Leadership & Governance

Gordon Gee Still Can't Resist a Joke

E. Gordon Gee, West Virginia U.

January 24, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz

West Virginia University's president sat down with The Chronicle to reflect on the troubled end of his time at Ohio State and his efforts to secure his legacy.



JACK STRIPLING: Gordon Gee, welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

GORDON GEE: Thank you.

JACK STRIPLING: We appreciate you coming.

GORDON GEE: Thank you.

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JACK STRIPLING: It's always fun to talk with you. So this is your seventh college presidency at five different institutions. So this is a trip back down memory lane to West Virginia. And of course, you did two presidencies at Ohio State. So given the trouble you're known to cause, why do people continue to invite you back? I think it's a mystery.

GORDON GEE: I think probably governors like to have me come back because I get them off the front page. Seriously, I think it's a real honor for me to be there. As you know, I was 36 when I became president at West Virginia University. And I joke about the fact that I've come back to correct all my mistakes, even though they're so far in the back.


GORDON GEE: Also, as we were talking, it's a much different institution, and, I think, the opportunity for me to learn. So I'm very, very happy to be there.

JACK STRIPLING: You're turning 70 next month, is that right?

GORDON GEE: I'm turning 70 next month, right.

JACK STRIPLING: So you still have a chance to go back to Vanderbilt, and Brown, and Colorado.

GORDON GEE: Well, yeah, I was just going to make that comment. Yeah, I mean, I still have a chance. So I think that probably I may have a shot at Colorado, may have a shot at Vanderbilt. Brown could be a little--

JACK STRIPLING: A little more of a challenge?

GORDON GEE: Right, yeah.

JACK STRIPLING: OK, OK. All right. Fair enough. Well, I also wonder whether going back to West Virginia-- I mean, you say you're kind of doing them a solid because they gave you your start, and you're sort of pinch hitting here until they move into the next president. But I also wonder whether it's a chance of ending on a slightly different note, frankly.

GORDON GEE: I think so. I think, absolutely. If I were very honest, an abrupt change as I had at Ohio State is not necessarily the way that I would have envisioned leaving it. But I did it at least on my own terms. But I think that an opportunity to both pay forward, as I think of it, an opportunity, I think, to try out some of the ideas that I've had at a place that I really value and appreciate. And the tone feels really good to me.

JACK STRIPLING: Yeah. So you acknowledged, when you and I spoke when you retired at Ohio State, or announced your retirement, and you acknowledged some turbulence was a word that you used several times. But the board did not say that you were forced out in any way.


JACK STRIPLING: And that was not what you said. At the same time, I do I wonder whether it did seem that you were on a tight leash. The board had said at that point, hey, if we have another situation, we may have to take some real action. Could you have lived in that environment?

GORDON GEE: Well, I think that I'm a quirky guy. Made my living being quirky. And I think that I don't play well in a tightly orchestrated environment. And the issue is over 35 years, I've had enormous success. I've had enormous failures, too. But I've done it on my own terms and I like that.

So the answer is I think that any university present who really wants to be energetic and creative, and wants to be in a leadership role, you want to make sure that you're not looking both through the rear-view mirror and through the windshield. And sometimes it becomes a little tight.

JACK STRIPLING: So that might have been difficult to have been in that position.

GORDON GEE: First of all, as you know, the people in Ohio have been gracious to me. And certainly since I've left, I've had nothing but great opportunities. I continued to do all those things with the governor, and with Gates and a lot of other things. But also, I think the opportunity at West Virginia was a way for me to find my voice at a time when I have a lot to say.

JACK STRIPLING: Selfishly, I kind of worry about a president who is known for humor and is known to be exciting. I talked to a lot of college presidents. Quite frankly, they're not all very exciting. And I worry about whether the arc of your career might be seen as some sort of cautionary tale. That it's you're proof that you should be a humorless, buttoned-up sort of person because it's too risky to have a personality. Is that worth me worrying about?

GORDON GEE: No, I don't there is-- first of all, not certainly with me because-- in fact, I think that Jack Stripling wrote a great article on the fact that I've been kind of an ultimate survivor. So certainly over the arc my career, it's been very positive and very affirming. I do think that in today's world, in which there's instant gratification through blogging and through tweeting and so forth, I think it is much more difficult to be a university president and be yourself. And I think that that is the challenge.

And I say this with great respect for my colleagues, but I think that increasingly, people become presidents of a university by having offended the fewest number of people the longest period of time. And that, in my sense, is somewhat of the fallout of the nature of these jobs.

JACK STRIPLING: I want to ask about humor, though, as a device within the presidency. How have you relied upon this personality and--

GORDON GEE: I think this. I always say that the three ingredients of success-- and I think you and I have had this conversation before. The three ingredients of success for a university president in my view is one, is the fact that you have to have a very thick skin, and particularly in today's world. Secondly of all, you have to have nerves like sewer pipe. You make decisions, you got to be willing to live with those decisions.

But I think the number one ingredient for success in today's world, particularly, is to have a good sense of humor. If you can't laugh at yourself, if you can't make fun of yourself, if you can't enjoy a good sense of humor, you will not survive in this business.

JACK STRIPLING: Now, in our world, we know some of your greatest hits, but the people watching this may not. And the joke that caused the most trouble is said at a sports conference at Ohio State. And it's something along the lines of the holy fathers are holy on Sunday, but holy hell the rest of the week. And I have to say that sometimes people get in trouble because it sounds like they're saying something very off the cuff, and that it's a spontaneous slip of the tongue. That felt A little like a recycled line to me, though. Have you said that before?

GORDON GEE: Well, probably not. The truth of the matter is I have great admiration for Father Jenkins, for Notre Dame. I actually visited. I've always said about my friends in the Catholic leadership is the fact that they practice exactly what they preach, which is forgiveness. And they were the most forgiving. Some people were not as quite as forgiving, but they certainly were.

JACK STRIPLING: Right. And when I spent some time with you up at Columbus. You also, you joke a lot about your Mormonism.

GORDON GEE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

JACK STRIPLING: That's a very risky terrain of humor that Mark Twain and George Carlin have navigated pretty well. Are you drawn to those types of jokes?

GORDON GEE: Yeah, probably not. The person that, and the humor that I have, is mainly self-deprecating.

JACK STRIPLING: It's often at your own expense.

GORDON GEE: I had things happen to me that are just hilarious and I just enjoy telling about it. And first of all, it's humanizing. And secondly of all, it makes me feel comfortable.

JACK STRIPLING: So what did the board say at West Virginia when you came in? There had to be some conversation acknowledging that this has been an issue before.

GORDON GEE: You know, they really didn't say anything, as a matter of fact. And I think they acknowledged the fact that I had--

JACK STRIPLING: There's nothing in writing that says one bad joke and you're out?

GORDON GEE: No, no. Quite the contrary. They've been wonderfully gracious. And hopefully, their confidence in me will pay off.

JACK STRIPLING: Because you're in this interim capacity, are you reluctant to take on some things that have traditionally been hot button? Athletics has always been a third rail in a lot of presidents' career, but particularly yours. Would you be willing to fire a coach if you needed to or take [INAUDIBLE]?

GORDON GEE: I specifically want to note the fact that I am the 24th President of West Virginia University, so I'm not an interim president.

JACK STRIPLING: OK. I understand that. Yeah, right.

GORDON GEE: I am there for a term. And the reason for that is the fact that I'm just not very good acting. I'm very driven toward doing. And so any decisions that I think need to be made there, I'll make them.

JACK STRIPLING: You don't feel they should be left to whomever is selected.

GORDON GEE: No. Hopefully, part of the opportunity that I have is to make certain that the institution continues to maintain momentum. One of the mistakes I always believe that presidents make is never follow a good act. And I have followed a great act. I think Jim Clements did a wonderful job. So in some ways, I'm in a much different position so that I can continue the momentum of the institution without having a lot of a sturm und drang going on.

JACK STRIPLING: So how would you define success in this-- well, it's not an interim role. It is a termed role, as you said.

GORDON GEE: I think first of all, in a legislative term, I think I would define success if we can advocate very clearly to the people of West Virginia our importance. I think the second thing is if we can maintain the momentum of our fundraising campaign. Just announced this week that we've crossed well over the $700 million mark. And they had a $750 million goal and they're way ahead. So I'd love to be able to finish that.

JACK STRIPLING: Have you asked anybody who gave you money at Ohio State to give you money at West Virginia?


JACK STRIPLING: But you got the Rolodex?

GORDON GEE: I've got the Rolodex and willing to do so.

And the third thing, obviously, is to take a look at reestablishing and establishing and reestablishing a relationship between then. And you and I have talked about this before, my strong belief that the great public land grant universities like West Virginia University really need to be embedded in the quality and substance of life in the state. And so I'm going to work very hard to do that. You know, I visited the 88 counties in Ohio and I intend on visiting the 55 counties in West Virginia.

JACK STRIPLING: Well, Gordon Gee, always a pleasure. Good luck to you in your next endeavor.

GORDON GEE: Thank you.

JACK STRIPLING: Really appreciate it.

GORDON GEE: Thank you. Good to see you.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.