Amber Clawson, Daily Universe
Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, speaks to a sparse crowd Friday at the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University.

PROVO — One of Brigham Young University President Cecil Samuelson's former fraternity brothers at the University of Utah spoke at BYU this week — and he didn't tell a single incriminating story about "Cec."

The scrupulous discretion practiced by both men might have disappointed a sparse crowd at the Marriott Center if self-effacing Vernal native and Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee hadn't atoned for a lack of Samuelson stories by sprinkling a lively speech with jokes on himself and tough talk about LDS Church members.

"I am from Vernal, Utah, where the hippest characters in town have been extinct 70 million years," said Gee, 62, former president of Brown University and Ohio State University. "I often laugh that I was 18 before I met a non-Mormon or a Democrat."

Gee challenged members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to avoid religious isolationism, saying that while Mormons have long considered themselves a peculiar people, they are now in a peculiar position to make a difference in the world.

Gee said Latter-day Saints should experience the complexities of the world without fear of it, with a critical eye toward tradition and with respect for all.

"As Latter-day Saints, we are no longer served by a persecution mentality or an enclave mentality, nor would such ever be worthy of us," he said. "We have nothing to fear of loss or distillation from taking part in the world around us. . . . Beyond saying we have nothing to fear, we have everything to gain, and even more accurately, that we have everything to contribute."

Gee is considered one of the most experienced leaders in American higher education, having held more school presidencies — five — than any other American. He said everything he knows about being a Mormon was learned from running universities, including how similar faith and higher education are despite their apparent dissimilarities.

"Given that universities have one goal — they are places of ideas, they encompass thousands of different outlooks — it may seem contradictory that one can encompass all those ideas that fully inhabit a university and can still live a life of one's own faith, and in this I arrived at one of the most important lessons I have learned.

"I learned at Brown University how much like the enterprise of the university our faith is, and how much we as Latter-day Saints have to bring to that enterprise."

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Gee gored several traditions at Brown, where he faced strong criticism. He made national headlines in 2003 for slaughtering a sacred cow at Vanderbilt by dismissing the athletic director and placing the athletic department under the Division of Student Life.

"I've learned that tradition should never be honored for its own sake," Gee said, drawing a smile from Samuelson. "To say, 'This is always the way we have done things at BYU, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, ' is never, in my view, sufficient."

Gee stressed respect for others.

"Honoring others by listening to them is one of the surest ways to get over one's self," he said.

Students help humble a university president, too, Gee discovered. He once entered a Vanderbilt men's restroom to find that a student had written a message above the button on the hot-air hand-dryer: "Push and talk to the chancellor."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com