Scenes From A Marriage

by Fred Gardner, December 11, 2012

Constance Gee’s just published memoir, Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion, is a terrific book. (Her last name is pronounced with a hard G, as in clarified-butter ghee.) The title refers to the fact that while married to the president of Vanderbilt University, Gordon Gee, Constance developed Meniere’s Disease (an ear disorder that brings on severe, prolonged nausea), discovered that marijuana provided relief, obtained some from a friend, and smoked on rare occasions when her retching became unbearable. She was squealed on by the one staff person who had it in for her. (Fans of the BBC show Downton Abbey will appreciate Gee’s account of life at Braeburn, the Vanderbilt chancellor’s residence.)
You don’t have to be a pot partisan or have a special interest in the politics of Academe to dig this book. I couldn’t help putting checkmarks in the margins on many a page.
Constance grew up in rural North Carolina, middle-class. She wasn’t a troublemaker, but one elementary school teacher picked up on her independent tendencies.
• “‘Resents authority’ was scribbled across the comment section of my report card. All I could think of when I read her comment was ‘Doesn’t everybody?’”
• “The British fashion model Twiggy was my saving grace in terms of body image through adolescence. I had the same big eyes, and as a high school junior I cropped my hair short like hers. Sure, I looked good in clothes; it was the prospect of being out of them that deflated my sassy, faux self-confidence.”
• “MFA in hand I hit the streets to find a job as — what else? — a bartender.”
She went for a PhD at Penn State, won a coveted Getty fellowship, an d wrote a dissertation on the National Endowment for the Arts’ educational policies and programs, which concluded that they are “self-serving.” She was hired at Ohio State “at the quasi-faculty level of ‘lecturer’ (translation: will work for peanuts with no health benefits)” to create a new graduate program in arts education at Ohio State “at a time when the Ohio Board of Regents was cutting graduate programs statewide so legislators could redirect more of the budget toward prisons.” When the university president, E. Gordon Gee, held a reception for new faculty, it’s not that Constance set her cap for him, specifically (he was a widower), but he was impressed.
• “I was wearing a short, swingy silk cocktail dress in unabashed cadmium yellow. Being a fashion plate in academia is like shooting fish in a barrel — cruelly easy and more than a little demented… I stood out like a sunflower in a vat of oatmeal.”
• Gordon seemed to appreciate my casual reception of his announcement that he was Mormon… The was fact was and remains that I don’t much care about a person’s religion, as long as there’s not an oversupply of it.” He courted her, they married, and were happy for a while. Constance tried hard to get on well with Gordon’s 20-something daughter and being an appropriate first lady, while building the graduate arts education program (her #1 job, but not really).
In the spring of ’95 the University of California Board of Regents tried to lure Gordon Gee away from Ohio State. He was well aware that the Gingrich-led Congress was cutting federal research grants and student financial aid, and that $4.8 billion of the $9.3 billion UC budget came from the feds. Running the UC system was the most prestigious job in public education and Gordon decided to accept, although Constance preferred staying Ohio State. Then the news of his offer from UC was leaked and Ohio State responded with a mass faxing by alumni around the world imploring Gordon to stay put, which he agreed to do. Grateful Ohio State raised his salary to $220,000.
• “The biggest honor was the marching band’s invitation for Gordon and me to ‘dot the i’ at the first football game of the season” (while the musicians spell out the word ‘Ohio.’) Dotting the i is an honor usually reserved for a senior sousaphone player. “We were the first to umlaut the ‘i.’” Constance points out.
Soon Brown University started wooing Gordon. He had previously advised his daughter not to go there, calling it “Granola U.” Constance summarizes his politics thus:
• “Although Gordon is fairly liberal in terms of many social issues (he is pro-choice and has some gay friends who keep a low profile with regard to their sexuality), he is conservative with regard to economic policy and the funding of social welfare programs.” The prestige of running an Ivy League institution was more than Gordon could pass up, and he accepted. His predecessor, Vartan Gregorian, would remain active in Brown affairs. At a black-tie fundraising dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Vartan gives Constance his “trademark bear hug” and a kiss on the lips.
• “Just as the quick kiss should have ended, he jammed his tongue into my mouth. I was stunned. I pushed him away and literally staggered backward toward the table… When Gordon turned to me after a few minutes of conversing with a dinner companion, I said to him ‘Vartan just stuck his tongue in my mouth.’
“Gordon look at me quizzically.
“‘I’m serious, Gordon, he just accosted me on the dance floor. I ought to go throw this glass of wine in his face.’”
“‘Don’t make a scene,’ he warned.”
Constance Gee’s tone in Higher Education is not at all vengeful — she actually still has love for her ex, and it comes through. This makes it all the more devastating a portrait of the bow-tie wearing geek.
Less than two years after the Gees arrived in Rhode Island to preside over Brown, Gordon was offered $1 million/year by Vanderbilt — an offer he could have refused but did not. In accepting, he violated what Vartan Gregorian called “a certain etiquette among insitutions.”
• “Martha Ingram, the chairman of Vanderbilt’s board and chairman and CEO of the mega-conglomerate Ingram Industries, Inc., begged to disagree… ‘I don’t see the difference between the corporate world and the academic world,’ she stated. ‘A university is really a big business, and the chancellor is the CEO.’”
Gordon claimed, falsely, that a big factor in his decision was Vanderbilt’s offer of tenure for Constance.
• “During our first year on the Nashville white- and black-tie circuit, I asked a friend if she and her husband were going to the Heart Ball. She rolled her eyes and said ‘No, we just had to draw the line. We don’t go to parties for individual organs.’”
For three years things went well. Constance, who had feared returning to the south, found friends in East Nashville (“Nashville’s own East Village”). With Gordon’s backing, she invited musicians and songwriters to dinners at Braeburn, and made a dent in the wall separating Vanderbilt (“old Belle Meade”) and Downtown Nashville (“the Grand Ole Opry.”)
In addition to being very funny, Constance Gee is an insightful sociologist.
• “Representing the university day in and day out, despite all the perks, is extraordinarily demanding. When a lot is expected of you, you expect a lot from those whose jobs is to assist you in doing yours. It is easy, almost to the point of inevitability, for someone in such a lofty yet responsibility-laden position to begin to feel entitled. Things are done for you. They have to be done for you in order for you to do your job. But it gets confusing.
“At first the special treatment and kowtowing are embarrassing, but soon it all can become the norm. You begin to expect it, and then you can begin to think you deserve it — after all, your working so hard and trying to move so fast. What was once an embarrassment can become a necessity. Service and deference can be both enabling and enjoyable, and both disability and corrosive.”
• “Sitting on corporate boards can be very lucrative. Gordon was then on the board of five Fortune 500 companies, easily bringing in $400,000 or more annually in retainer and per-board meeting payments and stock shares.”
Constance had privately objected to Gordon’s inviting Condoleezza Rice to be Vandy’s commencement speaker in 2004. Without telling his wife, he decided to give Rice an additional honor, Vanderbilt’s first-ever Chancellors’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service. Constance then joined several hundred other Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students, in signing a letter of protest addressed to Gordon. “We wish to express our dismay over the inappropriate and incomprehensible selection of Dr. Rice for your Public Service award…”
Several members of the Braeburn staff also signed the letter, which Constance posted on the refrigerator. Gordon, initially tolerant, flipped when the organizers of the letter made it public.
• “Gordon was now suddenly enraged… saying that I had allowed myself to be used by unscrupulous people who wanted to gain media attention. ‘More importantly,’ he yelled into the phone, ‘you have jeopardized my career.’”
Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion
By Constance Bumgarner Gee
Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, 2012
351 pages (paper), $15.99
Set as sidebar if space allows:
(Next week: Meniere’s Disease and its consequences.)
University Presidents are Politicians
“Being Gordon’s consort and the first lady of Ohio State was a full-time, 24-7 public affair. We entertained unrelentingly. By most human standards I would be considered a sociable person. I have many friends. I enjoy entertaining and being entertained. I have been known on occasion to be the veritable life of the party. Yet, I need hunks of quiet, private time to rebalance and recharge in equal or greater measure. I have found this to be especially true when the social events that I am attending aren’t small gatherings of good friends, but huge public affairs in which one does not so much participate as reign. Unlike Gordon, who actually derives energy from adoring throngs, the task of being ‘on’ — fabulously on — shaking hands, nodding convivially, smiling, smiling, smiling — drains me. I am happy to have my dog by my side at all times. I do not feel that way about members of my own species.
“University presidents are politicians, and politicians must be skilled at the art of working a crowd. Gordon is so good at it that the U.S. Congress should hire him to offer a seminar on the subject. The game is to move through a sea of people, alighting briefly with small clusters or an occasional individual, without getting ‘captured.’ Each guest is either a current or possible donor, and has to feel that he or she has made a personal connection with you, even if the actual contact time is less than a minute. (One loses game points with each additional ten-second segment after the one-minute chat-up.) Remembering names is a key skill that master movers take very seriously. The gravest faux pas is to not remember that you have previously met the person standing expectantly before you. (We Homo sapiens have a deep-seated need to be remembered.) The less industrious attempt to remedy this situation with the non-committal ‘good to see you,’ rather than the far-too-committal ‘good to meet you.’
“Gordon had assumed his first presidency at the University of West Virginia in 1981 at the record-breaking age of thirty-seven. By his second college presidency five years later at the University of Colorado, he had adopted the Lapel Pin Strategy. He always carried a pocketful of specially made lapel pins sporting the logo of the particular university he was at — Colorado’s buffalo, Ohio State’s red block ‘O’ Brown University’s coat of arms, and the Vanderbilt ‘V’ — that he, and only he, could bestow. When meeting someone for the first time he would ‘pin’ the person, informing the recipient that this was the president’s own special pin. Alumni and devoted fans of the university football team ate it up. Forever after, they would proudly wear ‘pin’ to university-related functions.
“Spotting a lapel with a president’s pin, Gordon could say with great confidence to its owner, ‘Good to see you again!’ Knowing he had previously met the person would often jog his prodigious memory enough to remember where he had met the person. From there, he might even conjure up a first name or some other detail, such as, ‘How’s your grandson liking Ohio State?’ Forgetting about the visual clue emblazoned on his coat jacket, the person would be tickled pink to be remembered by the university president after that one thirty-second encounter, three years earlier at the Wapakoneta Rotary. Lapel pin strategy aside, watching Gordon move through a crowd was a wonder to behold.
“The initial thrill soon wore off for me, however, after a few months of scurrying along at his elbow repeating, ‘Nice to meet you, too! Oh, yes, I just love Ohio State. What about those Buckeyes?! Yes, [sigh], he is amazing.’ Although I did mean it — it was nice to meet good-hearted Ohio Staters; I did love Ohio State, and still do; Buckeye football truly is the best there is; and Gordon was amazing — there are not many people in this world who can recite that shtick 180 times over the course of a 120-minute reception and come across as being for real.
“Success at the highest levels of crowd-whispering appears to depend more on a person’s ability to stifle completely any creeping cognizance of absurdity than on whether or not the person at the other end of the exchange thinks you are authentically fully present. After about twenty minutes of meet and greet, I have an involuntary out-of-body experience. I find myself peering down on the parade, cringing at my own superficiality and that of the entire human race. Then, like a driver snapping out of a deep reverie the moment the car begins to veer off the road, I over correct and attempt to make a ‘real connection.’ This invariably gums up the works.
“Gordon would grouse about my impeding the flow: “You allow yourself to get captured!” The truth was that I initiated the capture to save my own soul and alleviate the hot ache of a jaw muscle locked in The Everlasting Smile. I soon learned that it was best if I peeled away from Gordon after a few minutes of shake and smile and found someone with whom I could have a five- or ten-minute all-out conversation. It was a relief.

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