Newly appointed OU President Joseph Harroz said his goal in his interim presidency was to provide the university with stability, and his main priority now is continuing to focus on long-term university strategy.
On a historic day marking the appointment of Harroz as the 15th OU president, the crowd that listened to Harroz’s remarks and celebrated afterward was also historic — seated six feet apart from each other and wearing provided masks to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
During his speech recommending the appointment of Harroz, who has served as interim president since May 2019, OU Board of Regents chair Gary Pierson said the regents saw Harroz as very qualified to be the 15th university president back in May 2019. But when they offered him the position, he said he wanted to be named interim president first.
“I felt, at the moment — even though the job was available without the interim — that with all that was going on at the institution — with all of the drama that was (attached) at that moment, in its varied forms, that what was necessary was a period of stability,” Harroz said after his appointment Saturday.
Harroz described his decision as a “look-yourself-in-the-mirror moment” of reflecting on how he could serve the university best.
“To me, the right answer was, ‘Yes, it’d be nice to not have the interim in front of your name, but if you’re really going to do a job like this, and your job really is to serve, you better do it for the right reasons in a way you think is best for the institution,'” Harroz said.
As his mother, father and three children listened, Harroz said in a speech after the regents recommended his appointment that his father demonstrates why a great public, accessible flagship university like OU is so important.
“My father’s dad came over, his parents sent him on a boat from Lebanon, to find a better life. He came to the U.S. and Oklahoma because of the oil fields,” Harroz said. "My grandfather never learned to read and write. He had nine children, none of whom went past high school besides my father. And my dad, because of the University of Oklahoma, was able to go to college, and then on to medical school, both at OU, and provide a life for his family.”
University administrators carefully considered the length of his interim period, Harroz said, and the 15 months that they planned for — plus about a six-month presidential search — was not arbitrary.
“It would allow for a two-year period where I could take what I’ve learned over the last 23 years and try and be helpful in terms of establishing a period of calm at a university that didn’t need the turbulence,” Harroz said.
Pierson said after Harroz’s appointment that all the regents are experienced business-people, and they used their business intuition to identify now as the right time to make Harroz permanent president. He said the decision was made in the last couple of weeks.
“It has been a year, so we thought we had a good body of work,” Pierson said. “We especially thought we had a good body of work under stress in the last two months … and collectively, every one of us thought now is the time rather than dragging on uncertainty and further instability and questioning. At a certain point, you just have to make a business decision, and we thought we had a great candidate that was probably ... not fully appreciated for how good he actually is because he’s so close to us.”
Harroz said his priorities haven’t shifted much as he begins to transition from an interim period to a permanent presidency.
“The priorities, very much, are getting a strategic plan done and working in a really focused way to drive that forward,” Harroz said. “The things that are done here every day — and I talked about … teaching and research and service and creative activity, the educating of the next generation of leaders and creators — all of that deserves a really well-thought out comprehensive plan that isn’t the product of one person.”
Harroz’s strategic plan initiative has been in the works since September 2019 at the request of the regents, and is intended to outline long-term university goals and how administrators will pursue them, with input from OU community members.
He said the strategic plan will stem from collaboration between different groups of people at OU.
“It’s a product of working with other leaders — with deans, with Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate with regents — and putting together a real plan that can allow us to grow to our fullest potential, which I think is unlimited,” Harroz said.
Harroz was appointed without the formation of a presidential search committee — a move that one expert said could create a lack of trust in OU stakeholders, especially as many called for more transparency in this presidential search.
Pierson said, though, that he doesn’t think the regents’ handling of the presidential selection was improper.
“I don’t think there was a lot of community criticism, I think a lot of criticism came from a very few people,” Pierson said. “You get a community of half a million people together, you can always find somebody to criticize something, but it’s harder to find somebody that will lead something. … I don’t think most people thought it was, in any way, an inappropriate search. I think most people thought it was an appropriate search, but there’s a vocal few that didn’t like it.”
Pierson said he’s talked to dozens of students and faculty members, and the other regents have as well, picking up on themes in their discussions with constituents.
“I am certain there are people out there that disagree, but I’m also certain that that is again a very small minority,” Pierson said. “The governor has charged the Board of Regents to make this decision, not anybody else.”
Pierson said expectations of openness and transparency in a presidential search have to be tempered when dealing with a large constituency.
“You can’t have everybody get their 30 minutes with the candidate,” Pierson said. “There’s got to be limits to it, and that’s just the reality of the situation. So when I hear the words ‘open’ and ‘transparent,’ I’m not even sure I know what that means in this context. But I do know what we’ve had here, and that is we’ve watched Joe (Harroz) for 23 years, we’ve watched him every day for 12 months. You will never have a search process … that is more intense than that — it’s an impossibility.”
Harroz said his entire experience as interim president has been a continual learning process and he’s been surprised by the size and scope of the job. He said the biggest surprise, though, was the potential at the university for campus-wide collaboration.
“(I think we have) done a really good job of operating in individual areas with strategies for each area, but not looking across the campus and across campuses, and what can be done at that level,” Harroz said. “So I think that probably is the biggest surprise, which is how much untapped potential there is and how much room we have to grow.”