Sunday Sit-Down: WVU President E. Gordon Gee
Editor’s note: E. Gordon Gee has routinely been recognized as among the top university presidents in the nation, and now he’s back at West Virginia University for his second stint as president. In his first in-depth interview since his return to Morgantown, Gee reveals his reasons for returning to WVU, the university’s future, its impact on the state and much more as he joins us in the Sunday Sit-Down.
Let’s start with your legacy as a college president. During your retirement speech last June at Ohio State, you cited your age, your twin granddaughters and the comments you made in December 2012 as reasons for your departure. Then, when you initially came back to lead WVU, it was on an interim basis. What changed between then and now that led you to decide that you wanted to be a full-time president again?
Gee: First of all, I was asked to stay. I think the issue for me was the fact that West Virginia was a place that really was my first home. I was 36 at the time I became president of this institution. As I’ve always joked a little bit about the fact that the people of West Virginia were tricked into giving me this job because I was so young. I would not give a 36-year-old a university presidency on any occasion.
I had a wonderful time, and maintained very close friendships with a lot of people, I think very fondly of the state, always been a great fan of the university, so the opportunity to come back on an interim basis was very important to me. And then, once I got here – I tell everyone that West Virginia University is kind of like an infection, it gets into your blood stream, all of a sudden it courses through you and you realize that it’s such a great place to be.
At the time that I left Ohio State, I’d been at this for a very long period of time, felt burnt out, I think I really wanted to have a chance to have a mid-life crisis at my age, and so I did a number of things, very important things, for six months or so. I started this new center (the Center for Higher Education Enterprise) which is continuing, accepted a teaching position at Harvard and other things. But what I also realized is the fact that I still had some things to do, and I still had some gas in the tank, and so when this opportunity came along it was just compelling. I will also say to you that if this had been university X or Y, some place that I had never been part of I would not have done it. It really is the sense of place and purpose of this institution that is very, very important to me.
You’ve been in this business for 30-plus years now. What do you have left to do – left to prove?
Gee: I don’t think I have anything left to prove; now, it’s the other side of the coin, that is the fact that I can try out all my crazy ideas.
Is that good or bad for WVU?
Gee: I hope that it will be very good, as a matter of fact, because I think this is a place that will value creativity, will value reinvention, will value thinking about the world differently. That’s sort of where I see West Virginia as a state, I think the contribution of the university to the state … You know, we have for so many years been an energy state dependent on coal, extractive resources, and I think those are important and are going to remain very important. Staying on top of the Marcellus Shale … and also I think that we’re now realizing that if this state is to grow, that if this region is to grow, we’re really going to have to put great ideas to play. Just take a look at the one thing we’re doing right now, horizontal drilling. … That was really developed in universities. … The confluence of great ideas created in universities, and then those universities creating jobs and opportunity, is a real calling and I think this is the real responsibility of West Virginia University.
… Our goal as an institution is to make certain that this state grows economically, culturally, socially. That we create jobs. I’m not afraid to say that; some of my university colleagues would say that’s not the purpose of a university. The purpose of a university is to create ideas, but the purpose of a university also is to make sure those ideas are turned into great opportunities and jobs.
I think that is exactly the confluence we’re talking about. Because here, all of a sudden, if we can do things in our College of Engineering that will make this type of energy we’re using (possible) and do it clean, do it environmentally sound, then what we’ve done is we’ve made great strides, we’ve taken the work in the laboratory and put it into real practice and real opportunity.
You left both Ohio State and Brown under some controversy. Can you explain those situations, and what you learned from them?
Gee: First of all, one always learns from their mistakes. I was just asked (Monday) by a couple of students, what would be the best advice I could give them? I said celebrate your successes but learn from your mistakes, and I think that’s important. Brown was a small institution, a wonderful institution, I have nothing but great pride in my service there, about three years, but I felt a little bit like an antelope in a telephone booth. So I decided to leave, and the controversy there was the fact I was the first president of an Ivy League institution to leave to become chancellor or president of a non-Ivy League institution (Vanderbilt.)
Ohio State – I’d been there for seven years, then gone for 10 years, then I was back for seven years. Then, in a moment of jocularity, which had served me well most of the time, I made some unfortunate comments that got into the newspaper. But that was not the reason I left because I’d been through a tumultuous time with the firing of a football coach (Jim Tressel) with a lot of intensity. That university is the largest, most complex institution in this country, so sometimes you just kind of feel like you run out of steam. My view is that there is always a time to know when it’s better for the institution or for you to move on, so I did that.
You mentioned earlier you still have gas in the tank. How long do you plan on staying at WVU?
Gee: The formula here through the Higher Education Policy Commission is that initially a university president’s contract will only be for two years, but my intent will be to be here for five years, at least, but certainly for five years. I think one can not really serve an institution very well if you stay much less than that, and I’ve never stayed less than five years other than at Brown.
The second thing is, you always judge on how well you feel. Right now, my health is very good and more importantly, my energy is very high.
On to WVU. It’s been more than 30 years since your last stop in Morgantown. When you first returned to campus, what struck you as the biggest differences?
Gee: I think two differences. I think one is the fact that the institution has moved from being a good institution to being a really good institution, being an excellent institution, it plays in a much different field than it played before. We played in sort of a local and regional field, and now we play in a national and international field. By that I mean we have students from 110 countries who speak 100 different languages, the world comes to West Virginia through the front doors of this institution. We send the world West Virginians through this institution, the kind of research we’re doing, the growth of our academic medical center. When I was here before we got a new hospital through the Legislature and a new structure through the Legislature, a public, not-for-profit corporation. It has really grown into a magnificent tertiary care facility and more importantly, into a great medical center. In the sciences we continue to do very well. In the humanities – as you know, the university has always been very strong in the humanities, in creative writing, history, English, etc., it has just moved into a different plane.
The second thing, of course, is Morgantown itself. This is an institution of about 33,000 students in a city of about 30,000 people, and that kind of relationship between the city and the university is very important but it’s also inextricably intertwined. When I was here before there were a lot more I would say ‘town and gown’ relationship problems. Now, I see us engaged in very clear partnership. We just made a presentation to our board, as an example, about the $81 million impact (in Morgantown) just on housing issues alone. … One cannot have a great university if you’re not in a great city. And one can not have a great city, I believe, without a strong educational system like this university.
How much more impact does a school such as WVU have on Morgantown than, say, Ohio State has on Columbus?
Gee: Ohio State, with 65,000 students, is in a city of over a million. The university drives very much what happens in that city, but there’s a lot of activity that goes beyond the university economically. Here, I think that the university and the city are synonymous. I think that the economy is driven almost entirely by the university here. But also, if you take a look at the university as the single largest creator of jobs and opportunities in this state, directly and indirectly, we have an enormous impact on the quality of life in this state.
How about changes in West Virginia?
Gee: One of the things I noticed between the two states where I most recently served (West Virginia and Ohio) is that West Virginia, they don’t have term limits in the Legislature, which I think is very healthy. I think term limits are bad public policy if you’re running a complex institution because you have to constantly re-inform and re-educate people. It was nice to go down and be able to talk to people who are very knowledgeable about the institution.
The other thing is the fact that there is just a great deal of affection and respect for this institution in the Legislature. They don’t have enough money, but they certainly do have respect for us, and that’s where we’ll start. I found very strong listening ears. I really do think that we, as a university, have a compelling story to tell about what we’re doing, but more importantly a compelling partnership to make with the Legislature and the people of this state.
What about the budget cuts the state has enacted on higher education?
Gee: I think that any university president who is cheerful about budget cuts better get out of the business. But saying that, I think what it is also forcing us to do is ask the fundamental question of how does one increase quality and moderate costs. I think that is the fundamental question in higher education for everyone. How do we, in a time of limited resources … increase quality and remain competitive in the world and how do we moderate our costs? Universities have always had a very difficult time in asking that question. I think we’re asking it better than most, and I think we have to.
You’ve been at a number of universities since you left WVU. What have you learned, both good and bad, since your time here in the early 1980s that makes you a more effective leader today?
Gee: A couple things. First of all, there is no playbook. You have to accept the institution as it is and then try to work within that framework to make it better for the people within the institution and to connect with the people outside the institution. I think a lot of university presidents, if they move to a second presidency, will say I knew how to do this there, so I’m going to transport it here. That, I think, is a real mistake.
The second thing is that you need to really be very passionate about an institution. Clark Kerr, the great president of the University of California, I visited right after I became president of West Virginia University. He always said something to me that I thought was very interesting. He said don’t love a university, because it won’t love you back. And for a long time I thought that was true, so therefore it was a job. I believe that was a huge mistake and I certainly find much more joy because now I really view it as a calling, a responsibility, an opportunity and try to do it with great belief in the institution, great passion.
The other thing that I’ve learned is the fact that you have to constantly reinvent yourself. I’m a much different person than I was 35 years ago. It’s a much different time, and a much different set of challenges. And so I have to reinvent myself, I have to think modern, I have to think forward, I have to be engaged in the world as it is rather than the world as I want it to be, I can’t look through rearview mirrors, I have to look through windshields.
Those are all life lessons that have always been very important to me.
We understand you’re working on your priorities for WVU. Can you give our readers across the state any insight into what areas you may be focusing on?
Gee: I’ve felt for years that you can’t run a university by making it too complex, as these are very complex places. So I try to make it simple. I try to have five or six things that I really think are the issues we need to focus on. It’s different from a strategic plan, it’s different from tactics, it’s my personal goals to see where I think we need to move forward with the institution.
My first one is that we need to become one university. We’re a very complex place and unfortunately we’ve built a lot of silos, we are a series of colleges and programs connected by a PRT and not by common values. We need to move from being a cacophony to a chorus, we need to start singing together. Not all of us are going to sing baritone, but we need to have harmony. I think that’s incredibly important for our student’s success.
The second thing is that we just need to put our students first. In the end, it’s about the students who are on this campus. We have to understand that without their success, without this place being affordable and available to them, without them finding an intellectual, social and cultural atmosphere that is really helpful to them, we will not be successful. We need to focus our energy and efforts in terms of good teaching, good research, quality and engagement in a number of ways.
The third thing … you have to focus on your talent, your faculty and staff. We have a very talented faculty and a very talented staff, but we need to nurture them, we need to make them feel that they are very important, we need to do what we possibly can to sustain their work and to grow their ability to be able to be competitive themselves in the world. We need to build strong relationships with our communities across the state. We can’t be an isolated, arrogant university in northern West Virginia. We have to have the people in McDowell County feel this institution is making a difference in their lives as well as the people in Monongalia County.
Obviously, I think our biggest challenge in many ways is the challenge of (being) agile and simple. I tell everyone we are an elephant, and we need to become a ballerina because we will not remain an elephant, we can only go another way and that’s become a dinosaur. And as you well know, the dinosaur didn’t go the way of the world.
We’re going to have to embrace change, or else we’re going to become irrelevant, and irrelevancy is not something I accept.
What do you see as the university’s niche in the higher education marketplace?
Gee: We’re a public, land-grant university, number one. Number two is the fact that we’re a major research institution. So in some ways we’re Michigan and Michigan State combined; Iowa and Iowa State combined; or Indiana and Purdue combined. Because of that, we have a particular niche already. But I think our niche is one of leadership, and leadership just beyond the boundaries of the institution. Really focusing on working closely with the state to lead it to a different set of priorities and circumstances, to raise our expectations among people in the state and to do it not by saying that we have an answer, but by reaching out and lending very much a helping hand.
What do you see as the role of an institution of higher education such as WVU? Should it focus more on vocational training – getting graduates ready for specific jobs – or is the liberal arts model still relevant in today’s economy?
Gee: I think it’s absolutely relevant. We’re in a world that is very competitive. There’s 1.2 billion Indians, 1.3 billion Chinese, and we’re not in direct competition with them but we are, and we’re only 320 million souls in this country. So therefore the world of ideas is very important to us, the world of creativity is very important to us, so that notion of having a liberal arts based education, you have engineers that can read Shakespeare; you have humanists who can understand the technical world; and together this notion of an educated citizenry which forms the basis of our democracy is going to be even more critical going forward. If you don’t do that, we stand a chance of losing both our ability to be able to compete but also our ability to be able to sustain our democracy. At the same time, not everyone should have to come to this university. Our … community colleges are our greatest partners. … We need to make sure everyone has the ability to think and to ask great questions, that’s the most important ability we can pass on.
The average student debt from college loans continues to rise. What do you believe can be done to hold down the cost of higher education?
Gee: I think we need to take full advantage of the new technology, I think we need to take full advantage of becoming much more simple, I think we need to think about different high-tech delivery systems, I think we need to challenge many of the ways we are organized because I think we are too complex in terms of our organizational structures. … Part of that is by debureaucratizating the institution and by having both the federal government and the state government move to a much more simple model. Much of our cost escalation is due to requirements and administrative costs that are developed because of the regulatory atmosphere we deal in.
When you were here in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the PRT was relatively new. Now, it’s 40 years old and in need of about $50 million in improvements. What do you see as the future of the PRT?
Gee: Without the PRT, we’d be a much different institution and a much less lively one, I think, because we’re built on these mountains. … If we tried to recreate the PRT through buses it would cost us a ton of money and it would create a lot of pollution and traffic problems. … The PRT is an enormously important competent of the success of this institution, so what we’re doing is we’re committing $50 million to upgrade it so it can remain very relevant. By the way, it is still one of the most forward-thinking concepts in this country, and people come all the time and take a look at it. It is very relevant to what we’re doing and it needs to remain very relevant in the future.
One last question: what’s the story behind the bow tie?
Gee: Small town guy, grew up in the rural part of Utah, really hadn’t seen ties. Went to Salt Lake City with my father, sat down in an opthamologist’s office, this guy came and set next to me, had one of these things on, I was 15 at the time, I looked at it and said gee, that’s really interesting. He pulled it apart and showed me what it was like and I said I really want one of those. I begged my father, we finally went and got one and that was it, from then on I started wearing them. Now, they’ve become very much a part of my own culture, my own persona.
Have they made a comeback on campus since your return?
Gee: Yes, they have. I’m leading a bow tie revolution!
What did you think when you went to Charleston during the session and members of the state Senate all wore bow ties in your honor?
Gee: What a great moment of affection and respect for me and for them. It was just wonderful. … It was a neat thing for me.