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Gee named interim president of WVU

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- E. Gordon Gee will once again be president of West Virginia University. The state Higher Education Policy Commission unanimously approved his interim selection Friday.

Gee was president of WVU from 1981 to 1985. More recently he was president of Ohio State University from 2007 until his retirement in June -- his second stint at that school. In May, he ignited controversy, and abruptly retired, when anti-Catholic remarks that he had made jokingly at a meeting were made public.

Gee also has been president of Brown University and the University of Colorado, and was the chancellor at Vanderbilt University.

Gee, 69, will replace Jim Clements, who announced in November that he will leave WVU at the end of the year to become president of Clemson University.

"I am delighted that Dr. Gee has accepted our invitation to lead our state's flagship, land-grant," said James Dailey II, chairman of the WVU Board of Governors, in a news release. "He is a seasoned and respected higher education leader who has served five major universities over 33 years, and I am confident he will continue the great work going on."

In 2009, Time magazine named Gee one of the top 10 university presidents in the country.

Thomas Flaherty, vice chairman of the WVU Board of Governors, said Gee is the best choice because of his extensive experience and his previous tenure at WVU.

"He's energized to do it. He has told us it sort of brings him full circle, because West Virginia University was who gave him his first job as president," Flaherty, a Charleston lawyer, said after Friday's meeting. "He brings a wealth of knowledge, both nationally and at WVU. He's a perfect choice."

During Gee's previous tenure at WVU, the university established the WVU Research Corp. and restructured the WVU Foundation. It also incorporated WVU Hospitals, leading to the construction of Ruby Memorial Hospital.

In May, The Associated Press, through a public records request, obtained a recording of a December meeting of Ohio State's athletic council, on which Gee joked about not allowing Notre Dame to join the Big-10 because the university's priests can't be trusted.

"The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they're holy hell on the rest of the week," Gee said, over laughter. "You just can't trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that."

After the remarks became public, Gee immediately apologized. He announced his retirement a week later.

On Friday, WVU's Flaherty said Gee's remarks were clearly in jest and did not factor into the board's decision.

"I'm an Irish Catholic, it didn't bother me," Flaherty said. "Notre Dame was not offended by it.

"You have to appreciate his sense of humor."

Gee previously came under fire for joking that he hoped Ohio State's football coach wouldn't fire him and for comparing other schools' football opponents to the "Little Sisters of the Poor."

Gee will be paid an annual salary of $470,000, a significant pay cut from his time at Ohio State, where his total compensation was about $1.9 million annually. He will live in Blaney House, the home of the university president.

The Board of Governors voted unanimously Thursday to approve an interim president. That president, who turned out to be Gee, was not named at the time. Instead, the board voted to approve the anonymous candidate that its members had discussed in a closed session.

The West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act generally prohibits public bodies from voting in private or using any means to obscure from the public exactly what they are voting on.

The law states that the publicly available agenda must be "sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated."

In 2000, the West Virginia Ethics Commission Committee on Open Governmental Meetings interpreted that section of the law as requiring the Preston County Board of Education to disclose the names of affected employees prior to voting on those employees.

In that case, the committee wrote that it was, "not aware of any statutory provision which would preclude the public from knowing the identity of the person the superintendent is recommending to the county board for hire."

Flaherty said the WVU board's decision followed the law.

"The decision to hire the person who was discussed in executive session was made publicly," Flaherty said. "It's a personnel issue. It can be done; it's done all the time."

He said board members wanted to wait a day to make the announcement as a courtesy to Gee, so he could inform Ohio State and others of the decision.

Joan Parker, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, said government bodies are generally given a little more leeway when it comes to hiring because they don't want to announce an appointment until they're sure the person will accept the job.

"Based on our interpretation of the open meetings act," Parker said, "it doesn't raise any red flags."

She added that the Ethics Commission does not enforce the law and does not investigate complaints.

From 2000 to 2009, Gee was a member of the Massey Energy Co. Board of Directors and was an outspoken defender of the company's mining practices. He resigned that position under pressure from students and environmental groups.

In an April 2009 interview with Ohio State's student newspaper, The Lantern, Gee said Massey had "one of the best environmental records in the country."

The year before, Massey had been forced to pay a $20 million fine to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the largest civil penalty in the EPA's history for water pollution permit violations.

Gee was among the Massey board members targeted in civil lawsuits that alleged poor safety practices and lax oversight after a January 2006 fire that killed two workers at the company's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County and the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is continuing a criminal investigation into Upper Big Branch and Massey's safety practices, and has said in court filings that former Massey executives and board members "may be, or may become" targets in the ongoing inquiry. Goodwin declined comment Friday.

Flaherty represents former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in a still-pending civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Massey shareholders after the Upper Big Branch explosion. The plaintiffs in that case allege that Massey officials misled investors by regularly touting its safety practices while routinely ignoring government standards and systematically hiding violations from federal inspectors.

The WVU Board of Governors has said the interim president will not be a candidate for the permanent presidency and that its members hope to name the permanent president by next fall.

Gee will serve as an adviser for the presidential search committee, which will be chaired by Dailey and will include 18 other university representatives.

Gee was born in Utah and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah. He earned a law degree and a doctorate in education from Columbia University. He has one daughter and five grandchildren.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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