Only three years after being named the seventh president of Gallaudet University in 1984, Lee announced he would be leaving this position to take a job as vice-president of Bassett Industries. His resignation began an intense debate about the need for a deaf president.

A former executive at General Motors Corporation, Lee assumed the mantle of president after Dr. Lloyd Johns' brief tenure, first as an interim president, and later inducted as president without a formal search process.
Lee guided Gallaudet through an expansive period: the college became a university and the campus served thousands of deaf students from the "rubella bulge."

Six months after assuming his new responsibilities at Bassett, Lee resigned, citing conflicting management styles. He then joined the National University in La Jolla, California, where he served as president from 1989 until 2007. He became chancellor of the National University System in 2001 and retired in December 2012.