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WVU board votes to bring Gee back as president

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After he agreed to serve temporarily as president while West Virginia University officials found someone for the full-time job, E. Gordon Gee is set to get that full-time job.

In an emergency meeting on Monday, the WVU Board of Governors overturned a motion it made months ago that said the interim president could not qualify as a permanent candidate, and unanimously endorsed Gee for the full-term position.

The state Higher Education Policy Commission must still approve the move, but Gee and WVU officials sounded Monday like it was a done deal.

"When I had the opportunity to return to West Virginia and this university earlier this year, I did not hesitate. And, I have found it to be the same wonderful and welcoming place I remembered," Gee said in a statement Monday. "And, with great joy, I also found that our university had grown, matured and was competing on the national academic stage with some of the very best land-grant research universities in the country. I am honored, energized and humbled to serve West Virginia University as the 24th president."

Gee, 70, served as WVU president in the 1980s and was most recently at the helm of Ohio State University. He has also led Brown and Vanderbilt universities, as well as the University of Colorado, and was named among the top ten best college presidents in the country by Time magazine in 2009.

In 2012, he was the highest-paid college president in the country, making about $2 million while at Ohio State.

Gee has made a reputation for himself, known for his often-unfiltered nature and his personable interactions with the student bodies he oversees.

In his short time at WVU, he has attended several student functions, posted photos of him and students to his Twitter account, and recently distributed bowtie-shaped cookies on campus -- another of his trademarks.

Gee left Ohio State last summer after he made jokes about Notre Dame University's "damn Catholics" and other universities. When he became WVU's interim president, he had "major projects" with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, obligations in Ohio and a long-term commitment to teaching at Harvard, he said.

As WVU president, Gee will continue his work for Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Quality and Value Initiative and with the newly established Center for Higher Education Enterprise.

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.

Thomas Flaherty, vice chairman of the WVU Board of Governors and a member of the search committee that selected Gee, represented former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the Aracoma civil lawsuits.

Last November, WVU officials promised a nationwide search for the school's next president. In January, WVU Board of Governors Chairman Jim Dailey, with Gee at his side, said he wanted a more thorough search than the last time WVU picked a president.

They also said the interim president wouldn't be eligible for the permanent post. But Dailey said in a statement Monday that the board didn't expect someone of Gee's caliber to take the interim job after former WVU president Jim Clements left for Clemson University.

"It is clear Gordon Gee has not been a placeholder president by any means. He has been an extraordinary high-energy leader who is getting things done, moving us forward and clearly has the support of our board.... Countless people have urged us from day one to keep him," Dailey said in the statement.

Gee is allowed a two-year contract, according to state law. He will continue under his current contract and $450,000 salary while a new contract is developed. The state Higher Education Policy Commission could vote on Gee's appointment as soon as March 10, spokeswoman Jessica Tice said Monday.

Several state leaders came out in support of Gee on Monday, including U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.

John Fahey, chairman of the WVU Alumni Association, said Gee's "energy and enthusiasm" has already resonated across campus.

"He has made himself available for alumni activities and fundraising events in different parts of the country, and, when in attendance, is the most approachable person there, continuously meeting our graduates and sharing his feelings for WVU with them," Fahey said. "The man is non-stop. We are fortunate to have such a genuine individual and proven leader at the helm."

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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