E. Gordon Gee gets around.
But of course you already knew that, given that he’s served as president or chancellor of five different universities in various parts of the United States — and has a presence on countless state and national higher education policy commissions.
Now in his second presidency at West Virginia University (Gee also served as president from 1981 – 1985), it’s apparent that this highly respected leader — with his trademark bow tie — is a mover and shaker on a day-to-day basis.
Here’s how he spent one Thursday in March: interview with a local newspaper, calls to donors, stops at Woodburn Hall to visit with faculty and staff, a meeting with the Jewish student organization, calls to high-achieving students, recording a congratulatory video for the rifle and men’s and women’s basketball teams as they embarked on tournament play, a meeting with a dean, the hosting of a dinner with graduate students, and a speaking engagement at a recruiting reception.
And he calls that a “light” day.
Think of him as a migratory bird — but of a rare breed. He’s on the move multiple times a day, instead of different seasons of the year.
What’s not reflected in his itinerary are the calls he makes in between appointments and the massive amount of correspondence he completes via e-mail and handwritten notes.
In a brief midafternoon break that day, Gee rested comfortably in a leather sofa chair reflecting on how life came full-circle for him at WVU.
“I’m not sure there was an a-ha moment,” said Gee, a few days after the WVUBoard of Governors asked him to stay on as permanent president. He initially agreed to serve until the University found a permanent replacement, but that very person would be Gee, after all.
“There was a culmination of factors that led to me coming back full-time. One of the biggest things was the warmth of the people. And, I quickly realized that there was no institution I served at that had quite the possibility of impact on the quality, life, and opportunities of its people. West Virginia University is uniquely positioned for that.”
Inspiration also came from a former West Virginia governor. “Governor Gaston Caperton has been a friend of mine for 35 years,” Gee said. “He and I spent some time talking, and I asked him why he moved back to West Virginia. He said he felt he had one last opportunity to really make a difference and he wanted to make that difference here. I feel the exact same way. His words were very impactful on me. They touched my heart.”
Gee rose from his chair and darted across the room to grab his jacket. He pulled out a small, laminated card from his wallet.
It serves as his constant reminder to enhance the University — a strategy he planned to engage in even if his stay turned out to be short-term.
“Universities are complex places, and what we tend to do is make them more complex,” Gee said. “Simplicity is the best way to get an ordered result. If I can’t run the University on a card of this size, then I’m not doing it right. It’s too complicated.”
Touching on his first personal goal — to forge one West Virginia University — Gee believes the Mountaineer community must strive to be a chorus, not a cacophony, particularly in a trying time for the nation’s higher education system.
“In other words, we have too many voices moving in different orbits. We need to make certain of the strength of an institution of this size. If you have too many moving parts and they’re not moving together, that’s a serious problem.”
Transcending as one united, beautiful chorus should happen smoothly, Gee believes, given the quality of Mountaineers.
“The real strength of this institution is its people. Our faculty and staff are immensely loyal. Many of them are here 30 or 40 years, and they still have nothing but a passion for moving this institution forward. I feel very blessed to be among them.”
Then there are students, who sometimes get a bad rap, Gee said.
“Our students are wonderfully balanced. They work hard. They play hard. No matter where they’re from in the world, when I ask a student if they like it here, their response is not ‘uh huh.’ It is a very enthusiastic, positive response.”
Gee is well-known for his rapport with students. Just log on to social media on a Friday night and you’ll see students tweeting and posting photos of them out on the town with “the prez.”
Though he does not drink or smoke, he feels it’s important to experience student life from a close-up view, whether that is at a local bar, a house party, or a visit to a sorority house.
“The real strength of this institution is its people. Our faculty and staff are immensely loyal. Many of them are here 30 or 40 years, and they still have nothing but a passion for moving the institution forward. I feel very blessed.”
— E. Gordon Gee
“I refuse to let myself be captured inside my office,” he said.
His student-centered philosophy pays off. His tenure at Vanderbilt saw a dramatic increase in student applications — more than 50 percent in six years. In addition, Vanderbilt completed a $1.25 billion fund-raising campaign two years ahead of schedule. And that’s just one institution’s story; remember, he has served five — two of them twice.
Is there a secret to his success and cramming a week’s work into one day?
Waking up each day at 4:30 a.m. could be a starting point. But he doesn’t recommend the limited hours of shut-eye that come with that territory.
“I get about four hours of sleep a night,” he says, slightly slouched in his chair. “But I’m not proud of that. It just shows inefficiency on my behalf. I like to get reading done. I like to get ready for the next day, and I like to get up early in the morning and exercise.”
He arrives at the Student Rec Center around 5:00 a.m. for what he calls “quiet time” — 40 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, followed by either an upper-body or lower-body workout.
At 70, he’s as spry as the students he serves.
But most of all, Gee believes it’s his simple approach to life that keeps him ticking.
“I don’t take myself too seriously,” he said. “I take my work seriously, but not myself.”
That sense of humor has helped him through many tough issues over the years.
He recently told a New York Times reporter that to be a college president “you have to have a very thick skin, a good sense of humor, and nerves like sewer pipes — cast iron, because in today’s environment, like in politics, as soon as you make a decision you get battered in the blogosphere.”