Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee gestures as he speaks during the Ohio State University spring commencement in Columbus May 5. AP photo.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The president of Ohio State University could be fired for any more verbal gaffes, trustees told him in a letter that said his mockery of Notre Dame, Roman Catholics and the Southeastern Conference have embarrassed and divided the university and run the risk of diminishing the effectiveness of its efforts.
Trustees warned Gordon Gee that comments or actions he makes detracting from Ohio State’s core values are not productive and are unacceptable, according to a copy of the March 11 letter obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
“Although none of us expects this to be the case, should future instances take place, they could constitute cause for even more punitive action, including dismissal, and the board will have no choice but to take such action,” the letter said.
An AP report this week revealed remarks Gee made to the university’s Athletic Council in December, saying that Notre Dame wasn’t allowed to join the Big Ten because its leaders were not good partners. He said its Roman Catholic priests were “holy hell” on days other than Sunday and joked “those damn Catholics” can’t be trusted.
He also questioned the academic integrity of schools in the SEC, singling out the University of Kentucky.
Gee apologized in a statement Thursday, again on Twitter on Thursday night, and in a campus-wide email sent Friday.
“I am deeply sorry for the discomfort I caused, which was wholly unintentional, to members of the Athletic Council and others present in the room at the time of my comments,” Gee’s email said. “More broadly, I want to apologize to all who were offended by my remarks, to the University community, and to our entire Ohio State family.”
Gee will get another chance to get his message across June 8 when he’s scheduled to give the commencement address at St. Frances DeSales High School in Columbus, a Roman Catholic school.
Gee has a history of headline-grabbing remarks, though none of those elicited such a strong response from trustees.
In 2011, it was revealed that then football coach Jim Tressel had known for months of allegations that some players had traded memorabilia for cash and tattoos, but failed to tell his superiors in violation of his contract and NCAA regulations.
Asked if he would consider firing Tressel, Gee said: “No, are you kidding? Let me be very clear: I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
In 2010, Gee belittled several top football programs by saying they had weak schedules he likened to playing the “the Little Sisters of the Poor.” He later apologized and made a donation to the religious order.
In their March letter, the trustees laid out steps Gee must take including issuing personal apologies, getting help from professionals to revisit his personal communications and speechwriting processes, and rethinking what speaking engagements he accepts.
Trustees told Gee that his attempts “to bring a bit of levity” to significant issues have had the opposite effect at times.
“As a result, instead of your words promoting and uniting us, they have sometimes embarrassed and divided us,” said board Chairman Robert Schottenstein and Trustee Alex Shumate, who led the search committee that hired Gee in 2007, in the three-page letter obtained through a public records request.
“Such comments are not befitting a great university like Ohio State or its leadership,” the letter continued. It added: “Although we do not believe that you intended harm, such comments risk diminishing the effectiveness of our collective efforts and of your good work.”
The letter said Gee is making progress on the board’s list of requirements.
“Your willingness to seek guidance and counsel on multiple levels, from a variety of sources, on how to adapt and grow is a hallmark of your leadership style and one that we value highly,” the letter said.
University and athletic conference officials have almost universally called Gee’s remarks inappropriate but also said his apology has been accepted.
After receiving the March 11 letter, Gee began to publicly address his occasional misspeaking, such as these remarks on March 29 at the downtown Columbus Metropolitan Club.
“Even as my world view has greatly expanded, I have at times misstepped,” he said.
“It is no secret that my attempts at humor, to break the tension, to ease myself into a challenging moment, to establish rapport, have sometimes had quite the opposite effect,” Gee continued. “But let me just say this: Those kinds of off-hand comments do not reflect my own thinking and certainly they are not the Ohio State ideals. Twentieth century values have no place in a forward thinking world, and I take that very much as my own responsibility as a leader.”
His choice of the Metropolitan Club was telling. It was there, on Jan. 11, 2012, he talked about the problem of coordinating 18 divisions such as independent schools and colleges. “It was kind of like the Polish army or something,” Gee said in that speech.
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