CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Gordon Gee is returning to West Virginia University as interim president, five months after retiring from Ohio State University after remarks he made jabbing Roman Catholics and Southeastern Conference schools were made public.
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission approved Gee’s hiring Friday, a day after the WVU Board of Governors made its recommendation without announcing a name.
Gee’s stay is expected to be temporary and his annual salary was set at $450,000. The WVU board has said the interim president will be in place by January but won’t serve in the permanent job, which it wants to fill by next fall. Former President Jim Clements accepted the same position at Clemson University in November.
It marks the seventh time Gee, 69, has headed a major U.S. university, including two stints apiece at West Virginia and Ohio State.
WVU board chairman James Dailey said in a statement he’s thrilled with Gee’s appointment.
“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 here and the momentum this University is enjoying,” Dailey said.
Gee, who is expected to visit the Morgantown campus Tuesday, said in a statement issued by WVU that the university “has always had a special meaning for me.”
“I am delighted now to be able to come back – and give back – to the West Virginia University community while also continuing my commitments to Ohio State, as well as higher education in Ohio and nationally.”
Gee has stumbled through a series of verbal missteps for which he had to issue apologies. He retired in July after his remarks jabbed at Roman Catholics and criticized Notre Dame and former Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema, who now coaches Arkansas.
In those remarks, made a year ago Thursday to Ohio State’s Athletic Council, Gee said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten because the school’s religious leaders are not “good partners.”
A Mormon, Gee also jokingly referred to “those damn Catholics,” lampooned the academic integrity of the University of Louisville and Southeastern Conference schools, singling out the University of Kentucky. He alleged that University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez considered Bielema a “thug.” Gee also made mildly disparaging remarks about Alvarez and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
Gee also laughingly suggested that someone would have to “shoot” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith before Smith would allow the University of Cincinnati to join the Big Ten.
This wasn’t the first case of Gee speaking out of turn, and it was his penchant for inappropriate remarks that led to Ohio State trustees warning him in March of this year that any additional missteps would lead to his termination.
In March 2010, as a memorabilia-for-cash and tattoos scandal involving then-football coach Jim Tressel heated up, Gee jokingly said that rather than consider firing Tressel, he was concerned that the popular coach “doesn’t dismiss me.”
Later that year, Gee compared the schedules of other major college football rivals to playing the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” And last year Gee compared the challenges of leading a large university to the “Polish Army.” He issued apologies for both those remarks.
Gee, who had remained at Ohio State as a law professor after his retirement, will take an unpaid leave of absence while serving at WVU.
Gee was WVU’s law school dean from 1979 to 1981 and served as university president from 1981 to 1985. He also served as the president of Brown University and the University of Colorado, chancellor of Vanderbilt University and on the board of directors at Massey Energy.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he’s “confident Gee will provide the leadership skills necessary to maintain the University’s positive momentum.”
Gee has been a popular president on most of the campuses he has led, attending countless events, from faculty meetings to dormitory pizza parties, always wearing his trademark bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses.
As he announced his retirement from Ohio State earlier this year, Gee hinted he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Gee said the opportunity to hold his twin granddaughters in his arms on a recent cruise gave him pause.
“I’m sitting on the deck of the ship, and I’m rocking these little girls, and I’m thinking this is the first time I’ve ever rocked a child for 33 years,” said Gee, who in a tweet later in the morning said life “is all about perspective” and included a picture of his granddaughters.
Gee also said he and his “significant other” in California, whom he didn’t identify, were having a difficult time figuring out how “we’re going to make this work.”
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.