Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

The Big Man on Campus

Even in Ohio, where the Taft name rings a loud bell, it takes a rare talent to hold an audience rapt while telling a long anecdote about William Howard Taft, a President known mainly for his girth. But E. Gordon Gee can do it. Gee (pronounced with a hard G, like a cowboy's gee-tar) is telling his Taft story to a group of solid, sunburned citizens at an inn in Ohio tractor country, and a less likely looking fellow would be hard to conjure in this place. He is dressed, as usual, in a fresh-pressed suit, argyle socks, horn-rimmed glasses and a bright bow tie. Half Orville Redenbacher, half Harold Hill, the fast-talking Gee, a lawyer by training, fits into rural Knox County about as well as the Geico gecko would blend into American Gothic. And yet, as he finally approaches the thoroughly forgettable punch line, Gee and his audience are laughing together as the piles of French toast and sausages go cold on the tables. Gee doesn't mind. He prefers nutritious smoothies at his mansion back in the city.

In other words, this is a thoroughbred politician. Gee shakes hands with gusto and appears delighted by everyone he meets. Peering around the room, he cries out gleefully, "Where are our county commissioners?" A couple of hands go up, and he exults, "I love you guys!" What about state legislators? There's one in the corner. "I love you too!" giggles Gee. Everyone wants a word and a picture with him, and when the time comes to depart, he somehow radiates reluctance even as he quicksteps toward a waiting car. Goodbye, goodbye! How dearly he would love to tarry with his new friends, but the good people of Tuscarawas County are waiting, and after them the yeomen of Holmes and Muskingum. There are 88 counties in Ohio, and Gee is in the process of barnstorming through every one of them. Again.

A poll a while back found that he could easily be elected governor in a state that calls itself the Cradle of Presidents. Gee, however, has something different in mind. As president of the Ohio State University and one of the most experienced university executives in the U.S., he is campaigning for a revolution in higher education at a time when the field is more important, and perhaps more troubled, than ever before.

In a world where brainpower outstrips muscle power, where innovation trumps conformity, where the nimble and creative stand to inherit the earth, higher education is the key to the next American century. Forget the ivory tower: colleges and universities are catalysts of economic development, stewards of public health, incubators of social policy and laboratories of discovery. Nearly every great national challenge — from the raising of our children to the quality of our food supply, from the hunt for clean energy to the struggle against insurgent enemies, from the quest for opportunity to the search for sustainable prosperity — depends for a solution on institutions of higher ed. Classrooms and labs are today what mines and factories were a century ago: America's regional economic powerhouses, one of the few certain engines of growth in good and bad economic times. As a result of these challenges and opportunities, college presidents are on the line as never before — and must be accessible and accountable to the public in a way that rivals or even surpasses what is required of public officials.

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.

By some measures, "Ohio State is the largest research-university campus in the country — we think in the world," says Leslie Wexner, the billionaire retailer who chairs the university's board of trustees. "It is a very big, very powerful organization. Gordon understands the potential influence his job entails. Most university presidents are focused on internal issues — the tug-of-war among faculty, students and alums — and they don't have the bandwidth to see how extensive their influence should be."

Gee surrounds himself with advisers lured from the world of politics and revels in the networking and back-scratching so essential to getting stuff done in this world. His entire career has been spent in the rarefied world of academia, but he does a pretty good impersonation of an ordinary guy — right down to milking a cow at a county fair and laughing when it pooped on his shoes. No elected official more carefully orchestrates a calendar. A typical planning session finds Gee hatching plans to stroke every conceivable constituency in the course of a single week. Along with his tour of Ohio counties, he contemplates a speech to the state's public school superintendents, a drop-by at a dinner to woo new medical school faculty, a visit to a root-beer stand owned by the parents of an undergraduate, a dinner with Indian immigrants as preparation for a trip to India, a "surprise" visit to Cleveland superlawyer Fred Nance, a pop-in at a birthday party for a prominent Cincinnati lobbyist, a speech on the importance of art in high schools, and an outing with students to see the latest Harry Potter movie. "I am, after all, the oldest guy who owns a Nimbus 2000," Gee brags of his replica flying broomstick.

"There should be no wasted moment," he admonishes his staff, filling an unusual empty Sunday with a quick hop on a private jet to visit an elderly donor. Gee's ceaseless and cunning campaign has him well on his way to a $2.5 billion fundraising goal, and it helped him emerge as a rare winner in Ohio's savage budget battle this year. Walloped by the recession and struggling with the long-term decline of heavy industry, the Buckeye State was neck-deep in red ink, but when the cutting was done, higher education was largely spared, and Gee was one reason why.

"He's an exceptional leader," Governor Ted Strickland says, "and we have a good personal relationship, but even more important, we have an alliance. We both believe that the greatest competitive advantage we have going forward is the intellectual and creative strength of our universities and colleges." Before the economic crash, this alliance helped produce a deal by which the state increased funding for higher education. In exchange for more funding, OSU and other public institutions accepted a two-year freeze on tuition hikes, after a decade of increases far outpacing inflation.

The freeze was expiring last summer when Gee received word that the new budget would again go his way. Summoning his senior staff, he delivered a political masterstroke: Ohio State would volunteer to continue the freeze. Could the school use more money? Sure. But holding the line on tuition at $8,406 for Ohio residents (out-of-staters pay more than 2½ times as much) would be popular with students, their parents and the lawmakers at the state capitol. The legislators had come through for him; now he would make them look good. "It's a political decision," Gee told his team.

The press release went out the next day. With varying degrees of reluctance, other public institutions in Ohio followed Gee's lead.

Go East, Young Man
Gee, 65, a descendant of Mormon pioneers, was born in the remote Utah town of Vernal. After graduating from Columbia University's law school and clerking for Chief Justice Warren Burger, he found his way in the late 1970s to West Virginia University and became president in 1981. He has been running universities ever since. In 1985, Gee moved to the top job at the University of Colorado, which he left in 1990 to become president of Ohio State. In a nomadic life of many promotions and many moves, Gee connected viscerally with Ohio in a way that only tragedy can produce. Shortly after he arrived in Columbus, his wife Elizabeth fought a losing battle with cancer, and he still talks movingly about the way the community supported him and his daughter Rebekah. But his first stint at OSU was sometimes rocky. He failed to push through a reorganization of the school's arts-and-sciences bureaucracy, and he clashed repeatedly with then governor George Voinovich over funding — Gee got into trouble for saying publicly that "the governor's a damn dummy." When Brown University came calling in 1998, Gee jumped.

Wexner believes that Gee's ambition drove him to seek an Ivy League presidency but that his heart doomed him to unhappiness. "I think Gordon discovered that getting to the Ivy League is more fun than being in the Ivy League, which seems terribly insular," Wexner explains. Gee agrees that he never adopted the cautious reverence for old habits that institutions with long and precious traditions are steeped in. Gee's lavish renovation of the president's mansion and his steamroller effort to ramp up Brown's biomedical-research operation made him an easy target for the true Ivy powers, the faculty and deans. So after two years, with sighs of relief on both sides, he left Brown for his fifth presidency, taking the reins of Vanderbilt University. There, he raised more than $1 billion while dramatically improving the quality of incoming students. Vanderbilt leaped up the ranks of America's hottest schools. Meanwhile, Gee spent another fortune on another mansion renovation, and his second marriage crumbled.

In 2007, Wexner had a hunch that Gee might be ready to return to Columbus, that Gee was a land-grant man at heart. Like many of the nation's other leading public universities, Ohio State owes its origin to the Morrill Act of 1862, which leveraged the vast public lands of the young United States to endow schools for common farmers, mechanics and technical workers. From that seed, Ohio State has grown into one of the biggest drivers of the Ohio economy, with more than 61,000 students on six campuses, more than $700 million in annual research expenditures, a payroll of more than $1.6 billion and offices in every Ohio county. When Gee explains why he took a pay cut to return to OSU (dropping from the rarefied ranks of million-dollar presidents into the still cushy high six figures), he talks about the culture of usefulness that makes land-grant schools more willing to innovate. Elite private schools, he submits, "are always saying, 'That's not the way we do things.'"

And change is the whole ball game, Gee insists. Higher education has become too expensive because institutions are frozen in the inefficient past. Departments fail to collaborate. Curriculums have become outdated. The tenure system too often rewards useless publication over real-world impact. "We crush the enthusiasm out of our young faculty," says Gee. The many elements of American higher ed — from community colleges to giant research universities — operate as rival duchies and neglected colonies rather than as players on a single team. "People look at me like I'm crazy when I say that our greatest partnership here at Ohio State should be with the community colleges," Gee says. "We're all part of the same mission, which is education from pre-K through life."

A special commission of the U.S. Department of Education arrived at many of the same conclusions in a 2006 report. America's colleges and universities, in some respects the best in the world, are failing to keep up with the nation's growing needs. Higher education is "increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive," the panel summarized. "It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy."

Since returning to Ohio State, Gee has cut costs by nearly $100 million; among other efficiencies, he succeeded this time around in streamlining the liberal-arts colleges. Two new centers focused on attacking global poverty and hunger draw faculty from over a dozen departments, breaking down old walls that divide traditional disciplines. A deal has been struck to enhance collaboration with Ohio's largest private research facility, boosting the influence of both institutions. Meanwhile, teachers in the troubled Columbus public schools are receiving extra training through an Ohio State initiative, and the university is leading efforts to revitalize low-income Columbus neighborhoods.

The recession will be a blessing, Gee told a group of college and university presidents last winter, if it forces schools to "wholly reinvent ourselves." Consider, he suggested, "blowing up — completely eradicating" the concept of all academic departments. Welcome the imminent demise of picayune scholarly journals and the publish-or-perish culture that goes with them. Kick free of the conviction that professors all need doctorates, when so much of what's required is hands-on experience. (Following his own advice, Gee hired a Johnson & Johnson executive sans Ph.D. as dean of Ohio State's Fisher College of Business.)

Not everyone agrees with Gee's call for a new direction. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust expressed concern that the land-grant spirit is endangering loftier goals for higher education. "America's deep-seated notion that a college degree serves largely instrumental purposes," as she put it, threatens to enslave the academy to "immediate and worldly purposes"; she argued that society should not neglect the role of higher education in producing "critical perspectives" and "doubt." Faust concluded, "At this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society."

It's not every day that the president of one of America's largest public universities tangles publicly with the president of America's most venerated private one. But when Gee read Faust's essay, he couldn't contain himself. Speaking to the Ohio State faculty in October, he took on Faust's essay as "fundamentally flawed." "We make no apologies," Gee declared, for "working to ensure that our graduates have the skills needed to thrive." Learning to think critically need not conflict with learning to work productively, he suggested — leaving the clear but unspoken conclusion that the public deserves more than "unsettling questions" from the institutions that hold the keys to the future.

There has always been a tendency among some academics under pressure to pull up the drawbridge of the ivory tower and sniff, Go away — we're thinking big thoughts. From his long experience, Gee has learned that pressure is the secret to turning lumbering institutions into lithe enterprises. For instance, he recently pushed through a change in Ohio State's calendar, from an aging quarterly system to a more sensible semester schedule. He didn't actually care much about the calendar, but he knew that the change would force faculty to rethink and redesign all their courses. "Yes," Gee told his colleagues last winter, "I am calling for intentional upheaval," a stripping of bureaucracies and boundaries at some of the world's most bureaucratic and hidebound institutions. The U.S. needs to step up its game, become more creative, more flexible, more innovative in more ways. Who can take us there if not our educators?

Gee delivered this manifesto with a grin, as always, and his audience was rapt. "I am a bit odd," he summed up. "I am somewhat evangelical. But I am not crazy."