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  • Reverend James Squire

America's Most Controversial University President

I think most of us have had the experience of reading the digital morning newspaper and seeing a name that immediately gets our attention and takes us down memory lane. The article this morning read “West Virginia University May Cut Foreign Languages.” It was followed by naming the University President, Gordon Gee. The article highlights the challenges that all schools face in providing a quality education with a reasonable cost of education. Gee happens to be one of the “most unforgettable people” that I have met in the world of education. You either love him or not.

It was recommended that I have Gordon Gee come to EA when he was President of Vanderbilt to give one of our chapel lectures. Our school extended the offer, and he agreed to come. He was the highest paid university President in the land. He was Time Magazine’s 2010 College President of the Year, and he was regarded as the best fund raiser for a university anywhere. He also had a case of foot in mouth disease which was always getting him in trouble, and in some instances fired. His fundraising ability couldn’t overcome some major slips of the tongue.

He referred to “those damn Catholics at Notre Dame” which got him fired from Ohio State University. He meant it as a joke, but it was not received that way. He was President of Brown University for just three years before going to Vanderbilt for a better opportunity. Brown University had a Spring ritual, The E. Gordon Gee Laboratory Complex, a collection of portable toilets that appeared in the Spring.

However, coaches at Ohio State, where he served as President, such as Urban Myer and Jim Tressel, loved him for his unconditional support. He is now President of West Virginia University where he has cut their university’s foreign languages programs from the curriculum which meant that he had to let 7% of the faculty go. This was in an attempt to balance a budget.

So, what was the controversy when I invited him to EA? We announced him as the speaker at a chapel lecture and people began asking me if I had read the Wall Street Journal’s article about him and his wife. I had not. The article outlined that he had spent a large amount of money improving his President’s mansion to host fund raising events. Since I had one educational foot in the North and another in the South, I knew that southern college university presidents tend to do fund raising in the intimacy of their homes. The article also indicated that Gee’s wife had been smoking marijuana at the Mansion. She was a member of the faculty as well. This was an infraction that caused someone to be fired. She made the case that the marijuana use was a treatment for her Meniere Disease, which is an inner ear problem that causes vertigo and can lead to deafness. She wasn’t fired, and she would later write a book about this devastating situation of rumor and gossip at Vanderbilt.

What The Wall Street Journal failed to include was that even though Gee spent $700,000 a year for fund raising programs, he raised one billion dollars over five years. The wife’s treatment was left out. One of my sources of anger about the ethics of the press is that, in my opinion, they are interested in what sells rather than the complete picture of what a person is like as a whole. I have often said that “the rumor mill” caused 50% of my problems as Chaplain of the School.

Sins of omission are just as important as sins of commission. Rumors flourish because it is human nature to rejoice in someone’s downfall from being highly regarded. We are not getting news today as much as we are getting what gets peoples’ attention. Gee’s situation was an example that you see what you want to see. I am not disagreeing that he has negative controversial aspects of his life, but today we are focusing on people as being one dimensional. There is the ethical question that also should be raised, “Is there anything good about a person or what they have done.” I must admit that I find nothing redeemable about Trump. He and his allies, however, have sparked news and conversation to look for the bad in another first instead of attempting a balanced view from the right, middle, and the left. We are now programmed that way which is one of the causes of division in our nation and in partisan politics. We now have cemented a “gotcha culture.” Forget the Trump children. What about Hunter Biden’s laptop?

The rumor mill contains “confirmation bias” where we only look for things that we want to see or would be a juicy piece of gossip which will bond us more closely to our faction.

One of my personal guidelines as Chaplain was to make sure that I was exposing the students to responsible different views. I did have the obvious phone calls indicating that I should rethink the invitation to Gee so I did what I usually would do. I called an alumnus who was a student at Vanderbilt and asked her what the students thought of President Gee. “We love him. He is very present and brings chocolate cookies to our dorms on the weekends.”

I gave my standard answer to the parents who thought that he shouldn’t come that there would be a Q and A after his address. They could ask him anything they wanted as long as they remembered that he is our guest.

I contacted Gee’s office to give them background on the school and directed them to our school website. I also indicated that our core faith tradition was the Episcopal Church, but we valued our religious diversity with all traditions being honored. His office only asked for one thing, a place where he could meet and greet Vanderbilt Alumni in the area for him to do fundraising.

His address was about the “Spiritual Nature of Educational Institutions” which was so fine that I included it in my memoir, The Times of My Life. During his address he reflected on his values as a Mormon. During the Q and A afterward, a member of the Fifth Form, a Junior, asked him how many wives he had. You could have heard a pin drop. Dr. Gee gave a great response answering the question without missing a beat. Afterwards some faculty thought that the student should be punished for such an inappropriate question. I knew the student very well and could see that it was a question that a student would ask.

It didn’t bother Gee or me. But the student came to see me later as some faculty were criticizing her throughout the day. I told her that I would take care of it. I thanked those faculty members for their concern, but I thought that the student asked a real question to which she wanted to know the answer. More important, it didn’t bother Gee or me.

I have never raised a billion dollars for our school. I have never been recognized by Time Magazine. I sometimes suffer from foot in mouth disease, but when I spent some time with Gordon Gee, I realized that we had one thing in common about the spiritual nature of educational institutions. The student and support thereof come first.

Given the rumor mill and rejoicing in another’s downfall, I think that if anyone wanted to see Trump’s downfall it would be Hilary Clinton. But her response was a model for the rest of us, “It’s a sad day for America.” If she could do that, the rest of us should too if we are going to break the cycle of “gotcha.” It won’t be easy to do, but we have to start some place.

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