Slowly, as Student Debt Rises, Colleges Confront Costs
"When I got here, I asked to see their long-term financial model, and they brought me a paper for one year, and I said, ‘What?’ ” "
A lanky 68-year-old who is known for his bow ties, horn-rimmed glasses and sometimes zany antics (he has shown up, unannounced, at 21st birthday parties for his students, which he finds on Facebook), Mr. Gee has had the top job at five universities, including twice at Ohio State. He returned to the Columbus campus in 2007 after stints at Brown and Vanderbilt. Mr. Gee acknowledges that college affordability and student debt are growing problems that university presidents long ignored. He said they now needed to address them quickly.
“We have not been as conscious about costs as we should be, and that has now come home to roost,” he said.
Like many other college presidents, Mr. Gee has set about trying to make Ohio State’s highly decentralized bureaucracy more efficient. He said he planned to find $1 billion in inefficient spending in the university’s $5 billion budget over the next five years and redirect the money toward priorities.
“We are like Noah’s Ark,” he said. “We do two of everything.”
The university saved $20 million simply by switching to common vendors for pens, copiers and overnight shipping; previously Ohio State’s 14 colleges chose their own. Creating a common expense report will save $75 million.
“When I got here, I asked to see their long-term financial model, and they brought me a paper for one year, and I said, ‘What?’ ” said Geoff Chatas, a former banker whom Mr. Gee hired in 2010 as chief financial officer. “Now we have a 15-year plan.”
Mr. Gee said he was considering selling off Ohio State’s airport and golf courses, and he might privatize campus parking, though faculty members are balking at the idea. Last year, Ohio State became the first public university to issue a 100-year bond, for $500 million.
He is also is trying to beef up Ohio State’s enrollment of out-of-state and international students, who bring in more tuition revenue and higher test scores. And, he is pressing donors for more money, a task in which he is particularly skilled.
At a ceremony to honor a $100 million donation from Leslie Wexner, the clothing magnate and Ohio State graduate, Mr. Gee choked back tears.
“Every time I get a lot of money I cry,” Mr. Gee told the crowd. “And I got a lot of tears left.”