If you want a glimpse into what has gone wrong with higher education in America, look no further than the brilliant career of E. Gordon Gee, who as of July 1 will be the ex-president of Ohio State University (and of Brown and Vanderbilt, as well as the flagship public universities of Colorado and West Virginia).
If he had been born at another time, Gee might have sold patent medicines or swampy real estate or a new political party. Instead, he spent the past three decades selling the ever bigger business of American higher ed.
Gee had a talent for, in the jargon of our business schools, finding ways to monetize synergistic brand relationships in the context of a dynamic marketing environment. Translation: he raised a lot of money, mainly by doing things like jacking up tuition (Ohio residents now pay 150% more in real inflation-adjusted dollars to attend OSU than they did when Gee first became president of the school in 1990), “privatizing” university parking and getting well-heeled alumni to cough up ever larger sums of cash, in the form of tax-deductible donations.
All this made him, in the eyes of politicians in state houses and on boards of regents, a great success. After all, if higher education is really just another business, then it ought to be evaluated in terms of revenue and earnings, and balance sheets, and profit-and-loss statements. When OSU hired Gee, it was also in full awareness of his propensity to spend lavishly to meet those business goals, as he did when he was a “star” chancellor at Vanderbilt.
One thing that rarely gets asked in the context of all this getting and spending is, What exactly is that money supposed to be for? In theory, of course, it’s for “education.” In practice, a whole lot of it goes directly into the pockets of a metastasizing cadre of university administrators, whose jobs, as nearly as I’ve been able to determine after being on a research university’s faculty for nearly a quarter-century, consist of inventing justifications for their own existence while harassing faculty to fill out evaluations of various kinds. (In a particularly Kafkaesque twist, many of these evaluations are supposed to be of the administrators’ own job performance.)
In Gee’s case, the sums of money involved are disgusting. At the time he was apparently forced out after having made a few tactless jokes in a private meeting, Gee was getting paid about $2 million per year. This does not include the $7.7 million that the university paid for Gee’s travel, housing and entertainment from 2007 to 2012 — a sum that included at least $895,000 for soirees at Gee’s university-provided mansion, more than a half-million dollars for private jet travel and “$64,000 on his trademark bow ties, bow-tie cookies, O-H lapel pins and bow-tie pins for university marketing.”
Ah, yes, “marketing.”
Gee also increased the size of the university’s senior staff by 30% and raised their average salaries by 63%, to $539,390 in 2011. To get a sense of how out of control university-administrator compensation has become, consider that a year before Gee began his first tenure as Ohio State’s president, the president of Harvard was paid $138,044 ($256,000 in 2012 dollars), and only eight university presidents in the entire nation made more than $200,000. Now, thanks to Gee and his ilk, there are dozens of administrators at Ohio State University alone who would consider that sum an insult.
Universities are not businesses, and university presidents are not CEOs. These institutions exist for reasons other than to maximize their revenue and enrich their management class. That it is even necessary to point this out illustrates the extent to which we have allowed the mentality of what investment bankers call “the market” to invade every aspect of American culture.