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'I see what's ahead for us': Interim OU president Joseph Harroz updates university on diversity, financial progress

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Joe Harroz

Interim OU President Joseph Harroz talks to a reporter in the provost conference room at Evans Hall Dec. 11.

When Joe Harroz was appointed interim president, he had his work cut out for him.

The university had just seen a semester with increased anxieties about the state of OU finances, as well as renewed calls for the university to increase diversity and inclusion efforts.

Now, more than half a year later, Harroz has seen some success in his first full semester at OU trying to address these problems and stabilize the university — an effort he hopes will lead to his selection as OU’s permanent president. 

An abrupt transition

Harroz, who served nine years as the dean of OU’s law school, was announced as the successor of former OU President James Gallogly after his abrupt May retirement.

Dean of Students David Surratt said Harroz worked to continue progress on the budget and to calm the campus climate around student issues upon taking office.

“When (Gallogly) left, (Harroz) had to come on board and try to continue progress in those areas, but also kind of figure out, what does it mean for him, and how he wants to do it his way, too,” Surratt said. “Overall, I think it's been really successful.”

During Harroz’s first seven months in office, he proposed a budget that decreased spending while including faculty and staff raises and keeping tuition and fees flat. His administration worked to make diversity and inclusion efforts more robust and is creating a forward-looking strategic framework.

“We all know that we have been in the midst of a challenging transition and that we still face challenges,” Harroz said in his first official email to the university community in May. “There is still work to be done. We will be resolute in seeing it through. We are committed to building a far more diverse and inclusive OU; nothing else we do will succeed unless we accomplish real change, together.”

One step the OU administration made toward inclusion was the Multicultural Advancement Committee, which began under Gallogly, said former Student Government Association President Adran Gibbs. The committee is made up of a group of students that work to improve the cultural atmosphere of the university and make tangible changes on campus.

“I will say that we have had more collaboration with Harroz because our objectives have heightened to that level at the university,” Gibbs said. “This semester, we shifted our focus more to diversity and inclusion initiatives ... which naturally include more high-level personnel, like the president, provost, etc.”

Harroz said his background as a child of Lebanese immigrants informed his views on issues of diversity and inclusion.

“We're all products of our backgrounds,” Harroz said. “As an Arab American, I think about diversity and inclusion in a way that's been formed by my own experiences and, unlike many ethnicities, I don't feel it every day. I feel it some days, and not most days, but when you do feel it, when someone calls out a name or someone makes a reference, it's jarring to me. It's jarring to me because I grew up in an environment where I didn't think of myself as different.”

Responding to the challenge

Under Harroz and interim Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Jane Irungu, initiatives like the #WeAre campaign and Faces of OU were started with hopes of making OU a more inclusive campus. Community conversations were also held, which opened up discussion for underrepresented communities.

“Our commitment is, we build these better citizens for society in understanding diversity and inclusion, understanding people that aren't like you, and being able to empathize and understand,” Harroz said.

The OU administration increased its efforts to support the Native American community through a new initiative.

The Native American community, along with Irungu and Surratt, constructed the first lounge space dedicated to Native American students in Copeland Hall in early November. More Native American faculty and staff were also hired, including the American Indian program and services coordinator and the American Indian admissions counselor, said Warren Queton, OU’s tribal liaison. OU also set in place three Native American Studies Department faculty positions and two endowed chair positions as part of the Native Peoples Initiative.

“(The Native American lounge is) something that students have been advocating for,” Queton said. “They want to see more faculty and staff of color. And, unfortunately, the university has lost a lot of faculty and staff of color. And we're actually replacing those within our American Indian community.”

Queton said he thinks Harroz has the right objective in mind.

“I think that (Harroz has) a lot of bright ideas,” Queton said. “And I like that he talks about diversity and inclusion being number one on his priority list. I'm thankful that (we’re) creating spaces for American Indian students.”

In addition to the Native American student lounge, Harroz's administration worked with the student government to create the first "all-gender" labeled bathrooms on campus.

“As long as (Harroz is) supportive of those types of changes (to support diversity and inclusion), I think you're going to see more and more students feel like they're a part of the university,” Queton said.

Gibbs worked closely with both Gallogly and Harroz during his time as SGA president, and he said both administrations worked toward the goal of making OU a diverse campus in their own ways.

“Although their leadership styles and work styles are different, I believe we’ve still been able to achieve our goal as SGA to effectively elevate and promote student voices so that everyone has a seat at the table,” Gibbs said.

Harroz also inherited leadership of a university that had been struggling with finances, but he said it has moved in the right direction. Former OU President James Gallogly implemented rounds of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures under his administration, which Harroz said put the university in a more stable financial situation.

“Quite frankly, when I came into this in May, we weren't in a financial crisis,” Harroz said. “We needed to cut the $50 million that were cut during the Gallogly administration, and people can disagree or agree about how it was done.”

Harroz performed a 69-person personnel cut in June after entering office in May, explaining in a letter to the OU community that the cuts were necessary to increase the financial health of the university. Many remaining faculty and staff saw a 3 percent salary increase in appreciation for their “focus and commitment to putting students first,” Harroz said in a letter at the time. According to the press release, this was the first broad salary program in Norman since 2014.

“The impact (of the cuts) to those affected is real, and this is difficult because we care deeply about our OU family,” Harroz said in the letter. “As unfortunate as this action is for the individuals, it is essential for our financial health and to prepare OU for future growth and excellence.”

In addition to this, Harroz also proposed a new budget for the university that was said in a June 25 letter to regulate the spending that had occurred in the previous years. The new budget included increased funding in multiple areas, including quantum technology, air, space and defense, and computer science research from the Oklahoma Legislature.

Harroz also adjusted the alumni and fundraising operations in the Office of University Development in July to provide the university with the necessary means to expand. The university also saw changes in the Title IX office, namely more training and an increase in staff. 

Looking ahead

Harroz said he is working to continue to improve the financial status of the university through the creation of a strategic plan, which will be presented to the OU Board of Regents at the beginning of the next year. The plan will be based in part on an online survey that measured what people want to see change the most at OU.

“As we build out our strategic plan, you're going to see, for the first time, a multi-year budget, a five-year pro forma budget that will wrap around the strategic plan (and) will show us how we get to a position to fund all of this,” Harroz said.

Through all of his administrative work, Harroz said he misses having more personal interactions with students, which he had more opportunity for in his previous role as law dean. One challenge of the presidential position is connecting with over 30,000 students in the way that Harroz was able to in the College of Law, where the total enrollment is around 500.

“What I didn't appreciate (about the position as president) was just the sheer volume of what takes place, and it takes place in all three campuses in a really nonstop way,” Harroz said.

Harroz’s background as a student leader while he was an undergraduate student gives him the ability to understand what students want and increased his “willingness to listen and be advised on certain things,” Surratt said.

“I've jokingly told him that he sometimes reminds me of a president that also wants to be dean of students because he's so passionate about being in front of students,” Surratt said. “And I said that as a compliment to him, but also (as) a point of advisement to him to know that he can trust us — he can trust me to do my job and do my work.”

Harroz said his favorite part of his job is being able to form connections with the students.

Interim dean of the OU College of Law Katheleen Guzman said she has witnessed Harroz’s commitment to students firsthand and that, as a leader, he is extremely forward-thinking and committed to OU’s mission.

“His leadership and optimism are galvanizing the OU community behind shared goals,” Guzman said in an email. “Real conversation is happening, informed by data and appreciated through strategic vision. Our institution is in good hands.”

Looking back on the past six months, Harroz said he hopes people remember it as a time of honesty and change for the university. 

“I think the macro-message (of the past six months) would be: There was a time when the university came to truly appreciate and understand our role in people's lives and in society, and then we charted a course in a time of disruption that set the course for future success,” Harroz said.

In anticipation of the presidential search that is likely to take place over the summer, Harroz said he intends to be a candidate for the permanent position.

“So far, and it's early, I'm enjoying it,” Harroz said. “I really love the work. I see what's ahead for us. And, if (the Board of Regents) put in place a process (for selecting the president) today, I certainly would. So we'll see what they decide to do.”

In the meantime, though, Harroz said he’s enjoying the job.

“I've been around for 25 years, and so I've seen the seasons here,” Harroz said. “And I thought I knew what to expect in the role. And it's exceeded expectations, both in terms of things I knew I would enjoy, but also just the sheer volume. So I think it's gone well, and I've certainly really enjoyed it.”

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