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Gee's tenure at WVU may be short, but he has goals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- E. Gordon Gee will be quick to tell you he is not the "interim president" of West Virginia University.

"I was not appointed as the interim president. I was appointed as president for an interim period," said Gee, former president of Ohio State University, who also served as president of WVU more than three decades ago.

"I think a part of that is to be able to make the kind of significant commitments and efforts in terms of fundraising, etcetera. I believe that the [WVU] board, in its wisdom, decided that they wanted to make certain that, in the interim, that there was no loss in momentum, but an opportunity to even accelerate -- and that's the charge that I've been given. I have a clear plan in that regard."

Gee -- known for his personable, often unfiltered nature, and of course, his bowties -- was the highest-paid university president in the country in 2012, when he made nearly $2 million at OSU.

In addition to his term as WVU president from 1981-85, he also has overseen Brown and Vanderbilt universities.

However, the fact that he's been president of WVU before can actually complicate his current, temporary position, he said.

"One of the challenges, having been president 35 years ago, is not thinking of it as that institution, but thinking of it as this institution. So I had to kind of de-learn to re-learn," Gee said. "It's a much different place. The state is a much different place."

When he retired from OSU in July -- a controversial exit following remarks that he jokingly made about Notre Dame University's "damn Catholics" and other universities -- he had plans, but not with WVU. He had "major projects" with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, obligations in Ohio and a long-term commitment to teaching at Harvard.

"So, I had things, but then the persuasive man that he is," Gee said, pointing to WVU Board of Governors Chairman Jim Dailey in a discussion Thursday with Gazette editors. "And the heartstrings that I have . . . , I think [being president of WVU] is one of the best jobs in the country. I really do. And I feel very privileged about that. I'm anxious to get about the business. That's the reason I'm hitting the ground as fast as I can."

Gee doesn't have much time. The board has goals of naming a more-permanent president to replace Jim Clements, who announced in November that he was leaving to become president of Clemson University, as soon as this summer.

But Gee says he has goals for the next six months, which include fundraising for WVU's biggest capital campaign to date, providing a well-rounded, affordable education for students and building relationships across the state, aiming to turn the university "from an ivory tower to a helping hand."

"If you had a long agenda, you'd get nothing done," he said. "These are challenging times in West Virginia, as they are nationally. What we're trying to do as an institution is to develop our relationship with the state to make sure we're in all 55 counties, that we're making a difference. We are not West Virginia University in Morgantown -- we're West Virginia University. So our work needs to be very focused, in terms of carrying out our responsibilities in the state."

Gee has had help with the transition. He and Clements exchange text messages "almost everyday."

"I tell him how to run Clemson and he tells me how to run WVU, so we're doing fine," Gee joked. "I think the presidents of WVU . . . , all of us, have this kind of intrinsic tie to the place. We all continue to communicate and, between all of us, there's certainly enough of us to make a case for the university.

"West Virginians just have a spirit about them that you can't find many places."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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