How to Win Friends and Influence Buckeyes

By Johnny Ginter on January 31, 2014 at 2:00p
The greatest university in the world.
It's hard out here for a prez

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.

BOOOOO!! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAll hail the queen of putrescence

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.


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Stinson's picture

Karen (A. Hole)brook

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium." -Wayne Woodrow Hayes

ATXbucknut's picture


Mic's picture

That face still strikes fear into heart of sophomore gameday-drunk Mic.

Columbus 'Til I Die.

AndyVance's picture

I'll cop to being a Gee fanboy, but I think you've given Holbrook too much credit on the academic front, and not given Gee enough for his influence on the face of the institution beyond its Scrooge McDuck-like finances.
William "Brit" Kirwan was president during my days as a plucky undergraduate, and in those days there were two buzz-phrases that were almost ever-present in any communication from the university: the academic plan, and the diversity plan. Relative to the former, I'll hand the microphone to the Board of Trustees' own website:

Starting under President Edward Jennings and continuing under Gordon Gee, The Ohio State University began a long-term drive to match the school's ranking in football with a commensurate reputation for academic excellence. Initiatives to admit better-prepared students, attract and retain world-class faculty, and build highly rated programs were promising, but the university needed a broad strategy to coordinate these and other initiatives into a focused approach.
Enter President William "Brit" Kirwan, who understood this need perfectly and whose major legacy became widely known as the Academic Plan. This document became and remains the centerpiece of Ohio State's agenda, with budget and other priorities emanating from its six strategies and 14 initiatives.

So while Kirwan's legacy was the academic plan, the quest for academic excellence also had a bit of Gee's DNA in it, even back when. Fastforward to the post-Holbrook/apocalypse, and Gee took the academic improvements underway and went next-level:

  • Average ACT scores have risen to 29 from 27.
  • New Gateway Offices have opened in Shanghai, China and Mumbai, India, expanding our outreach to students, alumni and partners.
  • Six-year graduation rates are 82.4 percent, up from 72.7 percent.
  • Applications to Ohio State have risen by 60 percent, to 35,000 from 22,000.

So yes, Gee has raised money for the university like no other leader in its history, but he was much more than a walking donor shakedown service:

Since that time, Ohio State has rolled out the One University Framework, a universal planning document that provides direction for current and future growth for the next 50-100 years — all in context of a larger picture of increased collaboration and cooperation.
University leadership, under Alutto’s academic direction, has mapped out the intersection between OSU’s strengths and global needs and unveiled three Discovery Themes — Health and Wellness; Food Safety and Security; and Energy and Environment — to focus both its significant intellect and its funding in order to make a difference in the world. According to its strategic plan, Ohio State will hire 500 new faculty members over the next 10 years in the Discovery Theme areas.

I had not intended this post to turn into a Gee love-fest, but in reading the coverage of his unceremonious forced-retirement, I couldn't help but feel that everyone focused on the money, when his legacy at Ohio State is much, much larger.

ibuck's picture

Fantastic post, Andy. It was good to get your perspective on the "regime change." Gee, like all of us, has his strengths and his challenges.  
What's interesting to me is that the AD and major coaches (Football, both basketball, hockey, baseball) have all been hired/contracts extended before the new president takes over. So he can focus on other things, like med school, rain-making, etc.

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

+1 HS
carence's picture

Johnny who pissed in your cream of wheat this morning? Are you mad about something? Did your favorite show get cancelled? Are you tired of Sheldon playing hard to get with Amy Farrah Fowler? Still upset about the Red Wedding? Can't wait for the Walking Dead to come back on?
That was an intense rant!

ATXbucknut's picture

Here's a report on students formally welcoming Dr. Drake...

Barnsey69's picture

Yeah I don't envy President Drake, except on game-days, talk about a nice suite! How do you keep everyone happy at once? Obviously you don't, just keep the $$ people happy first and foremost. Gee was a great ambassador, regardless of his thin filter, but he let the fiscal dogs gain too much power, and that needs to be rectified before tOSU becomes The Limited Brands Ohio State University, or the golf course becomes a UA condo development. Call me old fashioned, but I think the university needs to keep more of it's historical identity and self sufficiency, even if it means less corporate cash.

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

dlb72osu's picture

"The Limited Brands Ohio State University..." Just effing priceless! How much money does it take to have a university named after you? Apparently, it's unLIMITED!

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

- Invictus

Scarlet_Lutefisk's picture

How much money does it take to have a university named after you?

1639 - £779 Harvard
1718 - £800 Yale
1825 - $5,000 Rutgers
1853 - $10,000 Denison
1854 - $100,000 Wofford
1873 - $1,000,000 Vanderbilt
1873 - $7,000,000 John Hopkins
1884 - $600,000 DePauw
1992 - $100,000,000 Rowan University

doodah_man's picture

I wish President Drake all the best and look forward to his term. I have my doubts as to whether the man has the "chops" to serve in that position. I don't envy him one bit.

Jim "DooDah" Day

"If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” --Wilbur Wright, 1910

MN Buckeye's picture

Well, ultimately the Board made this decision, and if he fails it is in part a reflection of them. I agree with the posters above, I would not want this job under any circumstances,

one that makes you the meat guy at the piranha petting zoo

Earle's picture

Who pets piranhas, anyway??

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Baroclinicity's picture

Just inform him from the start that Little Sisters of the Poor actually exists, and they are in the Toledo area.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

BuckFly's picture

Flashback to Karen A.Holbrook's first football game and introduction to the Alumni Band. It is customary for the university president to say a few words to the TBDBITL Alumni Band members at our morning practice.  We all gathered around the sideline ladder to hear from the new president, who then stated much to our shock and dismay "Look at all of the RED and gray out there!".  We soundly booed and jeered and said "take it back...", a band phrase that means do it again from the beginning.  She finally figured it out (after all, she has a doctorate),  descended the ladder, and then stepped up again and correctly said "Look at all of the Scarlet and Gray....".  We knew right then and there that she didn't quite get it.  Let's hope The Drake steps off on the right foot!

Nik's picture

"has Ohio connections"
i haven't read that anywhere else, including on wikipedia, care to elaborate?

Go1Bucks's picture

Mother I think was from Youngstown, he "visited alot"  Oboy.

Go Bucks!

Nik's picture

Ah, did not know that. UV for you, good sir

Crimson's picture

for the purpose of making OSU one of the premiere medical colleges in the country

he's a medical guy hired to continue to improve the status of Ohio State's medical facilities

What is this, fucking Toledo?  If anyone thinks tOSU is just a medical school, especially the new president, we're all in hot shit.  I hope Drake cares infinitely more about this:

Ohio State's academic standards . . . must continue to be a priority if OSU is to be taken seriously as an academic institution.

doodah_man's picture

[engage sarcasm font] Yea, I mean who has ever heard of the Wexner Medical Center or the James Cancer Center. They are nothing more than medical hobby shops right? Good thing we got Drake coming to straighten all that mess out.

Jim "DooDah" Day

"If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” --Wilbur Wright, 1910