On February 7, E. Gordon Gee resigned the Brown University presidency after just two years on the job, a tenure five years shorter than the national average. After he revealed that he was leaving to assume the top position at Vanderbilt University, some suspected monetary motives, pointing to well-placed estimates that Gee will collect an annual package nearing $1 million—more than triple the one from Brown. While Gee (pronounced with a hard G) has admitted that there was “naturally some attraction” in the investment-banker-like salary, he emphasized that his decision had more to do with Vanderbilt being a better fit. But a less reported explanation may have played a role.
Neither Brown nor Gee dispute that his conservative, large-school background was a mismatch with the university. His unfamiliarity with smaller schools like Brown (undergraduate population: 5777) aroused wariness among faculty early in his presidency when he failed to consult the appropriate channels before signing off on an ambitious brain-science program. “For the president to come before us and announce that a new program was going to be established without review was a slap in the face for the faculty,” says William O. Beeman, associate professor of anthropology. “Brown is a self-governing institution. The faculty has broad review powers over any program that involves instruction.”
There were other missteps. Early on, Gee announced plans to construct a biomedical sciences building, for which the university would sell $80 million in bonds. This act, coupled with the cutting of the popular resident string quartet, led some to question Gee’s vision for the traditionally arts-friendly university. Ben Healy, managing editor of the campus newspaper The College Hill Independent, says that the quartet’s dismissal for no apparent reason made students “distrustful and nervous.”
Recalling Gee’s presidency, David Josephson, associate professor of music, says simply: “It wasn’t a good fit. We knew that.”
But beyond the allegations of greed and incompatibility lay another factor. In the months since Gee’s startling resignation, indications have surfaced that his wife’s career considerations may have exacerbated the couple’s discomfort at the school. Some believe that her inability to collect a tenured professorship at Brown may have influenced the couple’s decision to leave.
Constance Bumgarner Gee, formerly a respected arts education professor at Ohio State University, had earned a tepid reception as an associate professor at Brown. While most agree that she was a very likable woman, reports indicate that her teaching performance was subpar. “Her professional experience and performance were markedly worse than those of her peers at Brown,” says one former student of hers. “And though she meant well, some students in the class spent much after-hours time discussing her tendency to get flustered and angry whenever challenged by a student.”
Josephson remembers Professor Gee as a “woman who worked hard to be affable, look good, and fulfill a thankless role [as first lady]. My sense is that, for some reason, she did not take.” While emphasizing that “she could not have been more pleasant in our brief conversations,” Josephson recalls that “her teaching was reported by students to have been unsuccessful.”
According to The Critical Review, which uses surveys to evaluate Brown courses, students assessed Professor Gee’s performance during her first semester as below average, with some noting her “nervousness.” Recalls Beeman, “My students who took her class regaled me with accounts of her inadequate teaching. I was fairly taken aback to learn that she met some classes in her bedroom while she pumped away on an exercise bicycle.”
Professor Gee was relegated to a nonteaching research position that would have taken effect this fall. Thus, when her husband was offered a sizable sum from Vanderbilt and she a tenured professor slot as part of the package, the move represented more than just a lateral shift from the role she was to occupy at Brown. Although they both declined to comment on the issue, Professor Gee told The Brown Daily Herald in February, “I think [Gordon] was very happy to see my accomplishments acknowledged by the Vanderbilt faculty.”
Professor Gee’s behavior as Brown’s first lady also received negative reviews. Renovations she called for to the presidential house reportedly cost the university a sum in the seven figures, a number many view as excessive, especially since Gee’s popular predecessor, Vartan Gregorian, had lived comfortably there with his wife. Says Beeman, “The [rumored] $3 million redecoration of the president’s residence went down very badly with the campus. Apparently she made the workmen tear out and redo the work several times.” Josephson recounts, “She took the heat for what was perceived, fairly or not I do not know, as an extravagant renovation of the residence.”
When questioned, Professor Gee said only: “I made many good friends and valued my time at Brown, but Gordon and I are looking to the future, and we’re eager to begin what we know will be a wonderful experience at Vanderbilt.”
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.”
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.”