hall until midnight and support the Children's Hospital."

There was even a photo on his feed sent from state Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, showing men in the West Virginia Senate chambers wearing ... you guessed it.

"It was bow tie day," the president observed. "Looking sharp."

To some, his tweets stretching to midnight and beyond are an extension of a style that has endeared him to students at WVU and other campuses where he has been president, most recently Ohio State University. Others dismiss them as self-promotion and ask how long will it be before he says something controversial, such as his comments about individuals including Catholics that preceded his abrupt decision to leave Ohio State's presidency last year.

But there is no denying he has managed -- with help from social media -- to cast himself as a not-so-ordinary campus CEO, and in doing so enhanced his homecoming to the place where he got his first presidency at age 36.

Mr. Gee is now one vote shy of formal ratification. His appointment still must pass the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, although there was no indication his candidacy will run into trouble there.

A date for that meeting has not been announced.

Monday's vote, conducted via teleconference, is an about-face for a board that in November passed a resolution stating Mr. Gee would not be considered as a permanent successor to Jim Clements, who left at year's end to become president of Clemson University.

The vote came three days after a presidential search committee scheduled an emergency meeting Friday and recommended that the board rescind the November motion disqualifying Mr. Gee from permanent appointment. The committee advised the board instead to take all necessary steps to retain Mr. Gee, and chair James W. Dailey II said it was based in large part on the impact he has already had on the university.

"His energy, his vitality, his enthusiasm -- it never stops," Mr. Dailey said. "He thrives on interaction."

But he said the decision was less about selfies snapped on campus than about the gains already noticed in relations with groups such as state legislators and donors, some of whom had not previously been courted by WVU.

Mr. Gee is not the only college president out there tweeting.

From private liberal arts campuses such as Amherst College to sprawling public institutions like Kansas State University, a limited but growing number of presidents are using social media to offer their take on the day's events, to promote campus successes and to cite people from their own faculty experts to the Dalai Lama.

With so much of society's conversation occurring through social media, it's not surprising those campus leaders have joined in, said George Potts, vice president for social media with Brunner, a Pittsburgh advertising agency.

"If they're using it in the right manner, one could argue that it is increasing that institution's social currency among its constituents, including existing and potential students," he said.

Some tweet by the hour. Others seldom use their accounts, something Mr. Potts said is perhaps the biggest faux pas because it can suggest the president was told by others to get an account.

Mr. Gee has more than 53,000 Twitter followers. He had tweeted nearly 3,200 times from well beyond his days at WVU. And he has what campus officials describe as that rarest of tools for a sitting campus president -- an Instagram account.

One objective of Mr. Gee's presidency is breaking down barriers between students and the WVU administration, said Celeste Lantz, 23, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum. She said it seems to be working.

"He actually went to a house party," she said.

Mr. Gee was unavailable to discuss the search panel recommendation that he be kept on permanently. But all one needed to do Monday was check him out on Twitter. "Delighted to stay on long-term at WVU," he tweeted.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published March 3, 2014 10:57 AM

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