Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Gordon Gee: The Ultimate Presidential Vagabound

By Richard Vedder

The only university president who has entertained me in his presidential role on two campuses is Gordon Gee (once at Ohio State, once at Vanderbilt). Gordon Gee is the ultimate sign of the times, the university president who goes from job to job, moving up the pay schedule until now, at Vanderbilt, he is reputedly the nation's highest paid president. But the Columbus Dispatch is reporting on its web site that Gordon is returning home --or, rather, to one of his many previous homes, Columbus.

I lost track of how many schools President Gee has led. Some like Colorado and Ohio State, are well known public universities. Others, like Brown and Vanderbilt, are prestigious private ones. Gordon has a gift for gab, a penchant for fund raising, and sort of an engaging personality that is part intellectual, part redneck good ole boy. His salary at OSU will no doubt be in the seven digits.

How is President Gee in many ways the personification of American higher education today?

1) He is extremely mobile, showing none of the loyalty to an institution for life attitude that used to be prevalent in higher education but is now on the decline.

2) He has been at the forefront of developing the phenomenon of the highly paid academic entrepreneur, whose salary has escalated with every move and every large gift he snarls;

3) He personifies the notion of the "corporate university president," living more like a corporate executive, spending $6 million to renovate his home in Vanderbilt, and one willing to spend hundreds of thousands annually on lavish entertainment (I can personally attest that he throws a good party);

4) There is not a heck of lot of gravitas to Gee, no deeper philosophical moorings that are his compass; he is pragmatic more than intellectual. He is not writing the deep think pieces for the prestige press on the future of higher education, or the need (if any) of a core curriculum in universities.

5)However, he can do innovative things, such as when he forced the Vanderbilt athletic department to report to top university administrators like everyone else rather than running its own empire (commenting that if he had done that in Columbus, he would have ended up "pumping gas.")

The highest level administrators at the great universities I know alternatively despise, despair or are jealous of Gee, looking at him as a rube upstart without the cultivation and manners and dignity that a university president should have. But he delivers --raises schools in the US News and World Report rankings, builds pretty buildings, throws great parties, and raises tons of cash. Isn't that what higher education is all about these days?

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