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Interim OU President Joseph Harroz discusses personal history, priorities for addressing university's challenges

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Interim president Joseph Harroz speaks with a reporter June 7.

It’s 1989, and Joseph Harroz Jr. has just graduated from OU with a degree in economics. He has a big decision to make — what next?

Harroz’s father was one of nine children of an immigrant family from Lebanon. The only one of his siblings to go to college, Harroz’s father graduated from college and medical school at OU with the help of his family.

Harroz was on track to follow in his footsteps. Harroz grew up in Oklahoma, had graduated from OU and was deciding whether to attend medical school at OU — the only medical school he had applied to.

But Harroz had also gotten into a few law schools, and the Friday before classes started for medical school, he decided to attend law school at Georgetown instead.

“I had an amazing experience at OU (as an undergraduate),” Harroz said in an interview with The Daily, “but there was still this part of me that was like, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be somewhere else, that I’d heard about, maybe a name that everyone knows.’

“I’ve got a U-Haul, you know, really impressive mattress-on-top-of-the-car look — which everyone thinks is terrific — and drove out (to Washington, D.C.),” Harroz said.

Thirty years later, Harroz is interim OU president, leading his alma mater in the university’s second administration change in less than a year. Former OU President David Boren left after 24 years in the presidency and a year of change and difficult challenges followed. Much is left to be determined on the university’s future trajectory and its values.

The Daily interviewed Harroz June 7 to learn about him, his path to the interim presidency and the hard decisions Harroz will have to make to face OU’s continuing challenges.

‘It didn’t have the heart and soul I found at OU’

Harroz said he had a good experience at Georgetown, but it showed him that he had “found more fulfillment” at OU.

“I really didn’t come to understand and truly love OU until after I wasn’t there, and I tried going somewhere else. I thought it would be more enriching — and it wasn’t.”

Two years after graduating law school, Harroz returned in 1994 as vice president for executive affairs at OU. Beginning in 1996, he served as OU general counsel for 12 years. After a brief foray into business from 2008 to 2010, Harroz returned to OU as dean of the College of Law in July 2010.

Harroz said with OU’s three campuses and operating budget over $2 billion, he doesn’t know that anyone is perfectly prepared for the OU presidency, but his experience may help.

“I think what helps me be, hopefully, able to be successful in this role is that for 23 of the last 25 years, I've been a senior leader of the university and I've been at the table, not just in the college but also at the overall leadership table.”

Some critics of Harroz’s selection have said Harroz’s years spent working in the administration are problematic, especially given his work with Boren, who now faces sexual harassment allegations.

Harroz said his work as general counsel and law dean left him with a fair amount of independence, despite working with Boren. The general counsel reports primarily to the OU Board of Regents, Harroz said, and while the law school is part of OU, it is also independent in numerous ways.

Harroz said being general counsel for 12 years helped him gain perspective on all three OU campuses. Harroz has also taught classes since 1997, an experience he said has helped him to stay grounded in the needs of the students during his time as an administrator.

Harroz said his time as dean of OU Law helped him develop skills in a university setting that are important for someone serving as interim president. He said he learned about budgeting, recruited students, raised money, built an alumni base, spoke with numerous groups and dealt with varied challenges.

“A lot of people have mistaken the president’s job as being a classic CEO job, and it absolutely is not,” Harroz said. “There are executive functions, and there are functions that are much closer to being legislative functions, where you’re working in a shared governance model and you don’t answer to one group of shareholders.”

Harroz said the many shareholders he must serve as interim president include students, faculty, staff, alumni, the state itself and others.

“You have these groups that you have to understand what their interests are, and you have to also understand that there’s still an obligation to lead,” Harroz said.

Ken Levit, executive director of Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation and president of OU’s Tulsa campus from 2001 to 2006, has known Harroz for decades. They worked together on then-Sen. David Boren’s staff in Washington, Levit said, and he also worked closely with Harroz when Harroz was general counsel and Levit was president of OU-Tulsa.

Levit said he remembers the first time he met Harroz, when Harroz was still a college student spending his summer on Capitol Hill.

“He just greeted me with a huge smile, an outstretched arm and a complete spirit of friendship and openness, which was deeply genuine,” Levit said.

Levit said Harroz’s demeanor and problem-solving ability are good fits for the OU presidency and the challenges the university faces.

“He is uplifting and positive and trust-inspiring,” Levit said, “while also rigorous and demanding and focused on accomplishing goals for the work that he is pursuing. I really think he is very well-suited to a very important job, and I have great expectations for his tenure.”

Ed Kelley, dean of OU’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said OU’s Norman campus deans work closely together, and he’s gotten to know Harroz well professionally since Kelley became dean in 2016.

Kelley said Harroz is intelligent and personable, sometimes using self-deprecating humor to add levity to situations as appropriate.

Kelley said he thinks Harroz is well-positioned to manage OU’s three campuses. He described the university as a “highly complex, highly decentralized organism,” with many different constituencies to consider.

“It takes someone with an extraordinary skill set,” Kelley said, “but also someone who has the personality to be able to not only manage all of these different interests, but at the same time provide the kind of leadership, the aspirational leadership — that he can say we're good today, but we need to be better tomorrow. And I think he has, again, the skill set, the experience, and as importantly the personality to be able to do that.”

Levit said he thinks Harroz’s skills are up for the challenges the university faces in the near future.

“I think (Harroz) is precisely the right person for the kind of challenges and opportunities that OU currently faces,” Levit said. “I think he is a grounded and deeply sensitive person to the wide range of issues that we face in our communities … I think at the same time he’s an excellent financial analyst, strategic thinker and decision-maker, and I think that’s really a set of qualities that will serve the university well.”

 ‘It has to be students first’

The past 11 months have been among the most challenging in recent OU history. Financial struggles, presidential in-fighting, racist incidents, revelations of misreported data, sexual harassment allegations against the highest levels of leadership — a whirlwind series of events has left parts of the OU community exhausted and discontented, and others angry and confused.

“It would be absurd to say we haven't had challenges and don't have challenges,” Harroz said. “That wouldn't be looking at any reality that exists. I think you have to address them squarely.”

Harroz set out his priorities for addressing OU’s challenges.

“The absolute most important thing to me,” Harroz said, “is that we get it right around diversity and inclusion … Race and ethnicity have to be — we have to get that right. If we don't get that right, nothing else matters. I mean, period.”

Harroz said he’s working with Jane Irungu, interim vice president for diversity and inclusion, as well as David Surratt, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and others to address issues of race, ethnicity and inclusion on OU’s campus.

“I think it's really important that we come into this semester and this year with clarity,” Harroz said, “that diversity matters to us, the clarity of a plan around that, and with a collective voice that makes it clear what we stand for.”

Harroz said people will do and say things that are protected by the First Amendment but are nonetheless offensive, and the administration has to be prepared.

“We can't just sit back and wait for when the racist statement is made ... not if,” Harroz said, “but (instead) that it's clear where we stand, not just to say, ‘We aren't that,’ but to be able to say in a very clear way, ‘Here's what we believe in as a university and as a student body.’”

As concern about further layoffs lingers, Harroz said the university’s financial situation remains a significant challenge as well. He said his focus with finances is to ensure education at OU is "excellent and affordable" for students.

“We have to get the financial piece in a place where we can grow and flourish,” Harroz said. “There's absolutely a painful component of that. There's no way to achieve what we want to achieve as an institution and not go through change — and change is really difficult.”

Harroz said the university’s financial situation has improved in the past year, but that more work remains to be done.

“It's been a tough year, but our financial standing to be ready to actually grow is improved. Are we done with that? No, there's more work to be done. And it's around not just being stable, but it's around being focused on our mission and our students.”

Harroz said he and his administration will be putting out a budget soon, and the exact priorities for the budget are still being finalized.

“I'm looking at it through the lens of, ‘What's our mission?’” Harroz said. “How do we keep it affordable? How do we pursue excellence? … We need to make sure that every dollar that we can, that can be focused. It needs to be focused on our mission.”

Harroz repeatedly emphasized the importance of OU’s mission as he discussed the priorities of his administration.

“What we do is really, really important,” Harroz said, “that we don't just manufacture widgets, you know, but what we actually do is educate the next generation of leaders ... that we create knowledge, right? And we serve society. And that's not ordinary, that's extraordinary.”

Harroz said living up to that mission means thinking of students first.

“The last thing I want to do is impact negatively the student experience, because it's what I care about and because it's also how we function as a university.”

But he said it’s important not to forget the human impact of actions such as personnel cuts.

“At all times we have to be aware of our mission, aware of our budget, but also aware of people and the impact on them,” Harroz said. “You have to balance it, and you don't get to not make decisions.”

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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