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Nashville Scene Changing of the Guard

New top Commodore draws criticism for quick move

By Dana Pride

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  One of the first things E. Gordon Gee did after being named the seventh chancellor of Vanderbilt University was to talk with students on the Rand wall, a favorite gathering spot on campus. It won him some quick friends.

"Just for him to take the time on his first day here to basically hang out with students is a wonderful gesture and a sign of good things to come," says Jim D'Andrea, president of the Student Government Association.

But if first impressions of Gee (pronounced with a hard "g") are positive at Vanderbilt, he is leaving hard feelings at Brown University, where he served as president since January 1998. His departure from Brown after only two years has not only stunned that Providence, R.I., community but sparked criticism of Gee and Vanderbilt.

"There is an etiquette among educational institutions that you do not go after a person who has been in an institution for two years only," Vartan Gregorian, Gee's predecessor at Brown, told The New York Times. "And if you're the president of an institution for two years, you do not leave, either. I am stunned, utterly disappointed, and dismayed." Gregorian is now president of the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic foundation based in New York.

When he started at Brown, Gee publicly pledged to stay there for eight to 10 years. At the announcement, Gee acknowledged that no one should leave an institution so quickly, and he called the decision to quit Brown a "wrenching" one. He said he sees Vanderbilt as a school "poised to assume a national role of intellectual leadership" because it has in place such an "array of talented programs and people in such a balanced fashion." And he said that after assuming the presidency at Brown, he increasingly felt that "it was not exactly the right fit."

Gee, 56, didn't mention money as a factor. But The New York Times reports that Gee and his wife will receive a total compensation package of almost $1 million for his role as chancellor and hers as a tenured professor at Vanderbilt. He was paid about $300,000 as president of Brown. His wife, Constance Bumgarner Gee, teaches public policy at Brown. At Vanderbilt, she will become an associate professor of education at Peabody College.

It's one of the most lucrative compensation packages in higher education, and Gee informed Brown that he was leaving as president after failing to receive a counteroffer to Vanderbilt's proposal, according to the Times.

Gee told Brown's board of trustees in January that he had received an offer from Vanderbilt. The head of Brown's board informed Gee that his contact with Vanderbilt was "entirely inappropriate" and that "it would diminish our values to make a counteroffer," the Times reports.

Joe B. Wyatt, who is retiring after 18 years as Vanderbilt's chancellor, was making $526,585 in salary and benefits as one of the highest-paid university heads in the country in 1997-98.

On Aug. 1, when he starts at Vanderbilt, Gee will begin his fifth presidency. While at Brown, Gee helped double annual fund raising and started new programs in human values and life sciences. But he also encountered his share of faculty critics whose concerns centered around turnover in the upper administration and changes in graduate programs that some feared would harm Brown's undergraduate curriculum. Some saw the changes as evidence that Gee was disregarding the institution's traditions.

Ted Goslow, head of the faculty executive committee at Brown, says it's hard to know why Gee considered Brown to be the wrong fit for him, however. Although he had detractors, the issues were not well-defined, he says.

"Individuals may not be happy, but at large those things had been perceived as a way of strengthening Brown and also putting into place Gordon Gee's agenda as a president," Goslow says.

The sudden announcement that Gee is leaving has shaken the Brown community. "We didn't see it coming," Goslow says. And it is even more difficult, he adds, because of Gee's reputation as "a real people person."

"He's perceived as a communicator, and then to find he's leaving without any forewarning is a big problem with the faculty here," Goslow says.

Vanderbilt faculty members who attended the announcement say they like what they have seen of Gee so far.

Gee's affable personality is indeed a plus that has won him supporters in the past. In fact, in one former position he was so popular that leading Democrats tried hard to persuade him to run for governor.

The year was 1997, and Gee was president of Ohio State University. He had increased the school's endowment by $1 billion during his seven-year tenure; he had improved academic standards and even convinced lawmakers to build new campus buildings despite a statewide construction freeze. Democratic leaders saw a viable candidate for the gubernatorial race of 1998.

Gee, however, declined the opportunity to enter politics and instead became president of Brown University. The move took him from the nation's largest campus, a public university with 50,000 students, to a small Ivy League university with 7,700 undergraduates. He had earlier held the top posts at the University of Colorado and West Virginia University, where at 37 he was one of the nation's youngest university presidents.

Kate Campbell, a sociology professor who chairs Vanderbilt's faculty council, says she liked the way Gee's first-day comments were "punctuated with passion." But she adds that it's far too early to make a judgment, and she hasn't heard a strong response one way or the other from faculty members.

"I think most faculty members felt disconnected from the search process," Campbell says. "I'd be really concerned if somebody came in and didn't make a good first impression, but he made a good initial public impression."

Vanderbilt's search, like those at most private universities, was very secretive. Even members of the faculty advisory committee weren't consulted or kept informed once they listed the characteristics they considered important in the new chancellor. While she understands the reasons for such an approach--top candidates might exclude themselves from a more open process--Campbell wasn't happy to read in the The Tennessean last December that the search had been narrowed to 15 white men. No announcement had been made at Vanderbilt.

A native of Vernal, Utah, the bow-tied Gee earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Utah in 1968. He comes to Vanderbilt as a teetotaling Mormon with a law degree and a doctorate in education, both from Columbia University. He does not have a Ph.D., a missing piece in Wyatt's credentials that sometimes drew criticism. But that should not present a problem, says Jim Staros, professor and chair of molecular biology who served on the advisory committee for the search.

"He has a law degree and an [education doctorate] from one of the finest education schools in the country," Staros says, adding that both degrees are terminal degrees in their fields, the requirement sought by the advisory committee.

Staros likes what he's heard Gee say.

"I told him that the faculty does resonate with his focus on scholarship as being the central issue of the university and raising the scholarly profile of the university," Staros says. "It is foremost in our minds and appears to be in his."

Sports fans need not fear, however. Gee is a known sports lover and was proud to announce that this year, Brown had claimed its first football conference title in 23 years. He jokingly called it "perhaps the height of my academic achievement at Brown." He said he wants Vanderbilt to be equally successful on the field and in the classroom.

At the press conference, Gee spoke to each segment of the Vanderbilt community. Standing under the portrait of Commodore Vanderbilt, he promised to "respect tradition but nurture new ideas and new traditions."

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