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'It's about being open, truthful and honest with them': Joe Harroz faces brand new trials in term as interim president

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Joseph Harroz

OU interim President Joseph Harroz smiles as he walks around the field before the South Dakota game Sept. 7.

Joe Harroz’s client was on trial for murder.

Harroz, now interim OU president, was still OU legal counsel at the time. His client: Hamlet.

Alan Velie, who has been at OU for more than 50 years, brought Harroz in as defense counsel for a fictional trial as his class was exploring the mind of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters.

“As I remember, (Harroz) used an insanity defense,” Velie said. “And I know that everyone in the class was impressed with his ability and his good humor.”

Now, Harroz is facing a brand new trial. 

Harroz took office May 17 — days after former OU President James Gallogly’s retirement announcement. Harroz will serve as interim president for a minimum of 15 months, and the OU Board of Regents has said a search for the next president will begin at that time. 

Financial struggles, multiple staff layoffs, presidential in-fighting, racist incidents, revelations of misreported data, sexual harassment allegations against leaders at the highest levels of the university — OU’s past year and a half has left the interim president with numerous challenges.

And if Harroz wants the job permanently, he will face more trials ahead.

Historically challenging

Law school instructor, OU legal counsel, law school dean, interim president — David Swank can see the parallels.

After Harroz became interim president in May, both he and Swank had served in all four roles.

And just as Harroz entered his interim presidency facing trials, Swank faced challenges as well. 

He replaced a president who left the university amid tension between the president’s office and the Board of Regents. Then, during Swank’s administration, multiple scandals plagued OU’s football team, and longtime coach Barry Switzer resigned before Swank left office. Swank faced disapproval from the coach’s critics before Switzer’s resignation, and criticism from Switzer fans afterward.

Swank said the regents’ May decision to allow Harroz to pursue presidential selection at the end of his interim tenure could make Harroz’s choices more difficult. When Swank served as interim president, he was not eligible for selection.

“(That) actually made it much easier, because then I could make whatever decisions I needed to make,” Swank said. “And I wasn't worried about whether it's going to affect whether I get to be the president or not. ... If I had been the interim president running for the job, it might have stopped me from making some decisions.”

Velie said he thinks Harroz is well-positioned to succeed, despite the challenges.

“I think he's sensitive to the university's needs in general, and particularly now,” Velie said. “This is a difficult time for the university, and I think he has a combination of skills to be a good leader. He's very intelligent, he's hard-working ... he's a very affable, outgoing guy who knows a good deal of the faculty, so they feel comfortable with him.”

Numerous interim presidents, including Pete Kyle McCarter, David Swank and J.R. Morris, served during Velie’s time at OU.

“(Pete Kyle McCarter) did what others did,” Velie said. “He made sure that the university ran smoothly — that he wasn't particularly the story. He was just kind of, keep it going on the course it had been going until a permanent person was in place. And I think you could say that for the others. ... They mostly did not take a particularly activist role.”

But Velie said Harroz seems to be approaching the job differently than interim presidents have in the past.

“I think Harroz will be a little more forceful in setting goals and trying to accomplish something,” Velie said. “But he has a long time. A year and a half is quite a long time to be an interim president.”

Velie said this difference could be due, in part, to the fact that a search for OU’s next permanent president is not yet underway. Velie said typically, a search begins immediately when an interim president enters office.

Swank said, interim or otherwise, building relationships with OU’s constituencies — students, faculty, staff, alumni and Oklahoma taxpayers — is crucial for a university president.

“You have to develop good communications between your constituents,” Swank said. “And that's what I attempted to do. I know (Harroz is) trying to do that by some of the letters he's sending out. And that's good. But it's something that really has to be done.”

Swank said he held monthly meetings with student leadership during his time in office, and he worked hard to communicate well with faculty, staff and other constituencies as well.

SGA President Adran Gibbs said Harroz has been very accessible, and Gibbs is working to set up monthly meetings between Harroz and SGA leaders.

“You need to respect the people that you're trying to build a relationship with,” Swank said. “It's about being open, truthful and honest with them. If you try and play shenanigans with them? They'll find you out very quickly.”

Eyes on diversity

Gibbs has spent more time with Harroz as interim president than most students. 

He spent much of the fall 2019 move-in day with Harroz, greeting new students. They’ve met at numerous events. When Harroz hosted faculty, staff and student leaders at Boyd House to discuss implementation of his administration’s diversity and inclusion plan, Gibbs was there.

Gibbs said while SGA will work hard to hold the administration accountable, he thinks Harroz is the right person for the job — and he judges Harroz’s progress on diversity and inclusion as a success.

“I think (Harroz) is exactly what the OU community needs,” Gibbs said. “I think he is one of those people where you absolutely cannot match his energy. He has the largest heart. But he also has a strong sense of guidance and vision for university going forward. ... He's a very big thinker, but he also understands the details and how to get there.”

But despite progress, dealing with diversity and inclusion at OU is still the most public challenge Harroz must face. 

Harroz said in June that issues of race and ethnicity are a top priority for his administration. Harroz’s administration released the second stage of the university’s diversity and inclusion plan in August — an initiative Gibbs said goes beyond the scope of what might be expected from an interim president.

“I think he’s doing just as much, if not more, than what you might expect from a president,” Gibbs said. “The rolling out of the diversity and inclusion plan, although it had been in the works for the past two or three years, just the rollout of that and the intentionality and force behind that is pretty tremendous, and it’s respectable, especially for an interim.”

Diversity and inclusion efforts under the Harroz administration include the formation and operation of numerous committees, the launch of a campaign to encourage a diverse community and establish the university’s values, an optional diversity ally training course and internal reviews of OU’s colleges and their student body diversity.

Professor Emeritus George Henderson has known Harroz for years. Henderson and his wife, Barbara, the first black couple to own a home in Norman, wrote a letter recommending Harroz for the presidency in 2017, when the presidential search committee that would eventually select Gallogly was searching for former OU President David Boren’s successor.

Henderson said Harroz succeeded with diversity initiatives in his role as law dean by empowering student voices.

“Seeking out students. Talking to community residents. Asking, ‘What can we do, and how can we do it better?’ He gave great emphasis to his diversity initiatives in the college, but he also let students define what diversity meant to them,” Henderson said. 

While he believes in Harroz, Henderson said he wants to see how the plan is executed.

“Will this plan work? I pray that it does,” Henderson said. “I don't know how many shots we get at this thing. I believe that (Harroz) is serious when he says diversity is a top priority. How that looks, and how it indeed is accomplished, is really the key for me.”

But Henderson said he believes, under Harroz, the right people will be judged for their performance on diversity in their areas. 

“Every chair and every director and every person will be held accountable, at least that’s (Harroz’s) intention,” Henderson said. “For this thing called diversity, if you look at the faculty handbook and see who's responsible for what, this is probably going to be the first president to say, ‘Okay, based on what you are obligated and have a responsibility to do, how well have you performed?’”

Henderson said he hasn’t seen it before.

“For the very first time in my 52nd year now, deans, vice presidents, chairs and others who have the responsibility for fairness and inclusion are going to be evaluated,” he said.

And Henderson said Harroz will be held to the same standard.

“(Harroz) will succeed or fail based upon what he does, not what other people think that he is or who he is, or a plan that someone has drafted and if they have not implemented.”

As Harroz’s administration works to execute the diversity and inclusion plan among other initiatives, Velie said he thinks the plan and other efforts by Harroz’s administration may be a sign of more to come.

“I think the way he's acting is as if he's going to be president for a while,” Velie said, “and he’s taken over and is doing an excellent job. The difference between (Harroz) and all the other interims is ... they acted as placeholders.”

Scott Kirker is a letters and Spanish senior and assistant news managing editor for The Daily. Previously he worked as summer editor-in-chief and as a news reporter covering research and administrative searches.

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