Stealing a president
OSU football coach Jim Tressel greets his new boss. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
This story appeared in the September 2007 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Les Wexner was feeling confident. Just a day earlier, the Limited Brands founder and his longtime business associate Jack Kessler had surprised Gordon Gee with a visit to his home at Vanderbilt University. Their mission was to persuade their close friend to make the shocking and unprecedented decision to return to OSU one more time, a decade after leaving as a legend.
And Wexner, who’s built a decent career out of knowing how to make a sale, thought he and Kessler had closed the deal. In fact, as they were leaving, the Titan and his fellow power player exchanged high-fives.
Then came a call from Gee, who did what few people do: He rejected Wexner. The dream of bringing back the most charismatic and experienced college president in the country was over. Gee had decided to stay at Vanderbilt.
Wexner was devastated. “I couldn’t function the rest of the day,” he says.
The next morning, Wexner, an OSU trustee, couldn’t shake his disappointment. By then, however, despondency had turned to frustration. As he was shaving, Wexner says one blunt thought came to mind: “Bullshit.”
He called Kessler and told him they weren’t taking “no” for an answer. “Call Gordon,” he said. Kessler complied, contacting Gee in Nashville. Gee wasn’t surprised. “I knew Les wouldn’t give up,” he told Kessler.
Three weeks later, Gee was in Columbus to accept an offer from the board of trustees to become the 14th president of OSU, and he delivered a joyous speech, turning a roomful of heavy hitters into giddy, cheering admirers. It felt like a hero’s welcome. “I have never been in a more electric situation in my life,” says board president Gil Cloyd.
But the inside story of the wooing of Gordon Gee is more complex than simply Les Wexner getting his man. A cast of thousands, it seems, helped persuade the nation’s highest-paid university president to leave a prestigious private institution for a job he’d already held from 1990 to 1997. It was a relentless, emotional appeal waged by friends, Ohio State trustees, former Gee staffers, government officials and, perhaps most importantly, a daughter who wanted nothing more than to see her dad happy.
The subplots included covert phone calls, secretive plane rides, an incognito trip to Columbus by Gee, a timely Dispatch article and, of all things, a prostate exam. But while the saga has components of a spy novel, this is a homecoming story that has made grown men cry.
Rebekah Gee wasn’t born in Columbus, but it’s the place she calls home. When her father left the presidency at the University of Colorado to accept the top job at OSU in 1990, she was 14 years old—and not particularly happy about the move, although she says she struggled with schoolwork in Boulder while battling attention deficit disorder. She soon changed her mind after she began to attend Columbus School for Girls, which, she says, “changed my life,” guiding her down a path that eventually led to a master’s from Columbia and a doctorate from Cornell. Now, at age 29, she’s a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Only 18 months after arriving in Columbus, however, her mother, and Gordon’s wife, Elizabeth, died at age 46 of breast cancer. Rebekah and her father bonded through the sorrow, finding strength in each other. In a tearful explanation during his OSU acceptance speech, Gee said he and Rebekah “became fast friends,” and that they remain “as close as two people can possibly be.”
When she heard this spring that Ohio State was courting her father, a delighted Rebekah urged him, almost incessantly, to take the job, even conspiring with Kessler—Gordon’s best friend—on ways to sway his decision. “It was the happiest my dad has ever been,” she says about his time in Columbus. “It was important to me that he come back to Ohio State.”
“She was the key,” says attorney and trustee Alex Shumate, who chaired OSU’s search committee—a role also performed in 1997 when OSU found Gee’s successor, Brit Kirwan.
The search for a new OSU president to replace Karen Holbrook certainly didn’t start with Gee at the top of the list. Wexner, one of the 24 search committee members, and others pointed to him as a model early in the process, which started in September 2006. Gee’s first act was hard to forget: He was a tenacious champion of the university who raised funds and awareness, oversaw a massive building campaign that resulted in, among other things, the Schottenstein Center, and set the stage for the development of South Campus Gateway—not to mention his sharp wit, endless energy and ever-present bow tie.
In fact, Gee was on the committee’s initial wish list, but he wasn’t considered any more viable a candidate than another name in the pool: former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I don’t think anyone thought Gordon would really want to come back,” says Cloyd, the board chairman. “As one of our external advisers in the academic realm said, the leadership path is from public to private, not private to public.”
So, according to Cloyd and Shumate, months went by before anyone contacted Gee, outside of a remark made by Wexner at a Limited Brands board meeting as the search was just underway. Gee, a longtime company board member, said he hoped Wexner would be involved in selecting the new president and noted the difficulty of the task. Wexner says he answered, “ ‘It’s real easy. Why don’t you come back?’ ” Wexner adds, “He looked at me like I was an idiot.”
In the months that followed, Cloyd estimates that some 40 candidates were contacted, but none stood out. “By early May, we just hadn’t seen that absolute perfect candidate,” says Cloyd.
That’s when Bonnie Gwin of Heidrick & Struggles, a search firm hired to assist the process, approached Shumate. “She asked me, ‘What if I told you I had someone—a sitting president—who met or exceeded every one of our criteria? Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Of course I would.’ She said, ‘He’s the president of Vanderbilt.’ ”
“It was a different way of looking at Gordon Gee, not as a past president at Ohio State University, but as a very successful current president,” he says. “It got to this notion of going forward, not backward.”
Shumate called Gee, and they agreed to meet while Gee was in Columbus for another Limited Brands board meeting. On May 20, Shumate picked him up at his hotel and drove him back to his Gahanna home. Shumate says, “I remember my wife asking, ‘Is that Gordon Gee sitting in our living room?’ I said, ‘You are sworn to secrecy, dear.’ ”
He asked Gee if he’d considered the possibility of returning to Ohio State. “I told him, ‘I’m a little nonplussed,’ ” says Gee. “I remember using that word. I told him that I have a special relationship with Ohio State University, but that I am a very happy sitting president.”
But Gee didn’t close the door, agreeing to at least consider the notion on two conditions: “I wanted to know there was unanimous board support for this,” says Gee, “and if there was, I said I would consider it if it was offered, but that I would not go through a call-and-response recruiting process. This had to be surgical.”
Encouraged by Shumate’s initial contact, Cloyd called Gee five days later. “It was the first personal contact with Gordon in my life,” says Cloyd, the chief technology officer for Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati. “I just wanted to hear for myself.” He came away more impressed.
The dance had begun, and what had started out as a waltz would soon become a mambo.
On June 9, Cloyd, Shumate and trustee Robert Schottenstein, the president and CEO of M/I Homes, hopped on Schottenstein’s company jet and flew to Nashville. The “Gang of Three,” as Gee calls them, wanted to talk about the state of OSU, as well as the big changes in Ohio’s political climate—in particular, how the new governor, Ted Strickland, was receiving bipartisan support for his first budget, which included historic levels of funding and investment for higher education. It was a much different picture than Gee’s first tenure, marked by constant battles with the legislature. Shumate also wanted Gee to know that he’d polled board members and they unanimously supported the effort to bring Gee back to Columbus. “I left there very hopeful,” says Cloyd.
So hopeful, in fact, that a week later Cloyd, Shumate and Schottenstein revisited Gee in Nashville, and this time they brought along OSU’s legal counsel, Chris Culley, to try to hammer out a deal. “At this point, we were the pushers and he was willing to engage,” says Cloyd.
“I told them that I didn’t want to let this languish, and that I would let them know my decision by Tuesday,” says Gee.
But what Gee didn’t factor into his decision was a counter assault. Somehow, word of the Ohio State delegation’s visit to Nashville reached Martha Ingram, chair of Vanderbilt’s 55-member board. Ingram, a savvy billionaire heiress who had become one of Gee’s most trusted friends during his seven years at the school, didn’t waste time rallying her troops. Over the next two days, an all-out effort to keep Gee was launched. Supporters flooded him with a barrage of phone calls, appealing to his sense of loyalty. New contract incentives were discussed. Gee suddenly found himself caught in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war.
By all accounts, he enjoyed immense popularity among staff and students alike at Vanderbilt, and virtual carte blanche support from his board. And he genuinely seemed to relish his life in Nashville; only weeks earlier he’d posted a Lettermanesque list—“Top Ten Reasons Why It Is Great To Be At Vanderbilt”—on his chancellor’s website.
The prior year, however, had been difficult. A two-month investigation by the Wall Street Journal, which Gee later equated to a “public colonoscopy,” resulted in a front-page story that made him the poster child for a blank-check mentality among higher education leadership. It cited his $1.4 million salary as well as the $6 million spent on renovations to Braeburn, the university-owned presidential mansion—and the site of “several hundred” parties Gee and his second wife, Constance, hosted that cost some $700,000 annually.
The article also detailed a 2005 incident in which employees reported to the trustees that Constance was using marijuana in the mansion (for an inner-ear infection, according to a source in the story), and it noted that when he was confronted by school officials, a “trembling” Gordon Gee replied, “I’ve been worried to death over this.”
But Vanderbilt’s board and administration rallied to his defense, and Gee survived the story. (His marriage, however, did not. In February, Constance—an OSU assistant professor when she and Gee married in 1994—filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. The case is pending.)
While Vanderbilt was working hard to keep its president in Nashville, Rebekah Gee got involved. When she called her father on June 18, she grew alarmed when she could hear doubt in his voice about coming to OSU. “Vanderbilt people were calling him up, crying, saying their world was going to crumble if he left, asking ‘How could you do this’ and putting a lot of guilt on him,” says Rebekah. “I just thought he needed a little positive reinforcement from the other side.”
She called Kessler, the chairman of the New Albany Company, who had headed the search committee that brought Gee to OSU in 1990. And though Kessler no longer was an OSU board member, she knew her dad—and others—would listen to him. “I told him, ‘We have to do something,’ ” and she suggested he fly to Nashville.
Kessler put in a call to Wexner and told him they needed to head to Vanderbilt. When Wexner began to say he had plans for the rest of the day, Kessler said: “Nothing is more important.” By 4 pm, they were on a private plane.
Once airborne, Wexner, sipping a Coke, casually asked Kessler if Gee was picking them up at the airport. Kessler informed him that Gee didn’t know they were coming—and worse, Gee was entertaining guests that night. Wexner says he asked, “What are we going to do? I don’t want to get into a fistfight,” to which he says Kessler replied, “I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we get there.”
Gee had planned a dinner party to honor one of Vanderbilt’s vice chancellors, who was retiring. As Kessler and Wexner were driving toward Braeburn, Kessler called Gee. “I told him we were about two minutes away,” Kessler says. “He about had a heart attack.”
They were quickly ushered into a separate room just before his guests began to arrive. Wexner says he felt as if they were in “enemy territory,” concerned they’d be discovered.
Hearing Gee approaching the door to the room, Wexner got an idea. He pulled out his Blackberry and, when Gee entered, he activated the ring tone.
It played the Ohio State fight song.
The tiny sound of the familiar ode struck an emotional chord with the three friends.
“We all start crying,” says Wexner.
He says he and Kessler then told Gee essentially the same thing: “You should do what makes you happy.”
As they were preparing to leave, Wexner says he asked Gee if he could take him back to Columbus and recalls Gee’s indicating he’d be there soon enough. With Gee out of view, Kessler and Wexner then exchanged that high-five. Referring to the visit, Wexner says, “I thought it was the high point of my recruiting.”
That evening, however, Gee says two vice chancellors stayed after dinner, trying to persuade him to stay at Vanderbilt. He says that agonizing over the decision simply became too much. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ ” The next morning he informed Ingram, his board chair, that he was staying at Vanderbilt. Then he called Wexner, Kessler, Shumate and Cloyd.
After a stunned Wexner and Kessler regrouped, they continued to press Gee. It was “first and a foot” at the goal line, Wexner says, and he had three more downs left to play. When Kessler called Gee, he asked, “Are you happy with your decision?” Gee says he replied, “Well, my heart tells me to go, but my head tells me to stay.’ He says, ‘Don’t you think you should listen to your heart?’ ”
Rebekah Gee wasn’t giving up, either. The same day a Nashville newspaper reported Gee saying, “My commitment to Vanderbilt is unwavering and unshakeable,” she contacted her father. “I was disappointed because I really wanted him to go,” she says. “But I had resigned myself to the fact he was staying, and recognized that it’s difficult to leave a place when you’ve hired so many good people and invested so much into a place. But then, when I called him the next day and he was still talking about Ohio State, I knew he’d change his mind.”
She called Kessler, who then got hold of Cloyd. “He says, ‘I think there’s still some opportunity to engage Gordon on this front,’ ” Cloyd says. “I made a cold call on him. I said, ‘I’m not the kind of person to make a pest of myself, but I feel like the kid who’s been taken up to the window at the candy shop and shown all this candy and then been told I had to be led away.’ I said, ‘Gordon, is the store closed?’ He paused and said, ‘Let me think on this.’ I thought, ‘We still have a chance.’ ”
When a Dispatch story appeared a few days later, headlined, “Gee passes on OSU,” it caught many by surprise. The eight-month search had been amazingly tight-lipped; the story was the first time most people had heard Gee was even in the running. It prompted many of his old friends and former staffers to call him.
Rebekah and Kessler made sure it didn’t stop; even OSU football coach Jim Tressel got in touch. “Jack would call me every day and we’d have these morning powwows,” she says. “We’d say, ‘Who else can we have call to get him to come?’ ”
“I had a barrage of phone calls,” says Gee. “Surprisingly, they all had my personal cellphone number.”
What’s more, Shumate says Rebekah was giving the search committee members an insight into what Gee was thinking. “It was a vast conspiracy perpetrated upon me by my best friend and my daughter,” Gee says.
Gee began making calls himself. One was to Curt Steiner, who served as chief of staff under Gov. George Voinovich and who’s now Ohio State’s senior vice president for university relations. Steiner says Gee wanted to “get a lay of the land in terms of the situation of higher education and the political climate.”
Gee also contacted Eric Fingerhut, the newly appointed Ohio Board of Regents chancellor. “He’d just got back from synagogue, his kids were wanting to eat, yet he took the time to talk to this worn-out old president,” says Gee.
Fingerhut says he spent about an hour explaining the Strickland administration’s priority on higher education, and his view of how all the state’s universities, with OSU as the beacon, would be working together to lift Ohio’s economy. “I told him, ‘We’re very passionate about the direction we’re going,’ and that I believed he was the right person to help lead it,” says Fingerhut. Gee would later describe the call to Fingerhut as “a watershed moment”—assuring him that he could work with the legislature.
The same day, Gee talked to John F. Wolfe, publisher of the Dispatch. “I consider him a friend,” says Gee. “I wanted to ask him how he felt about the opportunities for Ohio State and the state. He probably has as good a sense of that as anyone. He has his finger on the pulse.”
The conversation obviously alerted Wolfe that Gee, despite his statement to the contrary, was wavering. A few days later, another story appeared in the Dispatch. This time, the headline read, “Many at OSU pining for return of E. Gordon Gee,” quoting a number of people—not board members, but Ohio State staffers and community members—all singing Gee’s praises.
Gee says the story was crucial. “It answered a lot of questions I couldn’t answer for myself. It allowed me to gauge my own feeling against others. If everyone had said, ‘Thank God, we dodged a bullet, the guy’s a buffoon,’ then the deal’s done. But they didn’t.”
In a stroke of good fortune for OSU, Gee had planned to spend a few days over the Fourth of July holiday in Philadelphia with his daughter and her husband, Allan Moore. If he thought he’d get a respite from the tug of war, he was wrong. “We spent the whole week saying, ‘You need to go back to Ohio State. You need to go back to Ohio State,’ wearing him down like a Chinese water torture,” Rebekah says.
At the end of his stay, Gee decided what he needed most was to visit Ohio State. “I’m a visual guy,” he says. “If I can see it, it helps me figure out what to do.”
On July 8, a Sunday, Kessler picked up Gee at Port Columbus. Together, they toured the university and the city, with Gee trying to disguise his appearance by forgoing his bow tie and wearing a Boston Red Sox ball cap his son-in-law had given him. Kessler says that while Gee had been in town over the years, he hadn’t really seen the changes at the university. So he took Gee through campus—past the Gateway project, the Schottenstein Center, the Woody Hayes complex—and also past the Short North and downtown. “We didn’t talk much,” Kessler says. “I just drove him around.”
It was a pivotal couple of hours. “It felt very much like home,” says Gee, who would later call the trip “spiritual.”
Back at the airport that afternoon for a return flight to Nashville, Gee called his daughter. “He said, ‘I’m going to do it,’ ” says Rebekah. “I was elated.”
He also called Cloyd. “I told him, ‘I want to take this job, but I can’t tell you yes, definitively.’ ”
There was a final hurdle: a physical exam. Gee told Cloyd a recent blood test had revealed a slightly elevated level of prostate-specific antigens (PSA)—a possible warning sign of prostate cancer. “I told Dr. Cloyd that I had a doctor’s appointment the next day, and that I just wanted to make sure I could do the job physically.”
So Cloyd waited, wondering if OSU’s dream would be denied by a test result. Then he got a call from Gee, who was about to board a plane bound for Chicago for a speaking engagement. Gee told him he’d passed the exam, and, ‘If the board wants to have me, I’m willing to be considered.’ ”
Three days later, the Ohio State board convened, and its business was no secret. The Dispatch front-page headline about Gee that morning proclaimed, “He’s back.” A large crowd of civic leaders, reporters and university staffers filled a room at the Longaberger Alumni House, talking excitedly as the board met in executive session for a final discussion about the emotional homecoming that was about to take place. Wexner was not in attendance, vacationing with his family on his yacht somewhere near Italy, but he didn’t want to miss the occasion. Though he was bound by law from participating in the executive session via conference call, he was allowed to listen in on a speakerphone.
When the board emerged, a unanimous vote to extend Gee a contract was but a formality before the star of the show was introduced. Gee entered from the back of the room and strode down the center aisle, shaking hands and wearing a smile broader than his scarlet-and-gray bow tie. He paused at the front row for a long hug with Kessler, and then he took the podium, delivering an opening line that killed. “The last time I got a standing ovation was when I told the people of Brown I was leaving,” he said. The speech was vintage Gee, a mix of humor and optimism and big plans. More than once, he broke down, apologizing. “I’m sorry. This is an emotional moment for me. I thank all of you for letting me come home.”
Certainly, Gee has his critics—those who see the master fundraiser as emblematic of the corporatization of higher education; others who fear his Act II will crumble under the weight of excessively high expectations or the folks who suspect that if Titans were involved, some back-room deals must have been made. (“I didn’t promise Gordon a bow tie, a lunch, a dollar,” Wexner says.)
Overwhelmingly, however, the university and the city seemed to feel empowered by Gee’s return, believing, as Gee himself proclaimed, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is Ohio State’s time.” Not since OSU’s football team won the national championship in 2002 has such a sense of celebration—as well as a sense of promise—prevailed. Gee’s return resonated deeply.
Nearly a week after Gee’s triumphant arrival, Steiner, who has been an advocate for higher education for many years, began to read on his Blackberry an editorial in the Dayton Daily News that praised Ohio State’s coup in landing Gee. When he got to a part about the need for Dayton to welcome Gee back home, he had to stop. Like Kessler, Wexner and Gee before him, Steiner started to cry. It wasn’t the first time.
“I have cried at least 15 to 20 times,” says Steiner, who will be a key member of Gee’s team. “This work to build support for public education in Ohio for so long has been such a struggle. Something like this makes it much more fun and much more accomplishable. The stars are aligning.”
Then he chokes up again.
“It is just so important,” he says.
Eric Lyttle is a senior editor for and Ray Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly.