Sources: Ohio State University, Ohio Ethics Commission
COLUMBUS — Ohio State University has spent at least $844,000 on President E. Gordon Gee’s travel since 2007, including more than $550,000 in the last two years that included two treks to China and two other international trips to Iceland, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom.
The travel costs far exceeded what Ohio’s two governors during that time spent, and was about three times the amount spent by University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, who holds a comparable position to Gee.
The Dayton Daily News received information from two other big public universities — the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — and they also appear to have spent less on presidential travel than Gee.
Ohio State officials noted that unrestricted endowment funds — and not tuition or tax money — cover the costs.
They also said Gee is expected to travel as president of a university with ties to institutions around the world. His contract with the OSU Board of Trustees calls for first-class domestic flights, business class international flights and access to corporate jet travel through NetJets.
“Ohio State is one of the largest, most comprehensive universities in the world and President Gee maintains a significant outreach schedule with donors, alumni, and key national leaders,” said OSU spokesman Jim Lynch. “In many cases, his schedule does not accommodate commercial aircraft travel.”
Gee was not made available to discuss his travel expenses.
The Dayton Daily News waited seven months for Ohio State to provide information on Gee’s travel, finally receiving only a small fraction of what was requested. By comparison, the University of Michigan responded to the newspaper’s request within 27 hours.
“When we received the newspaper’s request, we were experiencing a record number of public record requests related to the university’s NCAA investigation,” Lynch said, referring to the scandal that led to the firing of former OSU football coach Jim Tressel. “We were very grateful for the newspaper’s patience as it took us until late winter to catch up on our long-standing list of requests.”
The Daily News tabulated Gee’s travel costs from the limited records the university provided and financial disclosure statements he filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission. The actual costs are likely greater because not all trips are reported to the ethics commission, and the summary of costs for the one year of data the university provided omitted lodging, ground transportation and other travel-related expenses.
Gee is required to report his travel to the ethics commission, but those records do not show destinations or when those trips occurred. State ethics law also doesn’t require the university to disclose travel if OSU pays dues to the organization hosting the conference or event.
OSU gave a summary of Gee’s trips for 2009 only, which showed he was on the road for 37 days, visiting 11 states as well as Europe, India and Canada.
“Please know that the university intends to comply with your remaining request,” Lynch said of the additional information sought by the newspaper.
Universities like Ohio State have an obligation of transparency, even when the spending doesn’t come directly from tax dollars, said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of American Association of University Professors.
“I would be curious to know where he has flown, the specific purposes of the trips, how much money was spent per trip, what the money was spent on,” she said. “And if I was a donor to the endowment fund, I would certainly want to know that as well.”
She added, “It’s still a public university. No matter where the money comes from, the public has a right to see how the money is being spent. And at the core, Ohio State is still supposed to be a public institution of higher education where students have access and it’s affordable. And vast amounts of money are being spent on private plane trips. People have a right to raise eyebrows and ask questions.”
One of Ohio’s best known officials
Gee is known nationally for his extensive bow tie collection, boundless energy, occasional verbal gaffes, and fundraising magic. He can work a room like the most skilled politician — Gov. John Kasich calls Gee Ohio’s best politician.
Since returning to Ohio State in November 2007, Gee has helped raise $1.46 billion, including a record $259 million last year, according to the university. A big chunk of the 2011 gift money — $100 million — came from Limited Brands founder and long-time OSU trustee Leslie H. Wexner. In February, Ohio State renamed its sprawling medical center after Wexner.
Private donations are becoming more important as state and federal funding stagnates or declines, Lynch said. OSU is now campaigning to raise $2.5 billion in gifts by June 2016.
Alex Fischer, chief executive of the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan business organization, said Gee’s reputation and high-profile is helping the university achieve new heights.
“Gordon is not your average university president. Gordon is probably one of the best known figures inside the state of Ohio and one of the, I’d dare say, top two or three best known figures in America in education and that doesn’t happen by sitting at Bricker Hall at Ohio State. It’s Gordon’s personality to be anywhere and everywhere,” Fischer said.
OSU officials argue that Gee has to spend money to raise money. But Ohio State is not alone in raising large sums of money. Each of the three other universities studied by the Daily News raised impressive sums without running up the same level of travel expenses.
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education reports that the University of Virginia raised $2.5 billion between 2004 and 2011, the University of Michigan raised $3.2 billion between 2004 and 2008 and UNC-Chapel Hill raised $2.38 billion between 2002 and 2007.
Although travel for all years was not available, it appears the top administrators at each of those schools traveled less than Gee. UM’s Coleman, for example, logged $142,262 in travel expenses for 2007 through 2010, and the university spent another $27,484 on drivers for her. And unlike Gee’s contract, Coleman’s does not specify first class tickets or corporate jets, said University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.
By comparison, Gee’s travel in 2010 alone cost Ohio State at least $284,222. It’s hard to compare the costs for a driver, but when Gee doesn’t drive himself, a university-employed courier shuttles him. The courier, who makes $51,916 a year, spends about 20 percent of his time driving Gee, according to the university.
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan’s travel expenses totaled $91,000 last year, while expenses for the current fiscal year tallied $155,000 through April 30. Figures for previous years were not immediately available.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, the university’s highest-ranking administrator, spent $30,000 in fiscal year 2009 on 26 trips, according to UNC officials. The figure includes airfares, hotels, meals and ground transportation costs. Figures for other years were not immediately available.
Gee’s travel costs greatly exceed those reported by the governor’s office. Over the past five years, state plane flights for Govs. Ted Strickland and John Kasich and their entourages cost taxpayers a total of $187,707.
Lynch noted that other university officials often travel on the corporate jet with Gee, but OSU did not provide details of who else is making the trips.
Ohio State pays $22,500 per month for an ownership share in NetJets and a fixed rental rate of $7,941 per month, plus $1,950 per flight hour. The university contracts for 150 flight hours per year, with up to 100 of those hours earmarked for Gee’s use. The contract allows for the use of Cessna Citation Excel jets, which carry between seven and 10 passengers.
Gee’s reported travel expenses do not include the monthly ownership and lease costs in the NetJets contract, Lynch said.
Dale Butland of the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank Innovation Ohio said, “By any reasonable standard, a public employee spending nearly $900,000 on travel over five years is excessive — especially since it doesn’t include the additional $360,000 per year Ohio State pays for leasing the private plane he often travels on. Innovation Ohio has consistently said that public employees — whether they work at the Statehouse or on a college campus — should set an example and share in the sacrifice they are asking of others.”
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I just don’t think the president of a public university should be traveling in the same style as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” he said.
Highest-paid college president
At Ohio State Gee, 68, oversees an enterprise with a $5 billion budget, 65,000 students and 48,000 employees. Although the university has many funding sources, state taxpayers contributed more than $421 million to Ohio State during the 2011 fiscal year.
Gee is well compensated. Last year, Ohio State paid him $2 million in base salary, bonuses, deferred compensation and supplemental retirement, though Gee donated his $296,786 bonus back to the university.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Gee is the highest paid president of a public university in the United States.
But Gee makes money elsewhere too. According to Forbes.com, Gee received $2.2 million between 2006 and 2010 in director fees, stock awards and stock options for serving on the boards of Bob Evans Farms Inc., Massey Energy Co., Hasbro Inc., Limited Brands Inc. and Gaylord Entertainment.
In 2011, Gee served as a director, trustee or member for 30 corporations and nonprofit organizations, according to his financial disclosure statement. As a director of the Columbus-based Bob Evans last year, he made $158,300, plus $24,205 in stock gains and dividends. And Grange Mutual Casualty, also in Columbus, paid him $114,000 in director fees last year.
While Gee is a visible figure around campus and one of the university’s biggest advocates, his schedule is known to few people outside the university’s executive offices.
In a partial response to a request from the Daily News, Ohio State released Gee’s business calendar for Nov. 29, 2010, to June 19, 2011, redacting scores of names, addresses and contact numbers. For example, the entire weekend leading up to Tressel’s dismissal was blocked off with the words “private appointments.”
Still, the documents show Gee is heavily scheduled, beginning with breakfast meetings at the Pizzuti House — a stately suburban home owned by OSU Foundation, maintained by Ohio State and used by Gee — and ending with receptions or student gatherings late in the evenings. He typically works weekends.
He swings by student events like the Quidditch League Magical Movie night, greets athletes, pays surprise visits to faculty, and he makes time for news reporters and for politicians including Kasich and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.
The OSU Board of Trustees expects Gee to conduct business over breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is the only university employee to be issued a personal Visa credit card and a personal Platinum American Express card to cover his expenses.
Under OSU policy, Gee must submit receipts to document the spending, though the most recent internal audit criticizes him for sloppy record keeping on the personal credit cards. Internal auditors found that 11 of 30 sampled American Express card transactions weren’t supported with properly documented business justifications and six of the 30 lacked itemized receipts.
It is the fourth year in a row that internal auditors gave Gee’s office low marks for personal credit card record keeping.
OSU did not respond to the Dayton Daily News’ request for Gee’s credit card records.
Gee is a beloved figure in the eyes of many Ohioans, but he didn’t emerge unscathed in some of the jobs he had before returning to Ohio State after serving as the university’s president from 1990-97.
While at Brown University from 1998 to 2000, Gee had the president’s residence renovated, costing the school millions of dollars. Brown students miffed at Gee’s short and rocky tenure named a set of port-a-potties after him, dubbing it The E Gordon Gee Lavatory Complex, according to the student newspaper, The Daily Herald.
Gee left Brown for the chancellor’s post at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where the Wall Street Journal used his $6 million renovation of Braeburn, the university’s residence for him, as an example of university trustees failing to oversee presidents and their pay packages.
During Gee’s tenure, Vanderbilt spent $700,000 on parties and entertainment at Braeburn, the newspaper reported.
Last year, Gee entertained nearly 6,000 people at the Pizzuti House as part of Ohio State’s outreach efforts, but it’s unclear how big of a tab those parties rang up. OSU did not disclose Gee’s overall meals and entertainment expenses or annual operating expenses for the residence or details on the $2.07 million spent renovating and furnishing the 9,630-square-foot Bexley mansion before Gee moved in in early 2008.
Kent State University journalism professor Tim Smith, considered an expert in public records issues, said Ohio State’s lack of disclosure and lengthy delays on public records requests suggest the university is not interested in being held accountable.
“Unfortunately, the universities are among the worst offenders when it comes to providing access to public records,” Smith said. “They simply drag their feet and obfuscate.
“He (Gee) is not a bad college president, as college presidents go, but he doesn’t figure he is accountable to anybody.”
Contact this reporter at (614) 224-1624 or lbischoff@DaytonDailyNews.com.