Days after making national headlines for ill-advised comments, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee announced on Tuesday that he intends to retire effective July 1.
Gee has let his mouth get him in trouble several times in the past, but never before did the heat on the administrator rise to the level of late May after The Associated Press published inflammatory remarks Gee made about Catholics, the SEC, multiple other universities, former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and others during an Athletics Council meeting last December.
Gee, 69, served as Ohio State’s president for two terms – from 1990-97 and 2007 to now – but he’ll be replaced on an interim bases by Executive Vice President and Provost Joseph A. Alutto at the beginning of July. Dr. Alutto previously served as interim president in 2007 before Gee returned to Ohio State.
“I recently returned from a vacation with my family, during which time I had a chance to consider the university’s phenomenal achievements and the road that lies ahead for it,” Gee said. “Ohio State now has a richness of new opportunities that would be the envy of most universities. During my days away, I also spent some time in self-reflection. And after much deliberation, I have decided it is now time for me to turn over the reins of leadership to allow the seeds that we have planted to grow. It is also time for me to reenergize and refocus myself.
“I began my career at Ohio State in 1990, and I was honored to return as its leader six years ago. I am proud to have played a critical role in the university’s transformation from excellence to eminence. I plan to work closely with the Trustees and Dr. Alutto to ensure the smoothest transition possible. I cannot express enough my deep appreciation to the people of Ohio for the opportunity they have given me to lead this great university. I love this university, and although I might be retiring from the presidency, my work with Ohio State will continue. No matter what the future may hold for me, Ohio is my home,” concluded President Gee.
Gee, a Mormon, made his most recent verbal gaffes when he told attendees at the Athletics Council meeting, “You can’t trust those damn Catholics,” when discussing the Big Ten’s courtship of Notre Dame before the Indiana-based institution eventually decided to join the ACC as a partial member instead.
Also on the topic of Big Ten expansion, he questioned the academic integrity of Louisville and Kentucky while adding that Cincinnati had no chance to ever join the Big Ten.
“You know Penn State just abhors Pitt – it would be the same way (with us and Cincinnati),” Gee said. “Even though we love Cincinnati as a city, we want it to be an Ohio State city. They’d have to take (OSU athletics director Gene Smith) out and shoot him to let Cincinnati into the Big Ten. There are some things that we just would not to. And that’s the way that Penn State also feels about Pitt.”
He called Bielema’s decision to leave Wisconsin to become coach at Arkansas a blessing for the Badgers and hinted at a riff between Bielema and UW athletics director Barry Alvarez.
“They didn’t like him,” Gee said. “Barry Alvarez thought he was a thug. And he left just ahead of the sheriff.”
According to the AP, the Ohio State board of trustees was already aware of the comments and had instituted a remediation plan in response before the article was published.
Gee issued an apology via Twitter, saying, “I am truly sorry for my comments – such attempts at humor do not reflect Ohio State values, nor my role as its president,” but a firestorm had already erupted in response.
Along with a barrage of angry columns written about Gee, many of the subjects released responses in some form or another.
Perhaps the most vociferous answer came from current Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino, who previously was head coach at Kentucky.
“When people have to make jokes and denigrate others to get laughter, that means they’re truly ignorant of the facts, and certainly he is ignorant of the facts,” Pitino told WHAS radio.
“I don’t know what denomination he is or what lord he prays to, but trying to get jokes out of that, it really, really boils me. It’s a pompous attitude and certainly I have a major problem with him, not with Ohio State, and he’s a pompous ass for making those statements.”
Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long and Cincinnati president Santa Ono also understandably took issue with Gee’s comments.
“As a member of the higher education community, a director of athletics and a native of Ohio, I am deeply troubled by the unfounded and slanderous remarks the president of the state’s flagship institution, Dr. E. Gordon Gee, made about coach Bret Bielema,” said Long, a Kettering native. “While I recognize Dr. Gee has issued an apology stating his regret for his comments, it does not erase the unwarranted attack on Bret’s character.”
While Long issued his statement via the Arkansas athletics team site, Ono used Twitter to publicize his response.
“Although I am disappointed with President Gee’s comments about UC, he did call me personally last week to apologize,” Ono wrote May 31. “I accepted his apology.”
Meanwhile, Catholic League president Bill Donohue urged judgments of Gee not to be too harsh.
“It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath,” Donohue said. “I have never met President Gee, but it is clear from what I read that what he said was made in jest. Was it dumb? For someone of his stature, yes. But context and tone matter, as does the frequency of what may be considered an offensive remark. A real bigot is someone who repeatedly, and maliciously, attacks others. Gee is not such a man.”
Though Gee leaves Ohio State amid more negative news, Schottenstein said the university benefitted greatly during his leadership and that it was Gee’s decision to retire.
“Dr. Gee and I met this morning, and he informed me of his decision to retire,” Schottenstein said. “By any measure, Gordon has been a transformational leader for Ohio State. His service to Ohio State has been superb. This man has been an inspiration to many people, including me, and we all are forever grateful for his friendship.
“His thoughtful and unique leadership style has taken the University to new levels. His engagement with the entire Ohio State community is truly remarkable. Clearly he leaves a rich and lasting legacy and will be missed. On behalf of the Board, I would like to express our profound gratitude to President Gee for his service to The Ohio State University. As we go forward, the university board will work in close partnership with Dr. Gee and Dr. Alutto through this period to continue the tremendous success and growth we have seen under his leadership.”
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