Ohio State University President Gordon Gee announced his retirement Tuesday after he came under fire for jokingly referring to "those damn Catholics" at Notre Dame and poking fun at the academic quality of other schools.
The remarks were first reported last week by The Associated Press, and Ohio State at the time called them unacceptable and said it had placed Gee on a "remediation plan" to change his behavior.
Gee, a former president of Brown University, said in a teleconference Tuesday that the furor was only part of his decision to retire, which he said he had been considering for a while. He said his age and the start of a long-term planning debate at the university were also factors.
"I live in turbulent times and I've had a lot of headwinds, and so almost every occasion, I have just moved on," he said. Gee explained away the abrupt timing of his announcement by saying he was "quirky as hell" and hated long transitions.
According to a recording of a Dec. 5 meeting obtained by the AP under a public records request, Gee, a Mormon, said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten athletic conference because "you just can't trust those damn Catholics."
Gee, 69, also took shots at schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville, according to the recording of the meeting of the school's Athletic Council.
Gee apologized when the comments were disclosed, saying they were "a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate."
His decision to retire was first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
Robert Schottenstein, who as chairman of the university's board of trustees condemned the remarks last week as "wholly unacceptable" and "not presidential in nature," deflected questions of whether Gee had been forced out by the board.
"It's really about a decision to retire for the reasons that Gordon has articulated," Schottenstein said.
The university named provost Joseph Alutto as interim president.
Gee, a familiar figure on campus with his bowties and owlish glasses, has repeatedly gotten in trouble over the years for verbal gaffes.
Ohio State trustees learned of Gee's latest remarks in January and created the remediation plan. In a March 11 letter, the trustees warned any repeat offenses could lead to his firing and ordered him to apologize to those he offended. But it appeared that several of Gee's apologies came only in the last week or so as the university prepared to respond to the AP's inquiries.
During his comments to the Athletic Council, Gee said that the top goal of Big Ten presidents is to "make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won't see us adding Louisville." After laughter from the audience, Gee added that the Big Ten wouldn't add the University of Kentucky, either.
When asked by a questioner how to respond to SEC fans who say the Big Ten can't count because it now has 14 members, Gee said: "You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we're doing."
Gee also came under fire a few years ago for some offhand remarks during a memorabilia-for-cash and tattoos scandal under football coach Jim Tressel's watch. Gee was asked in 2011 whether he had considered firing Tressel. He responded: "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
Last year, Gee apologized for saying that coordinating the school's many divisions was like running the Polish army, a remark that a Polish-American group called bigoted.
In 1992, in a moment of frustration over higher-education funding, Gee referred to then-Gov. George Voinovich as "a damn dummy."
Gee was named the country's best college president in 2010 by Time magazine. He has held the top job at West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Brown (1998-2000) and Vanderbilt. He was Ohio State president from 1990 to 1997 and returned in 2007. He makes about $1.9 million a year in base pay, deferred and performance compensation and retirement benefits.
He is a prolific fundraiser and is leading a $2.5 billion campaign at Ohio State, one of the nation's largest universities, with 65,000 students. He is omnipresent on campus, attending everything from faculty awards events to dormitory pizza parties.
Gov. John Kasich praised Gee on Tuesday as "a tremendous partner in transforming Ohio's fragmented higher education system into one better focused on fueling Ohio's economic recovery and helping students meet their goals."
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