Michael Drake is now, officially, the 15th president of The Ohio State University. He was vetted by some of the sharpest and richest minds in the Midwest, has an extensive resume that shows a proven track record of administrative success, has Ohio connections, and is a tremendous fundraiser.
Which is all great, and means precisely dick.
Congrats on making it out of UC Irvine, Doctor Drake! You've just traded in a cushy job that mostly involved test tubes and Bunsen burners and flubber and keeping nerds happy for one that makes you the meat guy at the piranha petting zoo. You must try and navigate the murky political waters of an alumni base that simultaneously expects you to raise literally billions of dollars for the purpose of making OSU one of the premiere medical colleges in the country, while at the same time mastering the nuances of a sports fandom that really doesn't care if you're a magical talking ferret as long as you don't try and stop them from getting drunk and throwing up in people's backyards.
It's a tough job. Luckily there's Eleven Warriors dot com to help you navigate the treacherous, poisonous nut-filled waters that are Columbus, Ohio.
I can't even begin to imagine what it means to be at the beck and call of a hardcore plutocrat like Les Wexner. If anyone with that much money asked me for my opinion or direction on anything important on a regular basis, I'd tuck my metaphorical tail between my legs and non-methaphorically pee my pants in a panic.
But I do know a little bit about trying to fit in to foreign lands, and the first piece of advice that I can impart to Dr. Drake is that he must strike the delicate balance between being taken seriously and being seen as a raging jerk. That's hard enough when you move to any new job, but being President of Ohio State means that you need to be a master at changing your personality to suit the 8412312938123 different situations that you're going to find yourself in.
Or just be schizophrenic. That might help too.
Karen Holbrook was horrible at this. Holbrook wasn't nearly as bad a president as many make her out to be, but she had a distinct inability to adjust her tone to the situation. Need to raise funds for a new wing of the hospital? Taciturn intellectual diplomat. Student behavior at football games needs changed? Taciturn intellectual diplomat. Taciturn intellectual diplomat coming into town? Taciturn intellectual diplomat.
Quick story: my first quarter at Ohio State, I weaseled my way into a small roundtable with Karen Holbrook and the author of one of the assigned summer reading books. I wasn't a big fan of the book, and neither were most of the other students in the discussion. We peppered the author with some pointed questions about what she had written, and neither the author nor Holbrook appreciated it. It wasn't a fiasco or anything, but the entire time I kept thinking, "Man, is Holbrook going to jump in and say something to lighten this thing up? Anything?"
She did not, and both Holbrook and the author left in what might be called a huff. It didn't come as a surprise that in an interview with another school she ended up badmouthing the segment of the university that she never was able to really connect with. And by "badmouth," I mean "accuse the student body of drunken orgies."
You probably wouldn't have seen that out of E. Gordon Gee, who we would eventually find out has the opposite problem.
There is such a thing as being too personable. Gee is legendary schmoozer; as an Ohio Student, I once asked him if he remembered a 15 minute interaction that he had with my sister years before at Vanderbilt. He did, and immediately recognized me as her brother. Many people have had similar experiences, and Gee has been terrific at meeting his students no matter where he's been. He's also been a genius at fundraising, and upon being re-hired promptly set out on a mission to visit all 88 counties in Ohio, which he did, and then proceeded to visit half of those every subsequent summer.
That was cool, and so were his frequent appearances at student parties and events. Less cool, at least in the eyes of the powers-that-be, were the off color jokes (or, at least, off-color if you're Lawrence Welk).
Gee on Wednesday had been telling an audience in Columbus of the problem of coordinating the university's 18 divisions such as independent schools and colleges.
"When we had these 18 colleges all kind of floating around, they were kind of like PT Boats, they were shooting each other," Gee said. "It was kind of like the Polish army or something. I have no idea what it was."
That was just one of several misguided comments from Gee, who seemed to relish the process of being his job title more than the living up to the implications of what his job title meant. That's a long way of saying that Gee probably wasn't as presidential as he should've been, and in the long run it hurt him. He allowed himself to become the one thing that Ohio State as an institution will absolutely not abide from anyone, no matter how popular: a liability. That's why he left the first time, and why he was sent to the cornfield the second time.
Dr. Michael Drake's job would be an enormous task at any university, and as much as we like to conflate popularity with importance, he's a medical guy hired to continue to improve the status of Ohio State's medical facilities. The fundraising, which Gee was amazing at, will be on his plate. The continuing improvement of Ohio State's academic standards, which Holbrook elevated far beyond what anyone had seen at the university before, must continue to be a priority if OSU is to be taken seriously as an academic institution. And finally, Ohio State fans need to be convinced that Dr. Drake isn't going to be that lousy Dean Bitterman who can only be thwarted with a bra bomb detonated by a nerd and his cool friend, Corey.
Point is, he's going to have to be all things for all people. In a school that puts as much pressure on their coaches and administrators as Ohio State does, maybe it's no surprise that their tenures rarely end on the best of terms. Dr. Drake can avoid that fate, but it will take some deft handling of one of the most challenging university jobs in the country.