TOLEDO: By now everyone knows about E. Gordon Gee’s announcement of his pending departure from the presidency of Ohio State University and the troubles that led up to it. In off-the-cuff remarks during a speech, he put down other schools and coaches. He put down Notre Dame and Catholics: “You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday. …”
It was not Gee’s first gaffe-fest. And it was not the first time he insulted Catholics. It was not his finest hour. But it was not his only hour.
He deserved a better exit.
Gee’s “humor” makes me cringe and reminds me too much of the bigots of my youth in central Ohio. He was trying to be over the top, hyperbolic, funny. He wasn’t. He mistepped. Again. He also apologized — several times.
On the other side is a record of great competence. By all accounts Gee is very good at what he does. He has been running universities for 30 years — West Virginia, Colorado, Brown, Vanderbilt, and Ohio State twice.
The three functions of a college president are: schmoozing, building and boosting the institution, and raising money. Gee is great at all three, which is unusual. He is equally at home with high rollers, scientists, and frat boys — that’s more unusual.
Yet even the best have flaws, often fatal ones. Gee seemed to regard himself as an unreconstructed academic wildcat. His deal seemed to be: I give the university 110 percent. But I will not be a robot. I will be me. In fact, I will be a little ornery. It’s part of being “bigger than life.”
Fair enough. Up to a point. It’s almost an American tradition. In the arts, in letters, in journalism, and even in the military — we tolerate the maverick if he brings something special to the table. Gens. Patton and MacArthur were two great leaders who did not play well with others.
There is also a limit — always.
But did Gee reach that limit? Did he do something truly outrageous? Did he seduce coeds? Did he abscond with university funds? No, he actually gave some of his salary back to the school.
Did he cover up for a coach who was enabling a sexual predator? Now there is a university president who ought to fire the outrage in his trustees.
President Gee is colorful. But does the punishment — forced resignation — fit the crime?
Does political correctness trump record and ability?
Do personal flaws outweigh one’s work? Lyndon Johnson was not a nice man, but largely thanks to him we have the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.
Will OSU find a new president half as able?
I also find it odd that we get outraged in this society about people saying slightly off-base things when we have an entire pop culture, in which most Americans gladly participate, based on saying and seeing totally vulgar and insulting things. Much of the Internet, millions of Tweets, much of our TV and film material is all about going where decency does not go.
Our TV mysteries are about mutilated bodies and serial killers; our “comedies” are about three-ways, trash talking women, and leering men. Our reality TV deals mostly with human baseness. Our video games are about blowing people away. Lots of people. Gross tastelessness is the whole point of sexting, cable TV and stand up comedy today. And we are offended at a couple off-the-cuff remarks made by Gee?
Of course it is possible that there was some other problem the trustees know about and we do not.
It is also possible that President Gee said to himself, “You know what, if, after what I have done for this school, a gaffe puts me on the ropes, I am out of here.”
Mind you, I am all for political correctness. If we mean by that term civility, restraint and respect, I vote yes. I don’t like Catholic jokes. I am a Catholic and I love my church. Imagine someone in authority saying, “You just can’t trust those damn Jews.” Or blacks. I have heard enough Obama “jokes” from the early morning over-60 gym crowd for a lifetime — jokes that are not jokes at all but good-old, down-home, middle- American racism.
But, again, does Gee’s punishment fit his crime?
When he made his “Little Sisters of the Poor” crack two years ago he came here, to Oregon, and met with the sisters and apologized. He followed that with a check. That’s a big man.
I think of some of the public men who have gotten into trouble in recent years because of something they said or did. The ones who survived mostly seem to survive because of sheer chutzpah (Anthony Weiner’s re-hab in progress is a New York story). But the ones who should survive are the ones who a) have something to give and b) learn from their mistakes.
Years ago I recall Dick Cavett asking Bill Cosby about Archie Bunker. “To me he’s not funny,” Cosby said “because he doesn’t learn. He doesn’t change.”
This is a pretty good standard for public forgiveness. It’s really the AA standard: Does the person realize that he messed up, maybe hurt someone, and needs to make amends? Did he try to make amends?
I can’t say about ex-Rep. Weiner, or “the love guv” from South Carolina who just won redemption in the form of a congressional seat, or the ex-governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, whose time of penitence seemed awfully short before he emerged as a talking head on TV.
And, in any case those were instances of scandalous action, not just words. But I find Gee’s words less offensive than Mitt Romney’s about the 47 percent. For Mitt wasn’t kidding. And I doubt he has changed his mind.
Gee is not the classic blockhead who never learns — Earl Butz or Jimmy the Greek. He’s a fine public servant who tried to make amends and was told it was not good enough.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of the Toledo Blade.