Editor's note: Read this story in print in the February 2019 Crimson Quarterly magazine.
In 2004, a new political scene began to emerge in Oklahoma.
Republicans had taken control of the House of Representatives, and in the following years, the entire state government shifted to the right. For some, this change was welcome. For others, like former OU President David Boren, it was the beginning of the end.
The longtime leaders he knew, could ask favors of and work closely with were going away. The political techniques he had employed for decades — first in the state House, then in the nation’s capital and finally in higher education circles — were no longer effective. The stances he took on public funding in the ensuing years increasingly drew scorn and disagreement from the legislators now in charge of the state’s budget.
Close to the end of Boren’s tenure as OU president, the historically powerful relationship between the university and the state Legislature was faltering. Oklahoma had cut millions in funding from higher education, and Boren’s 2016 penny tax initiative, which had failed and had been heavily criticized, was a breaking point.
Now, in a new era for OU, some current and former legislators believe current OU President James Gallogly’s first legislative session as university president will bring a new lobbying strategy to the Capitol.
Gallogly will promote his goals of fiscal responsibility, doubling research and competitive pay, among others. The hope is this method will resonate with many legislators who have been skeptical of OU’s finances and goals in the past and potentially end with increased funding in the future.
The session began Feb. 4, and, in the coming months, many will watch closely for signs of change.
“My approach is a little bit different with (the Legislature), and, so far, it's an approach that seems to ring true,” Gallogly said. “What I tell them is, ‘Look, the taxpayer should expect us to be reasonably efficient at our university and not waste money. And we're working on that.’”
The past year has put a spotlight on the differing opinions of how OU specifically and higher education generally has managed their budgets during Oklahoma’s economic downturn. It’s a mix of frustrations: Everyone is upset at the loss of revenue. Republicans are unhappy with Boren’s increases in both spending and tuition. Democrats are aggravated that funding and general support of higher education has dropped so sharply.
If Gallogly can succeed in ways that promote OU and higher education broadly, especially for smaller schools that don’t have as much of a voice, it will be a positive, said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, who represents Norman and is on the Appropriations and Budget Committee.
“Every university with all different kinds of leadership and political backgrounds — everyone is feeling (the loss of funding) ... But I think it’s natural for legislators to look to presidents of the two largest universities,” Virgin said. “So, I hope President Gallogly realizes that he’s not just speaking for OU, but for higher education in the state in general when he’s talking about the budget.”
When Boren took over at the university in 1994, he was coming off a historic political stint that placed him as one of the state’s top politicians.
He previously served as a state representative, was Oklahoma’s governor from 1975 to 1979, and was a U.S. senator from 1979 to 1994, where he was on committees like the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. It was widely celebrated when he announced his full-time return to OU.
“I probably wouldn’t have run for a second term as (Norman) mayor — I was about ready to quit — but that’s when OU hired President Boren,” said Bill Nations, a former Norman mayor and District 44 state representative for 12 years. “I thought, ‘My goodness, it might be fun to be involved if Senator Boren is coming to town.’ I had no earthly idea what that was going to be like because he’s among the handful of iconic and historic figures in the state’s history.”
For years, while Oklahoma had a majority-Democrat Legislature, it went well, Nations said.
Even though there was some grumbling from legislators who felt that OU and Norman were treated favorably when it came to funding, Boren was a force to be reckoned with.
“Every year, at the start of session, all my colleagues would say, ‘We’re not giving you anything else, Nations, you’ve got too much … Boren gets too much, you guys have got it all,’” Nations said. “Well, President Boren was so good that he would show up three days before we voted on the budget and lobby the guys who all swore they were never giving OU or Norman another nickel. And by the time he got through with that, they gave us more nickels than anybody else.”
Boren had an “incredible Rolodex,” Nations said, and he used those established relationships and his influence to his advantage. But 10 years into Boren’s tenure, a new wave of freshmen legislators came into various elected offices, pushing Oklahoma’s House of Representatives to a Republican party majority for the first time in years, said Jeff Hickman, a former press secretary for Boren, state representative and now a current State Regent for Higher Education.
This shift in Oklahoma politics is key to understanding how OU and the state government interact. It was the dawning of a new era, one where old leaders and ways of doing business would no longer be viable. And looking back years later, it’s clear this was when OU’s power and influence in the state began to dwindle.
The new political dynamic brought increased partisanship and an economic downturn brought declining state revenue, making compromise difficult and leaving state agencies to adjust their budgets because of dwindling appropriations, Hickman said.
As the budget crisis worsened through the late 2000s and early 2010s, lawmakers had to make difficult choices. Higher education funding was slashed so that common education, which includes grades K-12, would not receive fewer state dollars.
“You have legislators who think, ‘Well, higher education can just raise tuition and make up the difference where they need to, whereas other state agencies don’t have the ability to raise tuition and fees to offset that,’” Hickman said. “So, I think there were a lot of legislators who felt like if you had to make a decision of where you needed to cut spending, higher education was a place where, if they needed to, they could make that up.”
Hickman said legislators believed higher education institutions would raise tuition sparingly and try to increase efficiencies and lower costs overall. But this wasn’t necessarily the case, particularly for OU.
At OU, tuition has increased by nearly 69 percent since the 2006-2007 school year. And there have been major building projects on campus in the last decade, including new dormitories and classroom buildings. Even though the percent of OU’s budget that was covered by state dollars continued to decline — it’s 20 percent lower since fiscal year 2008 — OU’s budget overall was increasing, growing 51 percent in the same time period.
“With higher education, I think there was this mentality that the funding was cut, but they raised tuition even more and kept right on going without looking for efficiencies or ways to save money and to not increase tuition any more than necessary on students,” Hickman said. “And so that was an issue, one of several that strained relationships between legislators and the university.”
This financially strained relationship was exacerbated by the clashing political ideologies and ways of doing business between Boren and the growing Republican presence in Oklahoma’s state government. No longer did calling in favors to long-standing colleagues, writing editorials in newspapers or trying to persuade legislators across the aisle — all things Boren was used to doing — work, Hickman said.
The tipping point was in 2016, when Boren was heavily promoting his penny tax initiative to raise the state’s sales tax by one cent to support common and higher education, which voters turned down in November 2016.
There was significant opposition to Boren’s campaign, and legislators weren’t pleased he was injecting himself back into their political process.
“I think higher ed was very slow to adjust and realize that the leadership was different, the way you had to deal with the legislature was different now,” Hickman said. “So, I think building new relationships as people were leaving with term limits wasn’t a priority, and I think that strained that relationship as well.”
As Boren and many others saw declines in state funding as the main issue facing OU, many legislators with limited money saw an institution they believed wasn’t being responsible with the funding it did receive.
Less than a year after the penny tax initiative failed at the polls, Boren announced in September 2017 his plans to retire.
Gallogly’s new strategy
Enter James Gallogly.
The former businessman’s straightforward attitude and dedication to fiscal management sparked interest from legislators when he was announced as OU’s new president in spring 2018.
Even before officially becoming university president, Gallogly was making major moves to shake up OU’s administration and begin working on areas of campus he deemed as needing to be brought into the “modern world.”
“In business … your investors want to know that what they see is what they get, that you’ll speak the truth, that you’ll be candid, that you won’t give political answers, you won’t try to give them what they want to hear,” Gallogly said. “You’ll give them what they want to know.”
The state Legislature wanted efficiency, and that’s what Gallogly has begun to provide by consolidating and laying off workers in departments like landscaping, IT and small research offices, lowering costs for software and computers, selling parts of OU’s fleet of cars and switching to online timesheets, among other things.
So far, Gallogly said he has cut roughly $32 million in OU’s budget. What some have called “micromanaging” or deemed ruthless, Gallogly said he sees as necessary to bring OU up-to-date with modern business practices.
“(Lawmakers) don't want to give it to somebody who's going to waste their money. In certain instances, they were worried that was happening. Now, they're less concerned because we're saying, OK, we're getting rid of the inefficiencies, and we're trying to take that money and put it to the primary mission,” Gallogly said. “Can you imagine how excited they were to hear we're able to give our faculty raises without everybody marching to the Capitol and protesting? Or when I said to the state regents I don't want to increase tuition this year?”
But the cuts and layoffs, as well as Gallogly’s responses to racism on campus and changes he’s made to student bursar accounts, among other issues, are heavily disliked by many members of the OU community. Students, faculty and alumni have spoken out against Gallogly and don’t seem to be appeased by the efficiencies, pay raises or tuitions holds.
These issues haven’t deterred his relationships at the Capitol, though. OU and the state government have spent years drifting apart. Now, the question is whether they can come back together.
“This is a different kind of discussion than they’ve ever seen before,” Gallogly said. “I keep telling them, ‘We're going to be great financial stewards of the money you give us, so please help me with the goal of educating our students because that's really what we're doing for the betterment of the state.’ And that resonates very, very well with them.”
While state dollars for higher education are given in a lump sum to the State Regents for Higher Education and then the regents distribute that money based on a variety of measures and formulas to individual institutions, there are direct line-item appropriations for specific projects at the university that Gallogly has focused his lobbying efforts on.
In recent meetings with government leadership, Gallogly said he brought in ideas about expanding OU’s aeronautical engineering program to feed into jobs at Tinker Air Force Base, Boeing and aircraft facilities in Tulsa. He mentioned specific funding for the computer science program, which has classrooms that are “bursting at the seams.” And Gallogly would like to see Oklahoma become the top university in Native American Studies programs and partnerships with local tribes.
“I said, ‘So, could you give me a little extra money for this or for this, knowing that we're taking care of all these other things?’” Gallogly said. “I want to give you an investable idea so we can help our students be successful and create jobs where they become taxpayers and the economy improves.”
The future: John Woods
Gallogly’s strategy also focuses on building relationships — something Hickman said was previously lacking between the university and the Legislature. Both OU and the state government have new teams of leaders, notably Gov. Kevin Stitt, a businessman like Gallogly, who need to meet one another and find common goals and commitments. To make this happen, Gallogly brought on John Woods as OU’s new governmental relations director.
Woods was born and raised in Norman and graduated from OU. He ran Congressman Tom Cole’s first campaign, worked in the state government in various roles, was the president and CEO of the Norman Chamber of Commerce and was most recently the executive director of the Tobacco Settlement and Endowment Trust for Oklahoma. He brings in diverse experience and a broad network.
Since being hired in December, his work includes meeting with deans, directors, professors and programs on all of OU’s campuses to understand their work and what has potential for direct state or federal funding, particularly for research. He meets with Oklahoma’s federal government delegation and the different city governments where OU has a presence. Woods will go through all the bills filed for the 2019 state legislative session and see which will have an impact on higher education. And he’ll spend time at the Capitol, building relationships with legislators.
“It’s really about making sure that we’re open and transparent with our oversight, which at the end of the day, the legislature is oversight of the university as a state entity and so we need to be open and transparent with them about our operations, our activities, our financials, answer questions that they have, but also share with them how we think we can play a key role in helping Oklahoma be one of the best states in the union,” Woods said.
“It’s a two-way street.”
This spring, legislators will have hundreds of millions more dollars to appropriate to state agencies than they have in nearly three decades thanks to a tax increase and an improving economy. Virgin said this is a good thing, but many state agencies have budgets that have been cut to the bone in the last 10 years, meaning the new revenue won’t be enough to restore all previously cut funds, and definitely not enough to give multiple agencies an increase.
For example, the state regents requested an additional roughly $100 million, which Virgin said is a reasonable request that would still not put higher education back to its original funding levels. But it’s unclear if they will get any increase at all. In Stitt’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, there is no higher education increase.
“Unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues haven’t seen the value of higher ed. But I always try to make the economic argument,” Virgin said. “Sixty percent of jobs now require some sort of postsecondary education. In order to have a skilled workforce to make sure that Oklahoma thrives as a state, we have to make sure that higher ed is successful."
Woods said there is much work still to be done, but he sees many advantages for OU within the new session, namely the strong delegation of bipartisan senators and representatives from the Norman area and the fresh ideas brought in by the new governor and wave of new elected officials who can work without the political hangups of the past.
It may be work that doesn’t garner results immediately, Woods said, but for the first time in years, OU is in a position of favor once again.
“OU is not the Republican party. OU is not the Democratic party. OU is the higher education party,” Woods said. “I have a lot of questions and curiosity about what the upcoming session is going to look like, but in the midst of a lot of those big issues, my nag will be to not forget about the important role that higher education and the University of Oklahoma will play in the long-term success of our state.”