Can a President Emeritus take a leave of absence?



Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch included a report that Gordon Gee, President Emeritus of Ohio State University, has agreed to become Interim President at West Virginia University. There is a news conference scheduled at West Virginia University this morning of this afternoon, but I am assuming that the Dispatch would not have printed the story without feeling confident about the credibility of the source.

This turn in Gee’s career is perhaps not a total surprise, given that he will be returning to where his presidential career began more than three decades ago. He has since served as President of Colorado, Brown, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, and, again, Ohio State. It is not very common for someone to make a career out of being a president at a succession of universities–simply because such a position is usually the capstone to an administrative career and most administrators still pass first through the academic ranks. But Gee became a president at a considerably younger age than most presidents do so, and he has been more peripatetic than most presidents are.

In addition, his most recent resignation as President of Ohio State came after he made some off-the-cuff and ostensibly off-the-record, snarky comments about the schools against which Ohio State’s major sports teams compete for national attention. So, while I am sure that some, probably including Gee himself, would contest the assertion that he was forced out as President, the close chronology suggests that the controversy over those comments was at least a contributing factor in his stepping down as President.

Interestingly, in response to the controversy, Ohio State’s Board of Trustees had apparently pressured Gee to get some sort of sensitivity counseling, and he had even agreed to begin sessions with a particular counselor, but after he “retired,” the need for the counseling apparently became moot—even though he signed a five-year contract to continue with the university as President Emeritus.

And it is that contract that makes his acceptance of any sort of a position at another university most surprising. For the contract is paying Gee, as President Emeritus, between $1.1 and $1.2 million a year—a higher base salary than he received as president, when sixty to seventy percent of his multi-million-dollar-per-year compensation was either deferred or categorized in some way other than as direct salary. Still, at least until Ohio State hires Gee’s successor and, presumably, have to compensate that person more generously than Gee, he has remained and would have remained the most highly paid executive at a public university in the U.S.

So, if he is going elsewhere, that decision would seem to confirm that he was indeed forced out at Ohio State, and it will probably suggest to many observers that, for him, it is not really about the money. But then one must ask why his compensation as President Emeritus is as high as it is? Moreover, Ohio State has just spent almost $200,000 remodeling a suite of offices for its new President Emeritus. If he was not committed to serving as President Emeritus, that expense will seem terribly frivolous. And one wonders if that office space is now going to stand empty until Gee returns—if indeed the plan is that he will return—after serving as Interim President at West Virginia.

Which brings me full circle back to the headline of this post. It seems absurd that a President Emeritus might be given a leave of absence. But, then again, more elements of this story are very unusual, if not absurd, than are at all typical.

As I discussed in another post, Governor Kasich recently made a big announcement that he was appointing Gee to lead an effort to improve affordability at Ohio’s colleges and universities. The two friends even went out on the road together, promoting the initiative. It seemed incongruous to many of us that the “poster boy” for administrative bloat should be selected to head such an effort, and the whole way in which it was rolled out made it seem more a campaign gimmick than a serious initiative. Still, one wonders now what will happen in terms of that initiative. Will increased affordability have to wait on whether Gee returns from West Virginia and on whether Kasich is re-elected as governor? Perhaps Gee will be back in Ohio just in time, as the fall gubernatorial campaign kicks into high gear.

Lastly, the Dispatch reports that the Board of Trustees at West Virginia is almost giddy over Gee’s return to the university and his appointment as Interim President. One wonders whether that giddiness is going to translate into a compensation package anywhere close to what he is receiving at Ohio State. If it does, I imagine that the media and public responses to the announcement are going to be a good deal less giddy.

And if his compensation at West Virginia does not come close to what he would be receiving as President Emeritus at Ohio State, will it make it even clearer that his compensation at Ohio State has been extravagant?

But perhaps the Dispatch has gotten it all wrong. Perhaps Gee is staying put at Ohio State, and West Virginia is appointing Graham Spanier as its new Interim President. Or if not him, any one of the dozen or so very short-term presidents recently profiled in the Chronicle, who were brought in to turn around “troubled” major universities and succeeded only in making things worse or in substituting one kind of problem for another.