When Constance Gee was in third grade, she received her first and only “unsatisfactory” grade regarding her conduct. Young Constance, who was used to being a star pupil, was charged with a pretty serious crime for an 8-year-old: resenting authority.
In her memoir, Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion, Gee, the ex-wife of former Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee, recalls what she initially thought when she read her teacher’s comment on her report card so many years ago:
This early incident, which Gee calls her “first clear memory of an insurrection over a perceived injustice,” foreshadowed a much bigger scandal she would be enveloped in decades later.
In 2006, The Wall Street Journal published a story headlined “Vanderbilt Reins In Lavish Spending By Star Chancellor.” As Gee recalls in her new book, her husband told her that the Journal piece, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Joann Lublin and Daniel Golden, was initially pitched as an investigation into how universities were responding to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a piece of legislation that — in the aftermath of corporate scandals such as Enron — established new financial transparency guidelines for publicly held companies. While universities were not legally required to adhere to these new guidelines, Constance Gee wrote, university boards felt pressure to integrate the Sarbanes-Oxley standards into their governance.
“Because there had been incidents of university presidents misusing funds, they were going to look at Gordon, because he was one of the highest-paid college presidents in the country,” Gee told The City Paper in a recent interview. “And because we entertained a lot, they were going to look at his administration, the boards, the judiciary oversight. They were looking at Vanderbilt because of Gordon and his high-profile status.”
The subsequent investigation, which Gee said lasted five months in mid-2006, was high on Vanderbilt’s radar. Gee wrote that Martha Ingram, then-chairwoman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, issued a letter to the entire board in July 2006 to warn them of the upcoming story. Both the board and the chancellor were ensuring that financial oversight at the university was “above reproach.”
The Journal article, published Sept. 26, 2006, revealed that the $6 million renovation for Braeburn, the university-owned property in which the Gees resided, was not approved by the entire board. The Journal also wrote that “the full Board of Trust didn’t approve the university’s annual budget, most big-ticket spending projects or debt financing between 2000 and 2005.”
Despite the lavish amount the Gees spent entertaining at Braeburn — $700,000 per year — the article quoted Gee’s statement that the university gained more than $1.2 billion in fundraising since he was named chancellor in 2000, including “a lot that was raised in that house.” The Journal even opened the piece with praise for Gordon Gee, saying he “has dramatically boosted the 133-year-old school’s academic standing and overseen fund raising of more than $1 billion.”
The Journal pointed out that Gordon Gee’s $1.4 million salary was “among the highest for U.S. university leaders,” but Constance Gee continues to make the case that $1.2 billion in fundraising was a good return on the investment.
“We entertained, we had everybody in to the Vanderbilt chancellor’s residence, she said. “Before we came, there was not a lot of mixing of town and gown. The house wasn’t used that much to entertain, and we wanted to rectify that. We wanted it to be a welcoming place.”
Ultimately more damaging to the Gees was another little tidbit of information in the Journal article — something that only the executive committee of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust supposedly had access to. Something that had happened more than a year before. Something she had hoped would never be released to the general public. The Journal revealed the following:
“In the fall of 2005, university employees discovered that Constance Gee, a tenured associate professor of public policy and education, kept marijuana at Braeburn and was using it there, according to people familiar with the matter. A few weeks later, several trustees and a senior university official confronted Mr. Gee in his office, telling the chancellor he shared responsibility for allowing marijuana on university property, the person familiar with the situation recalls.”
What the Journal didn’t report was that Constance Gee was using marijuana to ease the symptoms of Meniere’s disease, a debilitating disorder of the inner ear that can cause episodes of vertigo, severe nausea and vomiting, tinnitus and hearing loss.
“The Wall Street Journal, the fact that they called it an ‘inner-ear ailment,’ like I had an earache or something,” Gee remarked. “Surely, after five months of sleuthing, they would have heard the word ‘Meniere’s,’ so I don’t understand why they would have called it an inner-ear ailment. If they had said a ‘severe case of Meniere’s disease,’ people might have felt a little more empathy.”
In her book, she offers a frank, startling picture of what it’s like to live with a severe case of Meniere’s. She describes her episodes of vertigo and nausea in detail, recalling “vicious attacks” that left her so ill she was unable to get out of bed, except to vomit. She explained the various therapies and treatments she endured, including two ear surgeries that would eventually leave her deaf in one ear. At her lowest point, she considered ending it all.
“I had gone as far as ordering a how-to video on suicide,” she writes, “but it’s gruesomeness served as a deterrent. Perhaps that was its purpose.”
When she first tried marijuana to ease her Meniere’s symptoms — supplied by a friend while hiking the Fiery Gizzard trail in Grundy County — she writes that “the nausea melted away almost immediately.” Subsequently, Gee kept a “little stash of marijuana” hidden underneath mini-pads in her bathroom, where she “did most of [her] vomiting.” After her surgeries, her symptoms did subside to an extent, although she still suffers recurrences to this day.
Failure to acknowledge her Meniere’s disease, a diagnosis she received in late 2004, isn’t the only issue she has with the Journal story. In addition to calling attention to Gee’s marijuana use at Braeburn — a newsworthy piece of information perhaps, but tangential to a story about university finances — the Journal highlighted Gee’s “liberal politics,” which the story said were “causing a stir” on campus.
The Journal reported that she “signed a letter of protest to the chancellor when Condoleezza Rice, then Mr. Bush’s national security advisor, was invited to address graduating students in 2004. [Mike] Schoenfeld says Mrs. Gee posted the letter on the couple’s refrigerator door at Braeburn.”
The story still rankles Gee — she grew animated as she attempted to set the record straight on this incident.
“Over and over again it was misreported that I had joined in a protest about Condoleeza Rice being invited to speak at graduation,” she said. “That was not the case at all. I well understood that was a real coup to get the national security adviser to speak at the university, and I was very interested in what she had to say.
“What I had joined several hundred faculty, staff and students in protesting was awarding her the first-ever Vanderbilt Chancellor’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service. That was what we were protesting. I don’t know what the public service was.
“She was provost at Stanford University before working in the Bush administration; that’s a private university,” Gee said, choosing her words thoughtfully. “As I saw it at that point, about the biggest contribution she had made was to help perpetrate the perception that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, and that we should go in there and have a pre-emptive war.
“So I felt like the most public thing she had done up to that point was help drag us into a war that we should never have gotten involved in. That’s what I was protesting, and that’s what several hundred faculty and staff were also protesting. And I protest that now. I offer no apologies for that,” she concluded firmly.
In a continuation of what Gee calls a “tabloid” approach, the Journal included another incident, writing that she “lowered the American flag outside Braeburn to half-staff after President Bush won re-election in 2004. Mr. Gee says he quickly ordered the flag raised back up.”
“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” she said, bemused. “That was probably not the wisest course of action.” Here’s how she described it in the book:
“I quickly came to understand that it was not my right to lower Old Glory — at least not the Old Glory that waved outside the Vanderbilt chancellor’s residence. That particular flag was university owned and operated; for me to lower it in personal exasperation was inappropriate. The American flag, I learned, is to be lowered to half-staff only at specifically decreed state occasions, such as Memorial Day or the death of an important government official — not at the death of highly subjective abstract entities such as good government and judicious international policy.”
Gee paused to show the reporter an epigraph at the beginning of her book, which reads: "I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of the story, but I have my off moments.”
“I think this pretty much sums it up,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal had searched for months for a scandal regarding the Gees’ and Vanderbilt’s finances. They were “looking for dirt, not daisies,” Gee wrote in Higher Education.
“Ultimately, there was no impropriety, so there really wasn’t a story,” she said. “So, what would draw readers? What would make it worth their while for five months of journalistic sleuthing? The subtitle on the front page was ‘Marijuana at the Mansion.’ Wow. Now there’s a story. That, I think, is why they used it, because there just wasn’t much of a story, other than that.”
To add insult to injury, the Journal article came out a week before Gordon Gee’s daughter’s wedding. (Gordon Gee’s first wife, Elizabeth, passed away from breast cancer two years before he met Constance.)
“It was terrible,” Gee said, eyes tearing up at the memory of her stepdaughter’s trauma. “Right before her wedding. She was incensed that something like that would come out and embarrass her father, and embarrass her. I was horrified, too.
“I was just so overwhelmed by it all, and I was told to say ‘no comment’ by Vanderbilt lawyers,” Gee said. “I was trying to hold together my marriage. I was also afraid. I was told that there was a possibility of the police arriving at my door and handcuffing me and taking me out of the residence. I didn’t want to further embarrass the university, or my husband. I didn’t say anything about it, and then all of this happened, and then we got a divorce, anyway.”
Gordon and Constance Gee married in 1994, when they were both employed at Ohio State University — she as assistant professor of art education and he as president. Following a two-year stint at Brown University, Gordon Gee became chancellor at Vanderbilt, and Gee assumed the role of associate professor of public policy and education in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Leadership and Organizations.
After spending her youth and her undergraduate years in North Carolina, she had moved to New York City for a master’s degree in fine arts at Pratt Institute, and subsequently earned a doctorate at Penn State. In addition to balancing her teaching duties with the commitments of being a university’s first lady, she served as an executive editor for the Arts Education Policy Review journal and sat on numerous nonprofit arts boards, including the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. When she was employed at Ohio State University, she founded their Arts Policy and Administration Program.
In the aftermath of the Journal article, however, the controversy proved too much for a strained marriage to bear.
In February 2007, the Gees met with Nashville attorneys Aubrey Harwell and Jim Neal, founding partners of Neal & Harwell PLC, whom Vanderbilt kept on retainer, and — according to Constance Gee — the same lawyers who advised her to respond “no comment” after the Journal revealed her marijuana use. Gee recalled the emotional conversation from this meeting, which led to the end of the marriage.
“I filed for divorce,” Gee said solemnly. “I didn’t want to, but I was told that I had to. Vanderbilt was involved in this in a big way. Gordon asked me to come to [Neal and Harwell’s] office, and they said, ‘You have to give him a divorce.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t, do I?’ And they said, ‘Oh yes, you do. You have to give him a divorce. Are you going to give him a divorce?’
“I was so exhausted,” Gee said. “So beaten up by the whole thing at that point, and I finally I just turned around and said, ‘OK.’ I was crying. I was stunned. And Aubrey very nicely walked me to the elevator, and he said, ‘Think of yourself. Hire a lawyer. You need a lawyer.’ So that’s when I got the divorce attorney.”
Gee said even at that point, she still hoped that reconciliation was an option, as Gordon Gee wavered in his decision to divorce. She wrote that he told her “he intended to proceed with the divorce, but he might change his mind at any time up until its finalization. Whether he changed his mind would ‘depend on how well the arbitration goes.’ That is, if everything goes smoothly and doesn’t get litigious or hostile, he could, up until the moment of signing the divorce papers, stop the proceedings.”
“I just kept begging Gordon, but it was clear,” Gee said. “Let’s just say, it wasn’t just Gordon. There were a lot of people involved in this. I had to go. It was clear that I had to go.” She hired prominent divorce attorney Rose Palermo to represent her, and filed for divorce in February 2007, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
“I kind of wish I hadn’t done that now,” she admitted. “Because I really didn’t want to. But I just felt backed into it. I felt cornered, and so I filed.”
Attorney Aubrey Harwell, who said he is anxious to read Gee’s memoir, stated that he doesn’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but doesn’t recall any ultimatums being given. “I do not have a clear recall; it was an emotional meeting,” Harwell told The City Paper. “I tried to help Constance and Gordon. I felt a huge empathy for both of them. I wasn’t sure if this would result in divorce. I felt that she wanted to stay in the marriage, and initially, I was not sure as to what Gordon wanted. I was merely trying to help two people in a truly difficult and emotional situation. I don’t have clear and specific details to what he said, she said.”
So, back to the Journal article: Who was this “person familiar with the situation” that talked to the paper? Gee said she doesn’t know.
In Higher Education, she recalls that on Oct. 30, 2005, she received a formal warning from Martha Ingram on behalf of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust, charging her with “possession of marijuana on university property.” In April 2005, after a severe Meniere’s attack left her confined to her bed and bathroom for two days, Gee admitted to a house staffer at Braeburn that she had smoked pot to ease her nausea. A marijuana roach was subsequently found in one of Gee’s coat pockets, and the house manager — whom Gee calls “House Manager Wife” in the book — relayed the news to her boss, Lauren Brisky, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of finance.
Subsequently, Chancellor Gee was visited by Ingram, board of trust member Denny Bottorff and then-Vice Chancellor David Williams, who informed him that they knew Gee had used marijuana in Braeburn. Constance Gee subsequently met with Williams, and the conversation quickly got heated when Williams, whom the Gees had befriended in their Ohio State days, was not sympathetic to her explanation of the severity of her Meniere’s symptoms.
“I lashed out, saying that I wished he or someone he loved would experience the torment of Meniere’s, if only for a few days,” she wrote. “The moment the words spilled out of my mouth and I saw the pained look on his face, I apologized. ‘I’m sorry David, I truly did not mean that. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, most certainly not on you or your family. Please forgive me.’
He dismissed me from his office.”
Following the formal warning, Gee wrote a letter to Ingram and the board, apologizing for the incident and explaining the severity of her Meniere’s. “Even then, they didn’t seem to be very sympathetic,” she recalls. “It’s illegal, that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter, because it’s illegal. I felt that I was as repentant as I could be, and I thought that it would be kept confidential. I just tried to make it up and do the best I could and move forward.”
This information stayed under wraps for more than a year, only to be revealed during the Journal investigation into Vanderbilt’s finances. Why would someone bring up the marijuana incident — which was unrelated to the financial investigation — that the board of trust had hidden from the general public until that point?
As Gee pointed out in the book, the Journal piece made the board look like “a ship of fools” for failing to approve Vanderbilt’s annual budget and “big-ticket spending projects” such as Braeburn’s $6 million renovation.
“I wasn’t privy to [the Journal’s] reporting, but the article made it seem as if a lot of the board didn’t even know there was going to be a renovation,” Gee said. “So the board, I think the board came off looking as if they weren’t really up on things. I would think that they would have been pretty upset by that article.”
Perhaps the chancellor’s wife smoking pot on university property seemed like the perfect distraction from that issue. “Apparently, when the Wall Street Journal started asking questions, someone was only too happy to tell them,” Gee said. “I do feel like I was sort of thrown under the bus.”
And that headline, “Marijuana at the Mansion” …
“Well, it’s juicy isn’t it?” Gee said. “It’s fun to talk about! ‘Oh my God, the chancellor’s wife was smoking pot, she’s a pothead!’ I became the butt of a lot of jokes.”
A little over a month after the Journal article was published, Gordon Gee revealed to her that he suspected the article was an inside conspiracy.
Constance Gee wrote: [He] said, “The Wall Street Journal article was an assassination attempt, and we think we know who instigated it.”
“Who is ‘we’?” I asked, exhaling in relief that the subject was the Journal article rather than divorce.
“Mrs. Ingram, Mike [Schoenfeld], and David [Williams],” he explained. “We think Cal [Turner], Denny [Bottorff], and Lauren [Brisky] were all involved in some way, but that Cal was the ringleader. We can’t prove it, but that’s what we think.”
He explained that the confidential nature, close accuracy, and detail of information provided to the Journal made it clear that the informants were positioned at a very high level within the university hierarchy. What was not clear, he continued, was whether the Journal reporters had originally contacted one of the informants with questions about Vanderbilt’s compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, or if Cal Turner (or someone close to him) had called the Journal. “We think it’s more likely that someone from Vanderbilt called the Journal.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
Gordon reminded me of his role as the chair of the shareholders committee during the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigation of Dollar General, and of his having been sent to inform Cal Turner that he had to step down as CEO of the company his family ran. He also reminded me of his stance with the segment of the board that had demanded that Denny Bottorff, because of his alleged marital infidelities, not be allowed to succeed Martha Ingram as chairman, and how he had encouraged Martha to stay on for another term. Gordon noted that Monroe Carell, the trustee who had alerted him to the situation with Denny, and whom the Journal described as “a key Gee supporter on the executive committee,” had also taken a hit. (The Journal reporters had been informed of “a fuss” in 2002 over a long-held, noncompetitive contract by Central Parking Corp. to manage Vanderbilt’s parking facilities. Monroe was the founder and chair of Central Parking.)
“But why Lauren?” I asked. “Why would she have conspired against you?”
“She has long disapproved of the amount of money that was spent on Braeburn, and the way we entertain,” Gordon said. (Years later, he would tell me that, in the final months of his chancellorship, it became clear to him that she “hated” me and that she and House Manager Wife “had formed a cabal.”)
When contacted by The City Paper on Oct. 1, Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said the university was aware of the book, but the school would not have any further comment.
Surprisingly, Constance Gee remained employed at Vanderbilt University after the divorce. Gordon Gee, on the other hand, returned to Ohio State University, where he currently serves as president. As the highest paid leader of an American public university, he also continues to be under financial scrutiny. On Sept. 22, the Dayton Daily News reported on his expenses, including the $64,000 bow-tie tab — including bow ties, bow-tie cookies and bow-tie pins — he’s racked up since 2007.
“I used to think that, had I been braver, I would have packed my bags and gotten out of Dodge,” she wrote. “I have now come to think that it takes a heap more courage to face the music than to flee it. I wanted to prove myself to Nashville and to myself. I needed to prove that I was not the horrible person that a failed marriage (not to mention a humiliating public scandal) makes you feel you are. I decided I would stay in Nashville, do penance, and walk away, not run, when the time seemed right.”
In 2010, Constance Gee resigned from Vanderbilt. Since then, she has immersed herself in advocacy work to raise awareness about Meniere’s disease and for the legalization of marijuana.
“People started asking me why I didn’t take a stance and help educate the public when I had the chance,” Gee said. “I really regretted — after everything died down and I got my wits about me — not speaking up and talking about how [marijuana] helped me when I was so sick with Meniere’s. Also, I really wanted to tell my side of the story once the smoke cleared.”
In April, she testified on behalf of a bill in the Tennessee legislature, the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act. She shared her personal experience with Meniere’s disease with The Tennessean and the House Health Committee. The bill died in the state Senate Government Operations committee.
While she has lived in East Nashville for the past four years, she recently sold her house and will be moving to Westport, Mass., into a former summer home that the Gees bought when the couple worked at Brown. She noted that she’s made some progress in repairing her relationship with her former stepdaughter, and she said she and Gordon talk frequently, and that he was supportive of her telling her story through the book.
“Gordon was well aware from the beginning that I was writing it; he was very helpful,” Gee said. “I do think that he was a little apprehensive about some parts of it, but I had to write what I wrote.
“I wouldn’t wish [divorce] on my worst enemy,” Gee said. “Even if you want a divorce — and I didn’t — it’s a terrible thing to go through. You used to love them — you married them! I still do love Gordon. And I believe that he still loves me. It just didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, but one of them being that it was so public, and there were a lot of people involved.”
Gee’s book doesn’t come across as a finger-pointing tell-all from a woman seeking revenge against her detractors. The tone reflects her demeanor in person: opinionated yet articulate, passionate yet humorous. It recalls a difficult childhood, her struggles with emotional swings and depression, the tenuous relationship with her stepdaughter, and the often-ugly inner-workings of academia. But the nucleus of the story involves a marriage, albeit a marriage that didn’t survive. The story may have an unhappy ending, but there’s an optimistic epilogue.
“[Gordon and I] talked at length about things as I proceeded to write the book — I think it was really good for us, because we were able to talk about things that would have been helpful if we had talked about before we got a divorce,” Gee said, laughing. “It might have helped, but sometimes when you’re in the throes of that, you can’t see your way clearly to discuss things.”
When approached by The City Paper, Gordon Gee provided the following: “I have finally had an opportunity to read Constance Gee’s book,” he said through a statement. “She writes with grace, humor and honesty. The book does focus on the tragedy and triumph of our time together and the struggles we faced in the intense crucible of public life. Through it all we have managed to maintain our friendship and respect for each other.”