The president of Ohio State University withdrew Monday as commencement speaker for a Catholic high school after being reprimanded for mocking Notre Dame, Roman Catholics and the Southeastern Conference in comments to the university’s Athletic Council in December.
Gordon Gee was scheduled to speak Saturday at the graduation ceremony for St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus but decided he’ll skip it to ensure the students and their accomplishments are the focus of the event, Ohio State spokeswoman Gayle Saunders said.
The school’s principal, Dan Garrick, said he and Gee spoke Monday in a conversation that started with a "heartfelt apology" from the Ohio State chief.
"He made it very clear that he was concerned that his presence at the commencement would detract from the attention on the kids, and I thought that was a very gracious approach by President Gee," Garrick said.
Seniors were aware of the possibility that the speaker might change, but Garrick said late Monday that he hadn’t had an opportunity to speak with them about their reactions to it.
Gee apologized for his derogatory comments after an Associated Press report last week revealed he told the Athletic Council that Notre Dame wasn’t allowed to join the Big Ten conference because its leaders were not good partners. He said its Roman Catholic priests were "holy hell" except on Sundays and joked "those damn Catholics" can’t be trusted.
Gee also questioned the academic integrity of SEC schools and singled out the University of Kentucky.
Gee said he didn’t mean to offend anyone. He apologized in a statement and campus-wide email and on Twitter late last week, and he apologized Sunday to the Big Ten for his "hurtful remarks" about some university athletic programs.
The veteran university administrator has a history of headline-grabbing remarks, but the latest prompted the sternest response from Ohio State trustees, who warned him that he could be fired for any more verbal gaffes.
In a March letter, the trustees said Gee’s comments have embarrassed and divided Ohio State. They said he must take remedial steps including making personal apologies, seeking professional help to revisit his personal communications and speechwriting processes and rethinking what speaking engagements he accepts.
DeSales was working through the process of finding a replacement speaker to address its 185 graduating students and several thousand guests, Garrick said.