Premature Evacuation

Why Did Gordon Gee Abandon Brown?

Was President Gee's resignation after only two years a breach of etiquette? Gee and Vanderbilt argue that a university president ought to be viewed in much the same way as a corporate CEO—free to explore all professional options—and that there is no obligation to stay at a university for any amount of time. "Universities are complex, multi-billion-dollar organizations that demand sophisticated executive management, fundraising skills, and the ability to build consensus and make decisions," says Nashville billionaire Martha R. Ingram, chairman of Vanderbilt's Board of Trust. While emphasizing that "universities are first and foremost academic colonies," she believes that "successful leadership in the academic setting is not much different from [that in] the corporate environment."

John Lachs, a professor at Vanderbilt, agrees. "Loyalty is a great and antique virtue [that] takes time to develop," he says. "Better faculty members and administrators often get offers; rarely does the right mix of incentives not succeed in getting them to pack their bags."

Gee thing: Who wants to be a millionaire?
photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University
Gee thing: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Brown supporters feel differently. "I believe that people have to fulfill their moral obligations," says president emeritus Gregorian, now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. "The issue is: Is the university a special institution in society? If it's a corporation [or] a business, there's no problem of ethics," he says. "But if it's a special institution in which certain standards have to prevail—that are not just legal standards but are moral standards—then there's something else. Then you have certain obligations to act according to the tenets of the institution." Brown's executive vice president for public affairs and university relations, Laura Freid, echoes this sentiment. "When an educational institution like Brown elects a new president, it delivers an enormous trust to that individual. Leading a research institution like Brown is a tremendous responsibility and requires a significant learning curve," she says. "To leave after only two years is really not considered appropriate."

While Gee moves along to his record fifth university presidency next fall at Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt's chancellorship is the equivalent of most university presidencies), Brown's interim president, Sheila Blumstein, will continue to serve until a successor is named. Freid anticipates that Brown's search committee will name a new president by the end of the calendar year.

In the meantime, people close to Brown say they do not fear for the future of their beloved university. "A university's bone marrow is the faculty," says Gregorian. "Major universities will survive as long as faculty does not behave that badly."

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