E. Gordon Gee

An engaged — and engaging — president

September/October 2014


“Hi, how are you?”
Dr. E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, greets passersby as he makes the trek from his office in the classic Romanesque Revival Stewart Hall across the way to Woodburn Circle.
He gets a positive response from one pedestrian.
“Good!” he replies. “Have a great day!”
Gee, WVU’s 24th and 19th presidents, possesses a gleeful tone in his voice and a huge desire to connect with the 30,000-plus students who attend the state’s land-grant school.
To this end, he not only acknowledges people on the street, he also makes an effort to socialize with enrollees, often tweeting about his plans first and using social media like someone who attends a college, not heads one.
“I’ll go downtown,” he says. “We’ll go on Facebook and get the list of 21st birthday parties and other events that are going on and I’ll just show up. I’ll always take a couple of students with me so I get to know them too.”
He understands his demographic, too, sometimes waiting until 11 p.m. to head out and not returning to Blaney House until the wee hour of 1 a.m. or so.
“The purpose of it is that, I think in a very large institution, if you can personalize it, the students can get to know the president of the university on a personal basis or view him or her as being engaged in their life. They are much more prone to believe in the institution and believe that it does have their best interest at heart.”
“It’s something I’ve done for years and it’s proven, by and large, to be a successful endeavor. And I enjoy it. I enjoy getting the chance to meet students in their own setting.”
He also reaches out — and illustrates perfect comic timing — in videos in which he reads genuinely humorous top 10 lists, a la David Letterman, such as “The Top 10 reasons Why It Is Great to Be Back at WVU.” (No. 9: “I heard the PRT can now go to D.C.” and No 6: “I wanted to find out what had happened to that nice young quarterback who won us the Peach Bowl in 1981.”)
The lists are not new to the longtime Letterman fan, but the videos are. “It’s just kind of fun to do and I see funny things and I think of ways to think about doing them.”
Back at Stewart Hall, with it’s black-and-white tiled floors, arcaded rotunda and a photograph of a 30-something Gee among the presidential portraits — “This building is much nicer than when I left” — he takes the time to discuss a variety of topics. That would include his first tenure as the head of WVU, or any college, from 1981 to 1985 — “I was a bright redhead when I became the university president,” he quips, to the titles of the books piled on the desk of the “engaged reader.”
“I just got the new ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ book by Thomas Piketty, which is kind of the newest version of economic analysis,” he says.”Those are not just there for beauty. I do try to keep up with my reading a lot. I’m reading ‘Theodore Rex’ right now, which is Edmund Morris’s great book on Theodore Roosevelt during his presidential years.”
But the current book that he lists as his favorite is “A Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about how President Abraham Lincoln brought adversaries into his cabinet.
“I think it may be the most significant book written in the last 20-30 years on the issue of great minds and leadership,” Gee said. “Because Lincoln was thought to be a buffoon by all these great minds of the time. … And when he died, if you remember, the great line was, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’ They just became absolutely enamored with the fact that he outsmarted them and outmaneuvered them and made them very much engaged with him.”
As a college president, Gee also has been a very successful leader. In fact, in late 2009, while Gee helmed Ohio State University in Columbus, Time magazine named him one of the top 10 college presidents in the nation. When reminded of that honor, after noting what a nice recognition it was, the amiable, affable, bow-tie clad Gee shares his secret, which he really does not keep under wraps.
“I always tell everyone that I think the three ingredients for success for a university president are to have a very thick skin, to have a good sense of humor and to have nerves like sewer pipes. I really do believe that too, by the way.
“Obviously, you want to have passion, you want to have integrity, you want to have the trust of the people you work with, but in the end, you’re a very public figure. You have to get used to that. A lot of people have a hard time getting used to it.
Now Elwood Gordon Gee, who was born and grew up in Vernal, Utah, about 175 miles east of Salt Lake City. After getting an undergraduate degree in history, he moved across the country to New York City to attend law school and earned a doctorate in education at Columbia University, illustrating that his interest in institutions of higher learning started early.
“One of the reasons I went there is the fact that I had been very involved in student government at the University of Utah. I started having a real interest in universities, so I went to Columbia because they had one of the greatest education schools in the country. they had a great law school, one of the best, and they had one of the best education schools.
“And my intent, almost from the very beginning, was not necessarily to be a lawyer but to focus on the legal problems confronting educational institutions, K through 12 through universities.
But first, he spent some time clerking, initially for a chief judge in the the 10th United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Utah, and then for Warren E. Burger, then the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals.
“It was stimulating,” Gee says. “It was during the Watergate era so it was a very interesting time.”
A friend of Gee’s and a fellow Utah native, Lynn D. Wardle, happened to clerk for John Sirica, best known for presiding over the Watergate hearings and ordering President Richard Nixon to hand over his recordings of White House conversations in a decision that went to the Supreme Court.
“Lynn and I are both devout Mormons,” Gee says. “I would meet him in church in the back pews and we would talk about what was going on in the courts and I would get an insider’s view.
“But the profound impact was that our government does work,” Gee continues. “And we do have laws of real consequence, not just immediate but of real consequence.”
When the United States v. Nixon decision was handed down, Gee happened to be in Burger’s chambers.
“He kind of joked and said, ‘Why don’t you get in your car and go down and get the tapes?’ Alexander Haig (Nixon’s chief of staff) was very much writ large and the country wasn’t certain whether he was going to encourage the president not to comply. And of course, the court has no Army, no Navy, no Air Force, it has no Marines. It only has the support of our constituents. So it was a profound time for me.”
After that, Gee worked as associate professor and associate dean at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University before he moved back east to serve as dean of the WVU College of Law. But he did not keep that title for long. In 1981, at the age of 36, he became one of the youngest college presidents when he took the title at WVU for the first time, “an accidental president, by the way,” he added.
“It’s one of those kinds of things, they had a search committee and the search committee looked around and I emerged as president then. It’s one of those things — you’re here.”
His rise at WVU was the start of a career that saw him go on to lead some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation, including Brown and Vanderbilt universities in addition to Ohio State. He also he has served on the boards of some very diverse groups, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland — which allowed him to indulge his love of music, from the Rolling Stones to Alison Krauss — to King Adbulaziz University in Saudi Arabia to
“They have challenges in the education system because of the role of women in the Saudi society, so they’ve now started a new women’s university, which I think is very successful,” he adds.
When he left Ohio State in June 2013, little did he know that his first president’s position was about to become vacant again. In November, James P. Clements announced that he was leaving WVU for Clemson University at the end of the year. Gee stepped in as interim president but by late February, after the search committee presumably looked around, members decided they had a pretty good fit on their hands already. The position became official July 1.
As for Gee, he still has a fondness for the school that launched his career.
“I used to joke all the time that I should send the people of West Virginia a big donation every month because of the fact that they gave me a unique opportunity and a unique preparation. And in some ways, I think that that’s closing the circle, to come back and pay back — pay forward — and be engaged in an institution that really did give me my start.”
It is a job he does not take lightly. “The American higher education system, I believe, is now the most important economic engine in this country because we are the ones who invent the ideas to allow us to remain competitive as a nation.”
He notes the populations of China and India — 1.3 billion and 1.2 billion, respectively — compared to the 318 million of the United States.
“Just on the basis of sheer mass, we will lose unless we can continue to remain very competitive based on ideas, which are like what steel mills and coal were 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
As for his goals as university president, he plans to continue the existing strategic plan but he also has a laminated 3X5-inch card that he can hand out, because in addition to a large desire to connect with others, he has a “less is more” philosophy.
“If I can’t run the university based on my goals and expectations that I can put on a card that size, I’ve made it too difficult,” he declares. “So I’m really driven by simplicity. So those are my own goals, which really parallel in some ways the strategic plan.”
That is not to say Gee is not busy. He set a goal of visiting all of West Virginia’s 55 counties by the end of the summer, spending time in each place meeting with community leaders, alumni and just regular residents.
In Buckhannon at an art gallery reception at Artistry on Main, he spoke to Dr. Stephen Johns, a WVU School of Dentistry alumnus and fellow Utah native, and his son, Evan, a freshly-minted WVU College of Law graduate who has a job lined up clerking for Marion County Circuit Court Judge Michael Aloi.
“How can you not love President Gee?” Dr. Stephen Johns stated later. “He is just so gracious and just so warm and friendly. I can see why he has been as successful as he has been. He is just loved by people who get to know him at all or rub shoulders.
“I think it’s quite remarkable what he’s trying to do with the university the second time around, going around and visiting all the counties in the state and trying to build the image of the school. He’s just a great, great person.”
Johns has an even more personal reason to have such a fond reaction to Gee: The WVU president attended the University of Utah with Johns’ brother, Richard Johns, who passed away four years ago, and remembered his sibling in their conversation.
For Gee, the man who likes to greet students on the street, at an on-campus party or at a reception miles away from Morgantown, he considers the visits crucial to being the best president he can be.
“I believe that if I understand the needs of the state and meet the people who are making a difference, and if I meet with students and parents, I can hopefully make sure that people know in their hearts and minds that this university is making a difference in their lives because that’s what our calling is. That’s what our responsibility is. And you can’t do that by sitting in an office in Morgantown.”