With Gee retiring, Ohio State can move on

In a move that will surprise approximately no one, Ohio State president Gordon Gee announced his retirement Tuesday:

Gee, 69, said in a statement he decided during a vacation last week that he would step down July 1.

"During my days away, I also spent some time in self-reflection," Gee said. "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 re-energize and refocus myself."

As you already know, Gee came under fire in the past week when a recording of a Dec. 5 meeting was obtained by the Associated Press. In the recording, taken at a meeting of Ohio State's athletics council, Gee did his best to insult ... well, everyone he could. He tipped the Big Ten's hand in realignment jockeying (and said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany needed to keep his hands out of Ohio State's pockets). He impugned the academic reputation of Louisville, Kentucky and the rest of the SEC. He threw a weird random shot at departing Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. In the coup de grace, amid a discussion of Ohio State's negotiations, Gee actually said "those damn Catholics" couldn't be trusted "on a Thursday or a Friday."

Gee apologized for all of it, in some cases (as with Bielema) both publicly and personally, but the bleeding hadn't yet stopped this weekend, when Louisville coach Rick Pitino went on the radio and called Gee a "pompous a**."

Nor was this Gee's first brush with embarrassing remarks. In 2010, a scheduling quip offended the Little Sisters of the Poor; in 2012, Gee compared the task of organizing Ohio State's sports across its many divisions as analogous to the Polish army, which a Polish-American group called bigoted.

Most famously, during the tattoo scandal that got Ohio State coach Jim Tressel fired, Gee was asked at a news conference whether he had considered dismissing Tressel. His response -- "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me." -- was, like the comments in the December meeting, intended as a joke. The only problem? It wasn't funny.

OK, two problems: In a world where high-profile college athletics are king -- and at few places in the country is that so true as at Ohio State -- Gee's infamous joke revealed something almost sinister about the balance between a major state university's actual mission (education) and its athletic and financial imperatives (winning games). It got people thinking: Was football actually that powerful at Ohio State? Could a tenured football coach actually get a university president fired? Even if the answer was (probably) no, even considering such a notion was a loss for everyone who likes to pretend college sports is still an innocent, noble amateur enterprise. It was a wake-up call, in its own weird way.

All of which is a shame. Because of the comments made late in his career -- Gee has always been a caustic, loose-lipped sort, but never so much to his own detriment -- Gee will be remembered as the guy who said questionable or embarrassing things about Notre Dame, the SEC, and his own former football coach, not as the decorated academic titan his resume describes.

Gee has quite possibly held more university presidencies than any other American. Before he joined Ohio State in 2007, he was president or chancellor at West Virginia, Colorado, Brown and Vanderbilt, in that order. When he was appointed to the West Virginia position in 1981, he was just 37, among the youngest university presidents in the country at that time.

In 2010, Time named Gee the best college president in the United States, and in a profile about the changing face of college presidencies, gave a detailed description of what being the head of a place like Ohio State University really entails:

Gee's permanent campaign mode is an acknowledgment of the power and responsibility of today's higher-ed leaders. He doesn't shy from tasks on par with those of Ohio's big-city mayors, members of Congress, even the governor. "Being president of a major public university is the most political nonpolitical office around," he says. "We're campaigning on behalf of our mission." Gee's power is evident in his $4.35 billion budget — bigger, he notes, than the budget of the state of Delaware — and the outsize role his institution plays in the state's economy. Gee presides over some 40,000 employees, one of the state's largest and best hospitals, a major hive of research, a small-business incubator, a hugely popular sports-entertainment empire, a large portfolio of real estate (including a small city's worth of housing units) and a network of extension operations reaching into nearly every community in the state. In bad times, the university is a significant economic bright spot.

The AP describes Gee as a "a prolific fundraiser" currently "leading a $2.5 billion campaign at Ohio State." Gee "is omnipresent on campus, attending everything from faculty awards events to dormitory pizza parties." By most accounts, Gee was one of the most successful and accomplished educators in the country. You could argue he was the most accomplished, and not just among the living. Maybe there's some master list of "best educators of all-time" floating around the Internet, and I'm overlooking the "Citizen Kane" of 19th-century university presidents. But you get the point.

It is a shame, given those accomplishments, that Gee is taking what appears to be his last best option: retirement. He is 69, and this day would have come eventually anyway, but the timing is impossible to overlook.

Despite his sterling resume, going away is the right move for everyone not named Gordon Gee. Offending religions like the Catholic Church and SEC football is bad enough, and having to email apologies to Bret Bielema is the kind of distraction any university could go without. But the real damage Gee caused is less explicit than anything he said. Like the Tressel comment, whether consciously or not, Gee's behavior diminsished him and the university that employed him. Gee gave the world an implicit impression that Ohio State is not a particularly large and well-funded cradle for advanced human thought, but instead the province of sports-obsessed back-slapping. If you're an Ohio State student or an alum working in the same market as graduates of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Georgetown, Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford -- or insert your favorite elite school here -- you have a distinct financial interest in making sure your degree carries weight. You don't want to be seen as one more beverage-swilling graduate of a large state party school. You're fighting that stereotype already.

Even if you weren't, you'd like your university president to, oh, I don't know ... act like a university president? What happened to gravitas?

The same goes for the Big Ten, which Gee made look elitist and out of touch in contrast with the SEC (again, in perfect concert with stereotype), as well as the NCAA. The NCAA would very much like you to know that college athletics aren't out of control, that they are continually serving the NCAA's university memberships in productive ways, and that amateur athletics as we know them aren't just a luxury of university life but a requirement of any well-rounded higher education. When you have the president of one of your wealthiest and most successful members joking that he hopes his own football coach doesn't dismiss him, everyone's worst fears are confirmed.

In four decades in education, Gee was an asset to each of the schools along his impressive path -- until, thanks to a few dumb jokes, he wasn't. Now, his retirement is good for Ohio State, for the Big Ten, and for the view of college athletics in general. What an unfortunate end to a monumental career.