A Week in February

By The Editors / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
Lisa raiola was preparing to leave for the airport when the call came early in the afternoon of Sunday, February 6. Barely one month into her new job as Brown’s vice president of alumni relations, Raiola ’84 had just finished packing for the long trip to Salt Lake City, where she was scheduled to meet President E. Gordon Gee at an alumni event the following day. The surprise phone call was from Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and University Relations Laura Freid, who told Raiola that the chancellor and vice chancellor had an important message for the handful of senior administrators who report directly to the president. The message, she said, needed to be delivered in person.

“But I’m leaving for Utah this afternoon,” Raiola said.

“The message will affect your trip.”

At 2 p.m., Raiola joined most of the University’s senior administration at a heavy wooden table in a first-floor room of the Maddock Alumni Center. The mood was somber as Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62 calmly broke the news: President Gee had accepted an offer to become chancellor of Vanderbilt University. Robert then outlined the events leading to Gee’s decision to leave Brown and assured the group that it had the full support of the Brown Corporation. The administrators were stunned.

Gee, by serving for a mere twenty-five months, had become the president with the shortest tenure in Brown history, displacing President Ray Heffner, who’d left after thirty-two months in 1969, when he’d decided he was not suited to be a university president. By contrast, Gee had come to the University with long experience in the college-president job ­ a recent cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education had in fact anointed him “The Professional President.” Unlike Heffner, who’d gone back to his old provost job at the University of Iowa, Gee was leaving College Hill to become one of the highest-paid university presidents in the country.

Why? As the administrators who’d assembled in Maddock pondered the news, they wondered how all this could have come about. Had Gee been looking for another job? Had he been unhappy at Brown? Had there been any hint that he wanted to leave? A few of them had been recently hired by Gee; how could he just leave them like this? As the shock subsided over the next few hours, the group turned to the business of leading the University through this sudden crisis.

Thus began one of the most extraordinary weeks in the nearly 236 years of Brown history. Presidential resignations are a fact of life on college campuses, but the suddenness and seeming inexplicability of Gee’s resignation caught the University off guard. The question of identity ­ what is the character of Brown and how does it differ from that of other schools within and beyond the Ivy League? ­ subtly informs many of the discussions that take place around campus every day; but for a week in February, what was subtle became overt as everyone struggled with the same question: who are we?

Faced with a serious and unforeseen crisis, institutions, like people, either fall back on their essential values or fall apart. What would Brown do?

Word of Gee’s resignation spread quickly across campus on Monday morning. Some students hearing the news from their friends thought it so improbable that they at first dismissed it as a practical joke. Many faculty members turned their classes that morning into a seminar on Gee. When students, faculty, and administrators were asked later to describe their initial reactions, most used words such as “shocked,” “betrayed,” “angry,” and, in some cases, “relieved.”

Adding a further element of unreality to the day was Vanderbilt’s choice to introduce its new chancellor (that university’s title for its president) by way of a noon “Webcast,” a live World Wide Web audio-and-video feed that viewers can take in at their desktop computers. Although Webcast audio is usually clear, the video is often choppy, as if beamed from from a lunar lander. The disconnect between jerky movement and smooth speech seemed to underscore the disorientation many on campus were feeling as they watched a Vanderbilt official summarize the university’s nine-month search for a successor to Joe B. Wyatt, who was retiring after eighteen years as chancellor. The person for whom the search committee was looking, the man on the Webcast said, was “God on a good day ­ and I think we got him.” With E. Gordon Gee as chancellor, he concluded, “Vanderbilt is poised to make the leap into the top ranks of American universities.”

Wearing his trademark bow tie, Gee then stepped to the podium. He emphasized that the decision to leave Brown had been jointly made with his wife, Constance Bumgarner Gee, who would be moving into a tenured teaching post in Vanderbilt’s education college. “This has not been an easy journey for us,” Gee said. “Nor has it been an easy decision.” Gee seemed to swing from justifying his decision to leave Brown after only two years to proclaiming his enthusiasm for the task ahead at Vanderbilt. In a phrase that many at Brown saw as ironic, he characterized his decision to take the Vanderbilt post as “a rendezvous with responsibility.” A moment later he was saying, “This is not an easy time for Brown. I’ve only been there two years. One should never leave after only two years.”

Under questioning from the few reporters covering the Webcast, Gee raised the question of “fit,” of whether Brown had ever been the right school for him to lead. “The question was raised when I took the job,” he said, “and the question remained: was the fit right?” Arguing that as a lawyer he felt more comfortable at a university with a law center and other professional schools, he said, “I felt increasingly that it was not the right fit,” adding that “more courageous” than toughing it out was “to say so and move on.”

Then he concluded, “I have a lot of mea culpas to do.”

At 4 p.m. in the Salomon Center on the College Green, hundreds of faculty members and most of Brown’s senior administrators made their way to the main auditorium for an emergency meeting. After some brief trouble with the microphones, Chancellor Robert and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Kathryn Spoehr ’69 faced the crowd. “This is a very difficult day for Brown,” Robert began, “because the person we trusted with its leadership has chosen to leave.” He explained that Gee would stay on at Brown until April 15 and would begin as Vanderbilt’s chancellor on August 1. An interim president would soon be named, he continued, and a presidential search committee of Corporation members would be in place by the end of February.

Robert then handed the meeting over to Spoehr, who stood facing a group that contained some of Gee’s sharpest critics. Academic research demands deep resources of skepticism, and most faculty members are only too happy to turn their skepticism to new presidents. Many faculty members had expressed reservations about his lack of academic credentials when he’d first taken office twenty-five months earlier, reservations that Gee never managed to overcome. In addition to his lack of experience as a thoughtful, serious scholar, Gee seemed to rankle the Brown faculty with his Midwestern enthusiasm for college sports, his fast-talking style, and his habit of walking around campus wearing a Brown baseball cap.

To other faculty members, this was an undeserved rush to judgment. In their view, Gee had begun implementing a number of sound policies for improving undergraduate life at Brown, elevating the reputation of its graduate school, improving the University’s relationship to its medical school, and maintaining Brown’s reputation for public service in Providence and beyond. To these professors, the Gee presidency was just beginning to find its legs, which made his sudden resignation even more puzzling. “I’ve gotten to know him,” Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ted Goslow said later. As chair of the faculty executive committee, whose responsibilities include advising the president on faculty matters, Goslow had been an important link between Gee and the professoriat. “The way he resigned, the way it was done, was so out of character.”

In contrast to the faculty’s mixed views of Gee, no administrator has earned more of its respect than Provost Spoehr. As a graduate of Brown, a respected scholar, and a former chair of the cognitive and linguistics sciences department, Spoehr has spent nearly thirty years studying and working on College Hill. When Gee chose her as his provost last November, he selected one of only two or three people on campus respected widely enough to oversee, for example, the outside review of every academic department. As Spoehr reminded the crowd at the meeting, since becoming a Brown faculty member in 1974, she has seen four presidents come and go. Seeking to reassure her colleagues, her voice rising with emotion, she said, “Frankly, what has happened today doesn’t faze me in the least.”

The reaction was immediate. The auditorium erupted with prolonged applause. Everyone stood. “That was the first moment,” Spoehr said a few days later, “that I knew everything was going to be okay.”

By tuesday morning, February 8, what had led to the resignation of E. Gordon Gee was being debated all over campus and beyond. As described by Gee and Robert in separate interviews, the sequence of events is now mostly clear, though each man interprets its significance from radically different perspectives.

Sometime in October, Gee received a call from Robert Hall, an old friend and Vanderbilt trustee, asking whether he’d be willing to talk with some Vanderbilt colleagues searching for a new chancellor. Gee agreed to meet the trustees in Columbus, Ohio, later that month during a scheduled visit to Ohio State. Hall, Gee says, simply wanted him to act as an “unpaid consultant,” to “tell them a bit about the nature of the university presidency” and suggest names of possible candidates. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Gee recalls, “ ‘I’d be delighted.’ And so that was what I did.”

Almost four months later, Martha Ingram, the chair of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, described the Ohio meeting to a reporter for the Providence Journal: “As we got ready to leave, we said, ‘We wish we could have you as a candidate, but we know you’ve not been at Brown very long. We’d like to at least leave the door open and come back to you.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m not a candidate.’ ”

In December, Dennis Bottorff, the Board of Trust’s vice chair and the chair of the search committee, called Gee to say that Vanderbilt wanted him to be its chancellor. When Gee said he was not interested, Bottorff asked him to think about it. At around this time, Stephen Robert says, “I had a two-minute conversation with him about this. He said he had been asked to be a consultant to the Vanderbilt search. I thought it was the end of the story.”

According to Gee, Bottorff called again around Christmas to urge him to think over the offer; when Gee told him that he still felt he had a moral obligation to stay at Brown, Bottorff gave him the name of an ethicist to consult. (Gee says he never followed up on this.) When Gee’s old friend John Hall learned he was traveling to Florida during the first week of January on a fund-raising trip, he persuaded the president to visit Nashville en route. Hall and Ingram again tried to convince Gee that Vanderbilt was the school for him, but Gee says he told them he was still not interested.

In early January, Gee traveled to Asia on Brown’s behalf, but before leaving he told Robert he was getting increasingly lucrative offers from Vanderbilt. “I told him in as strong a way as I could,” Robert says, “that this was a violation of his commitment to Brown.” As Gee remembers the conversation, “We agreed that I should say no, and that he and I would have a discussion when I got back. To Vanderbilt, I did say no. They said they would leave the offer open.”

While Gee traveled, Robert and his fellow trustees reviewed Gee’s compensation package to make sure it was in line with those of his peers. But the Corporation members soon had second thoughts. Near the end of January, Robert discovered that Gee was still talking to Vanderbilt, and that the school had put together a package for Gee and his wife that would eventually approach $1 million. Sentiment among members of the Corporation toward Gee’s actions soured. Finding themselves on the verge of a bidding war with Vanderbilt ­ a war, it should be added, that Brown, with its much smaller pot of money, was likely to lose ­ the trustees began having serious doubts about Gee’s commitment to the University.

“After much discussion among members of the Corporation, and especially among the most senior members, the decision was that if a president two years into his term was in active discussions with another institution, it did not bode well for the rest of his tenure at this one,” Robert told the faculty during the February 7 emergency meeting.

On Thursday, February 2, Gee and Robert met in New York City to discuss the situation. Gee says he went into that meeting committed to staying at Brown. But he was also looking for a Corporation response to Vanderbilt’s offer. “He gave us an actual figure,” Robert says, “that would have elevated him to the top handful of college presidents in the country.” The meeting did not go well. Gee’s actions had produced, in Robert’s words, “a rupture with the trustees and with other parts of the University that would be hard to put right again.” By the time they left the meeting, both men had agreed that Gee should accept Vanderbilt’s offer. He did so the following day.

Why Gee had allowed himself to be drawn into Vanderbilt’s courtship was the subject of passionate campus speculation. Was it simply the money? Was it that Vanderbilt had offered his wife tenure, something Brown had refused to do? Explaining his decision over the next few days, Gee returned again and again to the question of scope. Although Vanderbilt has only 3,000 more students than Brown, he explained, it has an array of colleges and professional schools that closely resembles the one at Ohio State. And Constance, Gee’s wife, is a North Carolina native, which gives the Nashville-based university a regional advantage over Brown.

But, Gee says, these reasons, even when combined, were not enough to make him reverse his promise, made in 1998, that he would remain at Brown for eight years. Understanding his decision, Gee argues, requires a recognition of his longstanding doubts about his suitability for the Brown presidency. “I came from the largest public university in the country,” he says. “I asked the question initially, do I fit? Initially, after I accepted the job at Brown, I had real serious reservations about whether I had done the right thing. You can imagine that at Ohio State I was presiding over Noah’s Ark. There was not a morning when I didn’t look toward the day with absolute joy. There were days here when I just did not quite have that feeling. It could be me. It’s certainly not the institution. You will never get me to say anything negative about Brown, because I feel nothing but absolute affection for the place.

“The real truth of the matter was that I felt Vanderbilt is precisely the right institution for me.”

The discussion over President Gee’s resignation took on a different cast Tuesday morning, February 8, when former President Vartan Gregorian was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “There is an etiquette among educational institutions, that you do not go after a person who has been in an institution for two years only. And if you’re the president of an institution for two years, you do not leave, either. I am stunned, utterly disappointed, and dismayed.”

Gregorian’s comments instantly turned the actions of Gee and Vanderbilt into a morality play. His implication that Vanderbilt and Brown were playing by different sets of rules highlighted the uncertainties that have become more and more evident over the past decade in higher education. In a June 1, 1998, New Republic article titled “Small Men on Campus,” David Greenberg, a Richard Hofstadter Fellow in American History at Columbia, argued that colleges and universities have become so complex to administer and require so much continuous fund-raising that the job of college president has been transformed. “No longer plucked from the faculty’s ranks,” Greenberg wrote, “presidents are likely to have abandoned research at a young age for the managerial fast track, switching from one school to another like journeymen basketball coaches.” Among the examples Greenberg gave of this new type of university president was Gordon Gee, whom he described as having recently “carpetbagged to Brown.”

Hiring Gee had indeed been a step by the Corporation toward this model of president as CEO. “Gee’s appointment,” says Provost Spoehr, “was in part a reaction to Gregorian’s management style. He was not a manager, and that was painfully obvious to the Corporation.” But how corporate did Brown want to get? Has the influx of corporate ways created a kind of Darwinian higher-education marketplace where only the most aggressive institutions get ahead? As Professor of Mathematics Thomas Banchoff put it at Monday’s faculty meeting: “What is Vanderbilt doing raiding us?”

Vanderbilt’s answer was in effect that all is fair in love, war, and now higher education. “I don’t see the difference between the corporate world and the academic world,” Vanderbilt’s Martha Ingram told a Providence Journal reporter the day after Gee resigned. “A university is a really big business, and the chancellor is the CEO.” At Brown, the Corporation’s decision to reject a bidding war with Vanderbilt was in part a business decision. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s last survey of college president salaries, Joe B. Wyatt, the retiring Vanderbilt chancellor, was the seventh-highest-paid college president in the country. Matching Vanderbilt’s offer for Gee would have catapulted him into the top ten, alongside three other Ivy presidents: the University of Pennsylvania’s Judith Rodin (the fifth-highest-paid), Yale’s Richard C. Levin (ninth), and Columbia’s George Rupp (tenth) ­ all of whom lead schools with endowments much larger than Brown’s. Giving Gee a substantial raise would also have widened the gap between the president’s salary and the average pay of a full professor, further alienating a faculty that had never been entirely comfortable with Gee in the first place. (According to the American Association of University Professors, Brown has the lowest average salary for a full professor of any Ivy League school.)

Eclipsing the practical considerations, however, was a decision about principle. The events of January and early February presented the University with a clear choice over which rules to play by. The Corporation had faced the choice before, but less publicly. During the search for Gregorian’s successor, says Brown Vice Chancellor Marie Langlois ’64, the committee decided not to pursue one very good candidate because he’d only been in his job for a couple of years. “But there was the sense that if that person was interested in our job, then we wouldn’t be interested in him.” Remembering this precedent, she argues, the Corporation looked at the Gee situation and affirmed the importance of loyalty to Brown. “I think Gordon drastically underestimated the value of institutional loyalty,” says Spoehr. “At a public institution, you really are a hired hand. But not here.”

In fact, during the days following Gee’s resignation, members of every part of the Brown community ­ students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and Corporation members ­ explicitly rejected Ingram’s contention that the corporate and educational worlds now play by the same rules. “I hope that the lasting lesson for Brown in all this,” says Stephen Robert, “is that we will never compromise the principles we believe in, even if it’s more expedient on the short term to do so.” Not that the trustees are naïve about the importance of executive skills in a president. “There may be two visions of universities,” says Corporation Treasurer Matthew Mallow ’64, “but it doesn’t mean they’re in conflict. A great CEO has a vision of where the company’s going to go.”

Throughout the days of early February, Robert’s voice was a steady, calming presence on campus. His willingness at the Monday faculty meeting to openly discuss the circumstances leading up to Gee’s resignation was striking ­ and effective. “That faculty meeting was an educational experience for Steve,” says Spoehr. “He can be intimidated by faculty types.”

At noon on Wednesday, February 9, Robert placed a conference call to his fellow Corporation members asking them to approve the appointment of Sheila Blumstein as interim president. The response over the speaker phone was a mixture of cheers and whoops. Blumstein became Brown’s first woman president three hours later.

One of the prickliest moments of the faculty meeting less than forty-eight hours earlier had come when Spoehr had revealed that the Corporation was considering looking outside Brown for an interim president. Many faculty members agreed with Associate Dean of Medical Affairs Ed Beiser when he stood to say, “The interim president should be an academic from within the University.” Associate Professor of English Stephen Foley ’74 was even more forceful: “We don’t need Ceasar to lead us,” he said. “We just need someone who will do the job. Tomorrow.”

Robert had taken notice. “Sheila was someone we’d all been thinking about,” Spoehr says. By appointing her, Robert and his colleagues had in one stroke both installed someone who would meet universal acclaim and short-circuited the plan for Gee to continue as president for two more months, thereby dulling the rising anger toward the now former president. A teacher and researcher at Brown for the past thirty years, Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences Sheila Blumstein had been called into administrative service before, most recently as a highly praised interim provost during the first six months of 1998. “I got the feel of the faculty meeting,” Blumstein says. “People had said to me, ‘Will you do it?’ I began to think of this business of ‘If called, will you serve?’ ” Blumstein, an academic at heart whose ultimate ambition is to return to her research on aphasia, insists that she accepted the job on the condition that it be an interim appointment.

By Wednesday night, the campus buzz had switched to the process of picking the next president, a task assigned to the Corporation by the Brown charter of 1764. (The chancellor appoints a search committee from the Corporation while an on-campus advisory committee is set up to give faculty and students a way of expressing their preferences.) At a forum of senior administrators and Corporation members held in the Salomon auditorium, students asked what qualifications the Corporation search committee would be looking for in candidates. “I think the president of Brown,” said Vice Chancellor Langlois, “should have a very distinguished academic record. I think it’s important that the president understand the importance of teaching and research, has a commitment to a diverse community, has good management skills and good judgment, and ­ most importantly ­ understands a university like this.”

With an interim president in place, life at Brown began returning to normal. “I spoke to one alumnus last night,” reported Vice President of Development James Husson, a recent Gee appointee, “and he said, ‘Right now on campus is some kid who has a chemistry test tomorrow. What do you suppose he’s thinking about?’ ”

Emotions subsided enough to permit evaluation of Gee’s unfinished presidency. “Gordon has been a tremendous administrator,” said Brown Ambassador and Chancellor Emeritus Artemis A. W. Joukowsky ’55, who stressed the importance of a dignified and gracious parting between Brown and Gee. “He was not a president, like Gregorian, who was dealing with the deep intellectual issues of the University. He delegated that. Gordon recognized that Brown has extraordinary people, and he tapped into them.” Spoehr agrees. “I think Gordon really changed the way the University did business. He embraced the sentiment of the strategic planning process that preceded him and made us think systematically about how to put it in process. When there was an issue to deal with, some presidents would just sort of decide something. Gordon would make us talk about it in front of him, and he’d identify the stakeholders and get a committee of them together to advise him.” Gee, for example, implemented the faculty idea of a program that would facilitate multidisciplinary research on the brain. The Brain Science Program is likely to be a model for other campus interdisciplinary projects in the future.

Coming as he did from a public university, Gee also relished becoming involved in public affairs. “I am disappointed to lose him,” says Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci. “He was always actively looking for ways to boost the city. When I asked him to chair the search committee for the school superintendent, he did a good job.” Gee was also good at raising money, particularly in his last year, when the University took in $100 million from donors.

Robert and others believe that Gee’s greatest contribution, however, was in recruiting talented senior administrators ­ many of them Brown alumni ­ and encouraging them to collaborate. “I do think he left in place a very strong team of senior administrators,” says Marie Langlois, “and I think he structured that team so they could work together, and easily, in a way that allows academic planning to drive financial planning and not the other way around.” The great irony of Gee’s resignation is that the people he promoted or hired made it easier for Brown to proceed without him.

In the end, the circumstances of Gee’s resignation focused attention on the values the University holds most dear. The abruptness of his departure ensured that Brown’s response would be a very public work in progress, a genuine public colloquy and not the announcement of decisions made unilaterally by a powerful few. For several days, at least, the drapes of power were thrown open, exposing a window into the soul of Brown.

“I think we need to reflect upon the process we use to select our president,” says Marie Langlois. “Gordon was a unanimous choice of the search committee. In hindsight, it hasn’t worked, and we need time to let our feelings go and try to learn why.”

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