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OU says 'current system is unsustainable,' releases strategic plan to improve experiences, address structural issues

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OU Memorial Union

A view of the clocktower at the Oklahoma Memorial Union on Jan. 15.

OU President Joseph Harroz announced Tuesday the Norman Campus Strategic Plan, "Lead On, University," which is based on improving OU’s educational experience for students, faculty and staff.

Lead On, University’s website said the university’s plan is based on five pillars that define the kind of institution OU wants to be.

The first pillar of the plan is to make OU a top-tier research university. OU said this will be accomplished by making new hires that promote diversity and excellence, as well as increased funding for their projects.

According to the website, one of the four strategies for accomplishing this pillar is to meet Association of American Universities' quality benchmarks, positioning OU among the top public universities in the U.S. The association represents the top 65 public and private universities in the U.S. and Canada. 

Another of the strategies is hiring leading faculty that will take OU’s reputation “to the next level,” according to the website. To accomplish this, administrators hope to establish a “best-in-class recruiting program” that includes spousal or partner accommodations, as well as streamlining hiring practices to maintain both market competitiveness and internal competition. 

The second pillar is to prepare students for a life of success, meaning, service and positive impact. The website said this will be done by “supporting and rewarding excellence in teaching within the classroom.” It also said OU would increase degree completions as well as fostering a student-centered culture across the institution.

According to the website, social and economic forces will increase demand for advanced degrees and credentials, meaning as OU creates more diverse programs, OU must develop a market and a brand for these programs.

The third pillar in OU’s plan is to make OU attainable and affordable. OU plans to increase the number of students attending the university, as well as simplifying its tuition and fee structure, creating clarity for students and their families.

According to the website, two-thirds of students take out loans today versus less than half of students in 1990, and the average constant dollar debt among borrowers has doubled to over $25,000. It also said student loans are the second-largest segment of consumer debt, accounting for $1.5 trillion —which is 11 percent of consumer debt. Student debt increased 250 percent since 2007.

College enrollments are predicted to decline by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029, and Oklahoma projects 45,400 graduates in 2025, eventually decreasing to 43,000 by 2029, according to OU.

The fourth pillar of the plan is to become a place of belonging and emotional growth for students, faculty, staff and alumni, and the fifth pillar is to enrich and positively impact Oklahoma, the U.S. and the world. The university plans to do this by making diversity, equity and inclusion a strength at OU and to create better relationships with external partners.

The premise of the plan is economically focused. On its website, it says tuition and fees at public U.S. institutions grew by 310 percent from 1986 to 2019, and systemwide student services have grown in cost by 19 percent from 2008 to 2020. 

It lists “systemic concerns” that have developed, which can be generally divided into fiscal concerns, changing demands for services and a reliance on stopgap measures to confront a changing marketplace.

“For OU to remain relevant and prosper in this disruptive era,” the site’s “Defining a Purpose” page reads, “it needs a fundamental understanding of who it is and why it exists.” OU lists its purpose as “We change lives.”  

“The world is changing rapidly,” the website said. “This dynamic will continue to increase in speed; what once was likely will never be again. Higher education will not be exempted from this and is already squarely in the crosshairs of disruptors who would enjoy nothing more than to take down the historic models that have served us well for more than 100 years.”

The website said a group of university leaders discussed how best to administer the plan. 

A core team of five executive leaders committed twice-weekly meetings to the strategic planning process, and each meeting averaged 3.5 hours. "Lead On, University" estimated this group collectively spent 2,500–3,000 hours on the project over the last year.

The site also said the group shared ideas and concepts with the university’s 18-person executive leadership team and held feedback and strategy sessions with that group during weekly meetings.

“The market for higher education is segmenting,” the website said. “Closures and consolidations will increase nationally. Public consolidations and closures focus on smaller schools, often in low-growth areas. Value and premium brands may continue to thrive.”

As the university navigates its way through uncertain futures, it said on the webpage adaptation will be a necessity.

“Ultimately, the current system is unsustainable,” the website said. “Change is inevitable.”

Clare is a creative media production junior and a news reporter for The Daily.

Christian Hans is a journalism junior at OU and news reporter for The Daily.

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