E. Gordon Gee takes the helm

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

If you pick up today's Alive, our back to school issue, you'll see, front and center, a friendly man in a bow tie greeting students during move-in day last Sunday on Campus. This is, of course, Ohio State's new president, E. Gordon Gee, a polite, bespectacled gentleman who returns to OSU after a decade away.

You might not remember his first term, stretching from 1990-1997. You might not know he doesn't assume formal responsibilities until October 1. You know this man because everyone loves him. You might love him too, without even knowing why.

Already, as reporter Brittany Kress notes in her interview, the man has returned to his second tenure as OSU president to uniformly giddy praise and admiration. Both the Alive story and a Dispatch report published earlier this month refer to Gee as a "rock star."

Adminstrators, members of the media, OSU trustees and basically everyone else in Columbus think highly of him. Incoming students, to whom image is nearly everything, are even wearing bow ties in homage to Gee's trademark accoutrement. Kress also noted that people were bursting from SUVs to grab a snapshot and - if Gee has his jovial way - a hug.

Described as friendly and pleasantly self-deprecating, Gee is welcoming a second tenure that has become a victory lap before it begins.

"Our students were wonderful when I was here, our students are wonderful now," Gee told Alive. "There's just a very special spirit about it, unlike any other university I've ever seen."

The man who welcomes nicknames such as "Gordo" and "G squared" added: "I hope that I'll develop a relationship with these students to make them feel that there's someone that is personally involved with their lives."

Developing personal connections was a dominant theme during Gee's first term - he would occasionally sleep in the dorms - and that's crucially important as he returns.

Of course, Gee lives in a mansion, and students don't. But perception is reality, and the understanding among most citywide is that Gee cares about students and about shattering the invisible barriers between the student body and people who govern it.

It's a change for the better.

Neither of OSU's two previous heads - William "Brit" Kirwin and Karen Holbrook - engaged students on a personal level or implied in their demeanor that they were interested in their daily lives. During a time when students perceived diminishing returns in university enrollment - rising tuition costs, shrinking job markets - Kirwin and Holbrook offered no reassurance.

Kirwin generally lacked charisma during his tenure, July 1998 to June 2002; Holbrook, who was in charge from October 2002 to July 2007, came off as cold, stoic and pious. Both university leaders were more than qualified to run things, but their problem ultimately was one of public relations.

I wrote my honors thesis on the off-campus riots that happened between 1996 and 2002, and I argued that perceived distance between students and administration was a key factor in the aggression and the chaos at the heart of what the university wrongly called "celebratory riots."

After someone threw the first bottle at a wave of cops in riot gear, you could hear the anger and the frustration in the chaos that erupted on Chittenden Avenue and other streets in the student neighborhoods east of High Street. It was us against them, and rioters often felt entitled to destroy because they felt no one was listening to challenging, very real problems with Campus life.

Judging from his current approval rating, Gee's return to Ohio State will close the gap.

It's interesting to note that both Gee and Holbrook helmed the university at a time when riots plagued the off-campus neighborhoods. Both wished to curb binge drinking and out of control parties and supported various crackdowns on the celebratory culture that, in many ways, defines Ohio State.

In April 1997, months after a firestorm riot exploded the previous fall, Gee joined five other university leaders on a national panel to curb student alcohol consumption. He would echo those concerns later in his presidency.

"The biggest educational challenge we face today is helping our students develop character and conscience, civility and respect," Gee said at fall 1997 commencement, his final address to students. "Simply put, universities must provide an education not just of value, but of values."

Holbrook's stance was eerily similar, but she handled herself poorly. Instead of adopting Gee's ultimate concern for student welfare, her crusades, like cleaning up Lane Avenue during game day, seemed to be holier-than-thou image repair.

These presidents faced similar situations, and because of opposite approaches, achieved opposite outcomes. Already, Gee has reminded the community of his stellar star power and his successful tactics for engaging people of all kinds.

Remember: Whether or not he's listening, people believe he is. And that's what matters most.

Information from Dispatch reports was used in this story.