COLUMBUS OhioThere was something mighty familiar about the
selection-slash-coronation of Gordon Gee as Ohio
new president last week.
The buzz as rumors of his return turned to reality. The
excited reception he got walking to the podium after trustees voted to hire
him. The sense of relief in a crowded room of Ohio
The state had seen it all before, and just six months ago.
Gee’s appointment to the top academic job in the state resembled nothing less
than Ted Strickland’s landslide election as the state’s first Democratic
governor in almost two decades.
The immediate impression: there are two new sheriffs in
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Ohio
State’s time,” Gee announced
with religious-style fervor. With an equivalent energy being generated by
Strickland, the same could be true for the state of Ohio.
Both are career public servants in their mid-sixties. Both
are populists with moderate leanings. Both are religious Gee a devout Mormon,
Strickland a Methodist minister. Both stepped forward at a time of transition
to replace capable leaders who nevertheless lacked a certain spark.
Strickland, 65, a Democrat, served in Congress a dozen years
before deciding to run for governor in a state where Republicans held power for
more than a decade. He replaced Gov. Bob Taft, a two-term Republican who
suffered some of the lowest approval ratings in American political history as
he failed to overcome voter anger at a corruption scandal and his own inability
despite a generally commendable record to generate much excitement in folks.
Strickland had nowhere to go but up, and the fact that it
may be a long climb seems to have helped him so far. His approval ratings
continue to rise, most recently to 61 percent.
Gee, 63, likes to joke he’s held half the college
presidents’ jobs in America.
He started at West Virginia University
when he was just 37 years old. He then rocketed through U.S.
higher education, leading the University
of Colorado from 1985 to 1990, then
spent seven years at Ohio State,
two at Brown University
and seven more at Vanderbilt University.
He replaced Karen Holbrook, the university’s first female
president and a leader who got much done on campus but never seemed to quite win
over the university community. Part of that might have been her decision to
crack down on tailgating to quell post-football game riots, a move that won her
praise nationally but naysayers within the state. Part of it may have been her
Gee would have cut a sharp contrast with whoever he
replaced. He’s a horn-rimmed glasses, bow-tie wearing lawyer who brings an
almost evangelistic style of speaking to his appearances.
Within his first 45 seconds at the podium he had a crowded
room roaring with a joke about his troubled years at Brown “The last time
I had a standing ovation was when I told the people of Brown that I was
leaving” then reduced to a hush as he fought back tears to say, “I
thank all of you for letting me come home.”
Strickland’s election saw a back to the future flood of
former aides to Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste Celestials, as they’re dubbed
to state government. Gee’s return hints at a similar phenomenon.
Front and center at Gee’s reintroduction last week was Herb
Asher, his right-hand man his first time around; Jack Kessler, a former OSU
trustee who helped bring Gee to campus in 1990; and Alex Shumate, the leader of
the current search committee and a member of the committee that hired Gee 17
For his part, Strickland believed things were so down in the
state he named his election platform, “Turnaround Ohio.”
He’s betting his approach will stem the tide of residents abandoning Ohio
and regenerate the state’s anemic economy, with unemployment perpetually above
the national average.
Gee talks of moving the university from excellence to
eminence and for good reason: Ohio State,
with beefed up academic credentials, the largest campus in the country and two
national runner-up titles in football and basketball, is on the rise.
And where Strickland got a first chance, Gee gets a second a
bonus according to his backers.
“This is a totally different university than it
was,” says trustee Dimon McFerson, “and he’s a totally different
person than he was.”
End advance– Associated Press
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