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How OU handles crises of COVID-19, racism will reveal character of institution, President Joseph Harroz says

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Then-interim OU President Joseph Harroz speaks during the regents' meeting in Bizzell Memorial Library on March 10.

A pandemic. OU President Joseph Harroz’s appointment. A civil rights movement. 

Sandwiched between two ongoing historic occurrences, Harroz joked that his transition from interim to permanent president has been uneventful. 

“It’s been calm and placid, and everything’s been great,” he said, laughing, in his first extended interview with The Daily since December 2019. “Yeah, I mean, a global pandemic and a civil rights movement that’s long overdue.” 

Looking back after about a month in office, Harroz sat for a wide-ranging conversation on the transition into his current role and the impacts on the university of COVID-19 and racism — two pandemics killing Americans across the nation. 

‘It’s an unusual time, but I think it’s a time where we can make a big difference.’

Harroz contrasted his time as interim president with the beginning of his permanent presidency, explaining there were a lot of university-specific issues during his interim, but now he’s had to handle problems on a national and global scale. 

“There’s been a lot going on over the last 13 months that I’ve been in the interim role and then in this role, so it’s been challenging,” Harroz said. “But ... in crises like these, I think that you really find out who you are as an institution.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are both very important and have to be addressed — but in different ways, Harroz said. 

“It’s really important that we not confuse our approach to these two crises,” Harroz said. “The goal of the pandemic is to get through it in the best possible way, the goal of the issues around race are matters that have to be addressed really honestly and for which there has to be real action and for which we have to have also the right context.” 

Harroz pointed to comments he’s made about the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as other highly publicized instances of racism — often involving the deaths of Black Americans — in recent months. 

“When you think about Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, George Floyd, make no mistake,” Harroz said. “Obviously, George Floyd has been the most used name of the group, but … these are deep, systemic issues that require really honest understanding and very clear action. … So, without a doubt, it’s an unusual time, but I think it’s a time where we can make a big difference.” 

Harroz referenced a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that says “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” adding that those who favor equality must cause it to bend. 

“I do think what we’re seeing is something that is different,” Harroz said. “While I was a part of the march on Saturday (June 6), what I really loved about it was the unity around it, and also the clarity that it was a march that was not meant to be one that just shows support, but that also demands change — and real change in policies and practices and how we treat each other. And so, to me, this is an opportunity where it can really bend towards justice.”

As a Lebanese-American, Harroz said he’s had experiences that range from “great privilege to feelings of being discriminated against.” 

His father was born in 1929 and grew up in the Great Depression as one of nine children. As new immigrants, Harroz’s grandparents strove to Americanize their children. 

“They were so poor that they had to take turns putting the kids in orphanages because they couldn’t afford to feed them all — there were just too many kids,” Harroz said. “And so … those stories really resonate. I’m always trying to chase being good enough to be worthy of being from a family like that. And so I think ... one of the reasons I’ve always worked really hard and not taken things for granted is because of that.” 

Harroz said he doesn’t know what it’s like to be Black in America, but he has had experiences that help inform his response to the Black community’s issues.

“I don’t have to worry about going to the gas station and looking good enough that folks don’t look at me sideways whenever I’m getting gas,” Harroz said. “But there are moments when I have been looked at as an Arab in a negative light, and those little windows, those episodes … give me a degree of empathy that I think I otherwise wouldn’t have.” 

He said he thinks those experiences can help him “operate as a bridge between cultures.” 

“When we talk about diversity, equity and equality, we’re talking about the range, right?” Harroz said. “It’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation — it’s the whole range — but right now, this conversation in America right now is focused on race — on what it’s like to be Black in America. And so I think that while I don’t have a perfect understanding, I do hear what (different communities) are each saying, and hopefully, I can play a role in bridging (them) and making change.” 

As OU’s first president identifying as a person of color, Harroz said he’s trying to leverage his level of influence with his peer groups to draw attention to marginalized communities. 

“On the Big XII CEOs’ call, it’s challenging them to find out what each campus is doing and what we, as a group, are doing as the Big XII,” Harroz said. “... I’m the newest member of that group, but I asked ‘Do we do statements?’ and the answer was no. And I was like, ‘Why shouldn’t we have a statement about what’s taking place (with Black Lives Matter),’ and we did.” 

‘Diversity and inclusion and justice must be more than words.’ 

Before his presidency, Harroz said he taught for 22 years at the OU College of Law about discrimination and harassment around race, color, religion and similar areas, which provides the constitutional context for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

He said he thinks historical context is essential to understanding American culture, and he often turns to professor emeritus George Henderson and his wife, Barbara; African and African American Studies Department Chair Karlos Hill and Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Belinda Higgs Hyppolite for guidance on race-related issues. 

Henderson said he’s served as an adviser to university presidents on issues of race relations, as well as questions about programs for minorities, since he arrived at OU in 1967. He said when advising Harroz and other presidents, he has prioritized action instead of just discussion. 

“Diversity and inclusion and justice must be more than just words,” Henderson said. “Simply talking about it, and without any systemic changes, will result in more inadequate diversity initiatives. … Diversity, in my mind, has always been broader than just black and white issues. Diversity includes all of the underrepresented, marginalized groups on campus.” 

Henderson said he’s advised OU presidents not to make promises to students if they’re not going to try to deliver those promises, referencing the Black Emergency Response Team demands put forth during the three-day Evans Hall sit-in in February. 

“I grew up believing that your word is your bond, and what you say you’re going to do, you’re obligated to do those things,” Henderson said. 

After the sit-in — which called for the firing of Senior Vice President and Provost Kyle Harper, condemning his response to racist incidents on campus, among other issues — university administrators agreed to include many of BERT’s demands in the university’s strategic plan. While refusing to cede to the demand for Harper's dismissal, administrators committed to creating more measures to hold Harper accountable, and Harroz also agreed to meet with BERT members every two weeks. 

Harroz said working on filling those demands has been “an incredible experience.” He said he begins conversations with BERT members by discussing where those plans, as well as other changes that weren’t in the initial set of demands, are in development.

“Those are calls I look forward to, they’ve become friends of mine, and I think we understand each other and we have a common goal of accomplishing these,” Harroz said. “... It’s things that we want to talk about, (that) we think make a real change. So it is continuing, it is essential, and I think it’s an important part of those real policy changes — it’ll make a difference.” 

Harroz said one plan in the works is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion general education course for freshmen centered around understanding the “other,” or what those with different beliefs think. Administrators plan to implement the course during the 2021–22 academic year, with a pilot program this coming school year, he said. 

“We want to make sure that we’re this top tier research university that is affordable and available to everyone,” Harroz said. “We want to make sure there’s a life-changing experience for students, there’s a place of belonging where they can have emotional growth. And so, I think it’s a dual challenge that we have to face, which is: How do we make students feel connected and safe and also grow?” 

Harroz said another focus is recruiting and retaining first-generation students, as well as making them feel welcome, citing more need-based scholarships for marginalized groups as a fundraising priority. 

“We need to make sure that when (first-generation students) come here — because they inherently have limited exposure through their family to a college experience — that they feel supported,” Harroz said. 

The OU community must also be clear and direct in calling out racist comments, Harroz said. When community members say something racist or otherwise offensive, he said they must engage in restorative justice, which he described as making them aware of their mistake, then letting them hear from the people impacted by their comment. 

After comparing a racial slur to the phrase “OK, boomer” in the classroom in February, journalism professor Peter Gade agreed to complete a one-month program in “culturally competent communication,” Gaylord College Dean Ed Kelley announced. Gade also agreed to meet with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the next semester, along with stepping back from teaching his journalism capstone course. 

After history professor Kathleen Brosnan repeatedly read the same racial slur from a historical document less than two weeks later, OU’s history department released a statement addressing the incident, and Brosnan apologized to her class in a Canvas message.  

OU Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith said in an email that Higgs Hyppolite and Jane Irungu, associate provost of Inclusive Faculty Excellence, have been working heavily with Harroz to create a restorative justice program. Keith said Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students David Surratt would also be consulted. 

Harroz said he’s also prioritized increasing faculty and staff members of color. He said all hiring managers take a 16-hour course and unconscious bias training. 

Administrators have developed a new rubric for evaluating candidates Harroz said he believes takes out a lot of “unconscious bias” in hiring. He said the administration has also expanded resources and services for international faculty and staff members. 

Harroz said the university started Sooners Helping Sooners, a private fundraising mechanism to provide money to those most impacted by COVID-19 — often international students. He said Vice President for Operations and Chief Operating Officer Eric Conrad and Surratt came up with the idea of halving on-campus housing costs over the summer for international students that can’t return home. 

Harroz also said he’s approved $1.5 million for need-based aid for freshmen, as well as $1.5 million for need-based housing aid for freshmen through the Welcome Home scholarship. 

‘It's a question of managing risk, it's not a question of eliminating risk.’

As institutions and businesses across the country grapple with the legal ramifications of COVID-19, the answer to the question of institutional liability is still in flux. 

Asked about what liability the university has to its students or employees if they contract COVID-19 on campus in the coming months as OU attempts to resume in-person activities, Harroz said there’s no way to eliminate risk, saying opening the university during the pandemic is “inherently risky.”

“It's a question of managing risk, it's not a question of eliminating risk,” Harroz said. “... The (question) people often say is, ‘Is it as safe as it could possibly be?’ I think that’s not being really honest. Because if it’s as safe as it could possibly be, you just eliminate the in-person experience. … I think the real standard is, ‘Is it as reasonably safe as it can practically be?’ I think that’s the standard, and then you manage through that.”

As OU faculty and staff navigates through which protections and allowances they’ll be given next semester, Harroz said the goal is mitigation.

“You always want to mitigate risk,” Harroz said. “But you have to be really honest and say, we’re going to manage it — we’re not going to eliminate it.”

Harroz said leaders from all three campuses meet with the university’s chief COVID officer, Dr. Dale Bratzler, daily to discuss updates and craft policies tailored to mitigation.

After The Daily’s interview with Harroz, Keith sent a statement on the matter of liability: 

“It’s the University’s practice not to comment or speculate on legal issues that may impact OU. Varying perspectives have been discussed extensively in various press outlets, and do not currently reflect any consensus on this issue.”

‘The goal isn't just to survive it, but it's to come out of it better.’

Amid COVID-19, OU is facing a 3.95 percent reduction in state appropriations. According to a consulting group’s presentation at the May 28 Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education meeting, the Legislature may opt for mid-year cuts based on tumbling oil and gas revenues — an industry relied heavily upon by Oklahoma’s economy and one that has taken major hits from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Harroz said to prepare for potential mid-year cuts, he directed OU’s Budget Office to plan for 7.5 percent state cuts throughout FY21 and FY22. 

Harroz also said the university is prepared to handle the economic impact of COVID-19 in part due to budget cuts already made. In FY19, OU’s Norman campus cut $50 million, and by the end of FY20 — which ends June 30 — OU will have cut an additional $25 million from administrative costs.

Asked about potential layoffs or furloughs for faculty and staff, Harroz said it doesn’t seem likely with the current budget information.

“Right now, (the outlook for not having furloughs or layoffs) looks a lot better, and the answer may be ‘No (to having furloughs or layoffs),’” Harroz said. “It is going to require obviously us being conscious because we know we still have the (appropriation) cut from the state.”

As Harroz looks toward the future in his first year as permanent university president amid a historic civil rights movement, an economy-shattering pandemic and high-stakes national politics at play, he said his hope for the university is to come out on the other side with more than just its survival intact.

“I think that we'll see ourselves hopefully … being in a position to not only (go) over the bumps when the bumps aren't as big,” Harroz said. “The goal isn't just to survive it, but it's to come out of it better.”

Ari Fife is the OU Daily summer editor-in-chief and a sophomore journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as a senior news reporter and was an SGA beat reporter.

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news managing editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research.

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