Loose Lips Don't Always Sink College Presidencies

tags: The Ohio State University, football, Dale Lick, University of Maine, Gordon Gee, Howard P. Segal


Howard P. Segal has taught history at the University of Maine since 1986. He is director of the Technology & Society Project.

Gordon Gee and Dale Lick. Credit: OSU/U.Maine/HNN staff.

Cross-posted from the Bangor Daily News.

As has been widely reported in recent days, the president of mammoth Ohio State University, Gordon Gee, has been forced to resign his position because of comments he made “off the record” back in December  that were only recently reported by the Associated Press. Speaking about why Notre Dame University not been invited to join the Big Ten Conference (now consisting, of course, of ever more than ten schools), Gee lamented that “you just can’t trust those damned Catholics” to do whatever was needed to join. Gee also criticized the University of Louisville as an allegedly inferior academic institution.

Gee had been President of Ohio State once before -- leaving voluntarily in that instance– but has also headed the University of West Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Brown University, and the University of Colorado. In every case he has been an excellent fundraiser, a extremely visible campus presence, and a true friend of whatever building contractors, interior decorators, landscapers, and movers were hired to remodel every presidential home he’s lived in. As surely benefits one of the highest-paid university presidents in America at every campus he’d led, Gee “richly” deserved, he firmly believed, to live in luxury at others’ expense. Whether, as a devout Mormon, he tithed his income to his church hasn’t been revealed.

Like Gee, Dale Lick was a passionate promoter of college athletics, A prime reason behind his hiring by the University of Maine in 1989 (I've taught there since 1986) was the remarkable success of the football team at his prior institution, Georgia Southern University. U.Maine was a natural next step in Lick’s ambitious career, and he appeared to have made the most of it. He endured some major controversies, not least of which was selling parts of the Hudson Museum’s Palmer Collection of Latin American artifacts to pay for -- what else? -- handsome rings for U.Maine’s baseball team. The sale did not violate the terms of the Palmer donation, but the crassness of the exchange of valuable artifacts for baseball rings is blinding even after twenty-plus years.

Lick also endured severe criticism for breaking up U.Maine’s historic College of Arts and Sciences into three smaller colleges, each with its own dean and its own associate dean and staff. Lick  never provided a serious argument for doing this, save for something akin to “small is beautiful.” He could have made some smaller departmental moves while keeping the College intact. However, his real reason for doing so was transparent to many of us: to add some lines to his resume, to show to his next potential employer that he was a visionary. The fact that his scheme cost U.Maine millions in wasted dollars -- with absolutely no improvement in intellectual or academic or social conversations and connections -- hardly troubled Dale Lick. Like Gordon Gee, Lick’s supreme self-confidence, stemming in part from his strong religious beliefs as a lay preacher with a sense of divine approval, immunized him from all critics. He simply refused to debate, outraging faculty and students.

Eventually, though, Lick’s comments about sports led to his downfall. In his third year at U.Maine, Lick was asked at a student senate meeting about the modest number of black students on campus and, more specifically, about the predominance of black athletes in football and basketball. Lick might have replied that what was then America’s second-whitest state after Vermont (and, after the 2010 Census, even whiter than Vermont) had recruited black athletes from outside of Maine in order to begin to diversify the student body.

Alas, Lick didn’t say that. Instead, Lick stated that research provided him by a retired Georgia Southern Dean of  its Department of Health and Physical Education had concluded scientifically that “a black athlete can actually outjump a white athlete on the average, so they’re better at that game. The same is true for football. The muscle structure of the black athlete typically is more suited for certain positions in football and in basketball.”

When word of Lick’s controversial remarks got out, and when Lick’s former colleague largely denied the scientific veracity of this claim, Lick had to issue the nowadays common apology that no offense was intended to anyone. Lick kept his job, and he left U.Maine two years later to head Florida State University, a football powerhouse.

But FSU still wasn’t good enough for Dale Lick. He secretly sought the presidency of Michigan State University, where he had received his PhD in math, and nearly got the job until someone at U.Maine apparently informed the MSU search committee of Lick’s 1989 remarks. Given East Lansing’s proximity to Detroit, and given Michigan’s large black population, Lick’s candidacy soon sank. Indeed, he was soon forced to resign the FSU presidency after just two years, and in the midst a major fundraising campaign. The governing body of FSU was outraged at Lick’s betrayal -- this from a self-righteous moralist.

Not to worry, though: Lick was not put out on the streets but instead was given a University Professorship, one of only two at Florida State at the time. The other University Professor hardly had Lick’s credentials or Lick’s ego -- he was a mere Nobel Prize winner. I have no doubt that Gordon Gee will receive something similar if he wants it and, most important, box seats for future Ohio State football games.

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