In a bold move in the recent history of major American universities, Dr. E. Gordon Gee, who served as 11th president of The Ohio State University from 1990 to 1997, returned as its 14th president in October 2007. Discovery editor Ron Shaull had the opportunity to talk with the witty and energetic Dr. Gee to discuss his “spiritual decision” to return, and his vision for the leading role Ohio State can play in the health sciences, in the world, and in the lives of all of the people it touches.
Q: How have your first few months lived up to your expectations?
A: My first months have been like living in a tsunami: very hectic and very wild but not unexpected. When I came here the first time, I had been a university president for only 10 years; it was really overwhelming. My view is The Ohio State University is the most intense institution for a president in the country, with it being close to the state legislature, with it being in the center of the state, with 11 million Ohioans and well into 400,000 living alumni engaged with it, and then having 60,000 students and 40,000 faculty and staff. Saying all that, this time around at least I knew what to expect. Even though it’s been very intense, it’s been very gratifying.
Q: Any big surprises?
A: On the up side, this should not be surprising, the institution has continued to have a real dash for distinction. It’s an institution that has made incredible progress. It is clearly without a doubt one of this nation’s great universities. I think perhaps the only major surprise that I’ve found is the fact that I think we have an embedded bureaucratic mindset that we need to change, and I intend on working very hard to make that happen. We need to be swift. We need to be agile. As I was telling someone today, we need to be a ballerina, not an elephant.
Q: How did your upbringing in Vernal, Utah, influence who you are today?
A: I grew up in a very small town having no access to modern conveniences. It was a very small community. So, the notion of family and community was very important to me, and they remain to this day an enormous influence on my life. It was very much a common theme in my life – church, family, community. I had teachers all along the way who were very influential to me in that small community.
Q: Then you did your undergraduate degree at the University of Utah; why history?
A: I felt that it was kind of a renaissance degree. I had just spent nearly three years on a Mormon mission right after my first year – in Germany – so the opportunity to have some sense about the history of the world was very enticing to me. I’m still a student of history. I’m a voracious reader and love to read biographies and autobiographies. I just finished American Sphinx, Joseph Ellis’ psychological study of Thomas Jefferson. A wonderful book.
Q: Had you always intended to go to law school?
A: No, I actually was headed toward medical school but then decided at the last minute to run for political office, was elected, then stayed at the University of Utah. Then, I headed off to law school after that. Columbia at that time had a great law school and a great College of Education, and I started to develop this interest in law in education.
Q: You moved from law faculty to associate dean very quickly at Brigham Young, then to law dean at West Virginia (1979), then to president of WVU in 1981. Was this move from faculty to administration by design or opportunity or coaxing?
A: It was all sheer, bald luck. My area of interest is legal problems in educational institutions, so I started to write and publish about those. And some people said, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, try a little bit of this.’ And that’s kind of how I got into the deaning business. Then the president of West Virginia University left to become chancellor of the University of Kansas, and there was a preponderance of lawyers on the search committee. All of the sudden, I became the candidate and was selected as president of the university. It probably would not happen that way today.
Q: You said in one of your recent speeches that you came back to Ohio State with “a clarity of purpose.” What in your experience as president of these five universities has given you this clarity of purpose?
A: First of all, I’ve done it for a long time. No one has been a president of major American universities longer than I have right now, so you gain some experience. Second, my time at both Brown and Vanderbilt was a great teaching moment for me. Those were two world-class universities, and they gave me a clearer understanding of how one really focuses on quality. Their very existence depends upon their ability to be able to do things better than anyone else. I think returning to Ohio State gives me an opportunity to make those learning experiences part of the fabric of my time here.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about that. You called your return a “spiritual decision” and, from my reading, I see that in two contexts. One is very personal and the other is your vision of the role of the American university. On the personal side, what is the source of this spirit or you?
A: I felt that for a variety of issues that I was confronting in my life, probably spiritually this was a cleansing opportunity for me, an opportunity to re-establish my life the way I wanted to. Separately, there is just a great spirit about the place. It’s unique in American higher education. There’s no place on Earth where people will yell across a crowded room O-H without someone screaming back I-O. That kind of spirit has to do with the special relationship between this institution and the people it serves.
Q: I’ve heard you say, too, about “the role of the American university in the world,” that it has not stepped up and taken its proper role to lead spiritually.
A: I think there is that calling. As we take a look at the world right now, we are in a very ornery time. I think that the great American university, and I think particularly this great American university, has a role to play in terms of civility, in terms of direction, in terms of dialogue, in terms of creating ideas, in terms of creating solutions. I think it has an opportunity to serve the people of this state in a unique way, to create jobs and opportunity. This is a university that generates young people and not-so-young people who go out into the world with great hope, and I think that journey, that opportunity, that calling is very special. Ohio State is a unique institution. It is Michigan and Michigan State combined. It’s Iowa and Iowa State combined. It’s Indiana and Purdue combined. It’s Virginia and Virginia Tech combined. It is both the state’s major research university and the state’s land-grant university, and in that combination, that crucible, we have a uniqueness that few, if any, institutions can match.
Q: You’ve said that Ohio State “must be agile in action and urgent of purpose.” Why, do you think?
A: We have much to do. We can’t get caught up in being an administrative behemoth. What we have to do is get our work done. We have to get our work done swiftly with the least amount of impediment. I believe what we have entered over the last seven, eight, maybe 20 years – some of that can be put right on my own doorstep – is that we have become risk-averse and, in so doing, we do not make decisions wisely and swiftly at the level where we should. It allows everyone to say you can’t do something. I only want to hear one word at the University, and that’s “yes,” –“yes we want to do it.” The other very proper word is “no,” and when we say “no,” then we mean it. We can’t have all these “maybes.”
Q: The presidential search committee wanted a “sitting president who had experience with an academic medical center.” Why, do you think?
A: Well, because the academic medical center of this institution represents half of our budget, half of our opportunity and half of our challenge, at the very least. When wisely integrated into the life of the institution, it can be one of its most powerful intellectual components.
Q: You’ve had an opportunity to visit the Medical Center several times since you’ve been back. What’s your general impression?
A: Well, of course I spent seven years here before. I’m one of the few university presidents who is not afraid of medical centers. I love them. I view them as great, as jewels. I view them as great opportunities. I’m very impressed by what we’re doing. I’m very impressed with the quality of what we’ve achieved. I’m very impressed with the focus that we have in terms of its strategic goals. We need to work very hard to make sure the Medical Center is a fully integrated member of our family, such that it is able to thrive in that integration, and that it’s integrated itself.
Q: How do you feel the Medical Center could better integrate itself with the campus?
A: We’re all part of the University. I think it’s the same with the English department and the physics department and the business school. It’s not simply the Medical Center. We all have very specific callings, but the integration part of it is recognizing that the University is greater than the sum of its parts. There are University issues in terms of trans-institutional programming, in terms of creating an environment for change, in terms of creating an environment for intellectual connections in which we have no impediments. I think the Medical Center has a particularly strong role to play in that because, in some ways, the culture of the Medical Center is more attuned internally to the kind of culture I perceive for the University than is the rest of the institution. So, in some ways, I’m really looking to the Medical Center to lead us out of the wilderness and into the promised land.
Q: How do you see us better integrating and collaborating with the community? You’ve talked a lot about our sister institutions in Ohio. What more could we be doing?
A: We define communities in a variety of ways, but clearly one cannot be a great university without being in a great city. We have an enormous responsibility to the people of this state…we are The Ohio State University. We have a worldwide platform where we play. The Medical Center plays in those fields very, very well. It is a very distinguished part of this institution. We have programs there that we do better than almost anyone in the world, so it has a very powerful message. Now, we need to connect these programs to our communities, however we’re defining them.
Q: A little bit now about recruitment and retention of the various people who have a role here at the University. Starting with students: Why choose Ohio State for medical school?
A: I think the reason you choose Ohio State for medical school is first of all it’s a very distinguished medical school in and of itself. But it is also part of a magnificent university. Very often medical schools are isolated from the rest of the institution. This medical school is in the center of this campus. A medical student can take full advantage of the wide range of opportunities that exist in a world-class university unlike almost any other place.
Q: Why choose a health sciences career today?
A: First, if one just thinks about it as opportunity, it’s one of the fastest growing areas economically in this country. I have a daughter and a son-in-law who are both young physicians and I listen to them talk, and the values that they have, the opportunities for solutions, the creativity they bring to their work, and I think all of that is very fulfilling. The ability to be able to do something that is very meaningful in one’s life, in the health professions, is something very powerful, I think.
Q: Moving on to faculty. If a faculty recruit has the opportunity to come to Ohio State or another top-tier institution, especially in the health professions, why Ohio State?
A: Because if we continue to create collaborative relationships, the transinstitutional university that I envision, this will be a place in which faculty will feel they have arrived in nirvana. In order to get people to come here, we’ve got to continue to make the changes in our culture that allow people to come and find great joy in their work.
Q: How about our alumni? How do you feel we can better engage them?
A: I’m still looking at our alumni programs so I can understand them more fully. I think there is a natural affiliation with Ohio State among alumni that is unlike almost any other place, at the undergraduate, graduate and professional level. Saying that, I think we need to be very focused on making sure we have alumni programs that are meaningful to alumni, that are creative in their scope and that provide opportunities for people to continue to connect to the University.
Q: Next, I have some random questions about your other interests and affiliations. Where do you think your daughter Rebekah’s interest in medicine came from?
A: I think it came from the fact that her mother died when she was 15. She was cared for at The James Cancer Hospital here at Ohio State when she died of breast cancer. I think Rebekah’s interest started to stem from that. It did not fully flourish until she was a senior in college, but no doubt about it, those seeds were already planted.
Q: Are you willing to talk about your own health habits? What kind of exercise and nutrition plan do you follow?
A: I get up early in the morning, 4:30 or 5 o’clock. I stretch early, then I do about 50 minutes of cardiovascular work, then I do about 25 minutes of weight training (upper and lower body) every other day. I do a lot of stretching and meditation. That’s my regimen every morning except Sundays. It has been a very important part of my life for a long time. I am very healthy. I have little nicks and scrapes here and there, but overall my health is very good and I attribute a lot of it to the fact that I, fortunately, have good genes and take care of myself.
Q: How do you relax?
A: I don’t (he says with a laugh). I love to go to movies; I love to read; I love to watch collegiate sports; but that’s about the extent of it. Obviously, I do a lot of traveling but generally it’s on business. But, you know, I just love universities. When I can spend time on a Saturday evening going out and visiting with students, having the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat and enjoy them; that, to me, is not work. It is not work. It is the same in visiting with faculty and staff. It is the same in visiting with alumni. I find the opportunity to spend time with alumni very empowering, very important.
Q: You’ve served on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards and continue to do so. Which of those was especially rewarding for you?
A: I have had a number of great opportunities. I think perhaps the single most important opportunity was to chair the Kellogg Commission on the Future of the Land Grant University – that was probably the most meaningful experience because I actually completed good work. I actually think we made a difference. Much of the language and many of the recommendations that came out of that I now see fulfilled.
Q: You’ve also coauthored eight books. Any writing projects that you’re currently working on?
A: Actually, one of my colleagues here, T.K. Daniel in the College of Education, and I are doing the fourth or fifth edition of our “Law in Education” case book, which is used in law schools around the country. It’s been very successful, so we’re doing another edition of that.
Q: Do you collect anything or have any unique hobbies that we don’t know about?
A: I collect bow ties. I have over 900, braces (suspenders) also. I do have a very fine art collection, which I have collected over the years, both in terms of well-known artists, but also in terms of local people. I like local artists very much. I take great interest in the arts. One of the real joys of returning to Ohio State is being in a place that really celebrates the arts.