Whether it’s the signature bow tie or comments about the BCS (Bowl Championship Series), E. Gordon Gee is one of the most recognized figures in higher education. Dr. Gee, now in his second stint as president of Ohio State University, is also among the most experienced, having served as chancellor of Vanderbilt University and president of Brown University, the University of Colorado, and West Virginia University.
Long an advocate for change in higher education, he has called on colleges and universities to reinvent themselves and better collaborate, acknowledging their role and responsibility as economic engines. Part of that change at Ohio State includes the transition to an integrated advancement model.
President Gee was generous with his time to offer thoughtful insight on university advancement, leadership, and more as part of my “5 questions” series.
1. It’s 2020. What does higher education look like at the end of this decade?
One word: expansive. Not in terms of bricks and mortar, but in the realm of imagination. We will be creative without boundaries. Higher education will play an increasingly vital role in forging economic success, in a world where ideas are the catalysts of virtually all future economic progress. Our classrooms will expand in multiple ways, bringing in the world. Partnerships will expand, linking colleges and universities in many countries through study abroad programs, research collaboration, and problem-solving. College students will have the benefits of a global curriculum, global experiences, and global thinking. The next generation will be fully prepared for the global tasks they confront.
2. In the often risk-averse environment of higher education, what role can Advancement play in driving the change that so many institutions need?
In my view, advancement plays a crucial role. At Ohio State, we are in the midst of developing and implementing our own advancement model. Recently, we had an opportunity to experience the benefits of our advancement progress, as we hosted the 75th anniversary celebration of alumnus Jesse Owens’ historic Olympic achievements. It was clear that our newly-coordinated efforts in areas that had previously operated separately — development, alumni, University communications, to name a few — were extraordinarily effective as one entity, moving the University forward.
3. You are known for your fundraising prowess. Approximately what percentage of your time do you spend on development, and what makes a president not just an effective fundraiser-in-chief but an exceptional one?
Nearly everything I do as University president can be categorized as either friend-raising or fund-raising. Our students, faculty, and staff are our best ambassadors, and so I think it is important to nurture those relationships. With our students, for example, we begin making connections before they arrive on campus, and continue beyond graduation day. Of course, our goal to move from excellence to eminence as one of the nation’s great land-grant universities depends on our ability to convey investment opportunities to alumni and friends. The Jesse Owens celebration and subsequent funding of the Jesse Owens Scholars Program, for instance, was made possible only through the generous gifts of families and individuals who share our vision. To answer the last part of your question, I think an effective fundraiser-in-chief embraces this element as essential to the mission. It helps if you like being with people, and I certainly do.
4. Over the course of your career, who are some of the leaders — both inside and outside of academia — you have admired and why?
I have had the wonderfully good fortune of personally knowing some great leaders. The one who first comes to mind is Andy Sorensen, who passed away just recently, and who leaves an impressive legacy as both a human being and university leader. He and I were good friends with similar world views, and I was so grateful when he accepted the task of leading our fundraising efforts as senior vice president for development at Ohio State, having previously served with great success as president of the University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina. In the too-short time that Andy was with us, he accomplished remarkable goals.
Other academic leaders whom I have been privileged to know and admire include Gene Budig, a guiding light who served as president and chancellor of several institutions including West Virginia and Kansas, and Peter Magrath, a true statesman of higher education. Both men have been my mentors, and I am grateful for their insight and wisdom.
Of course, new generations of leaders are on the horizon, and I am excited to see what lies ahead for them and for our world. Standing tall among these young leaders in my view is Wendy Kopp, chief executive officer and founder of Teach for America, the national corps of outstanding college graduates who commit to teach for two years in some of the nation’s highest-need schools. The fact that she envisioned the organization while still an undergraduate at Princeton University, then made it happen, is inspiring.
Outside of academia, I admire those leaders who think big. Two of them are surely Bill and Melinda Gates, whose Foundation has recently committed a large sum to improve education at all levels.
5. You have over 21,000 followers on Twitter. How has this platform fit into your overall communications toolkit, and — more broadly — how can colleges and universities better leverage the power of the social web?
Twitter allows me to speak directly, and instantly, to a broad audience that is interested in Ohio State. I love the immediacy of the medium, not to mention the challenge of distilling my thoughts into 140 characters or less! I have always been a strong proponent of thoughtful internal and external communication, and tweeting is one of today’s most powerful — and fun — tools. Colleges and universities simply must leverage the power of the social web, as it is the primary way to reach future students, alumni, and friends.
A recent survey placed Ohio State in the top three universities for number of “friends” online, and I recognize the significance of being so popular! I think we have accomplished this and other social web-related achievements by understanding our constituents’ needs and then putting attention and talent to the development and delivery of our message.