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Long-embattled OU Provost Kyle Harper stepping down, returning to teaching

Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper during an OU Board of Regents meeting Dec. 2, 2019.

OU President Joseph Harroz announced Wednesday morning long-embattled Senior Vice President and Provost of the Norman campus Kyle Harper would be stepping down from his position and returning to a faculty position, effective July 1.

In an emailed statement sent to the university community, Harroz said Harper has served in his current role since 2014. Harper had “asked (him) for the opportunity to return to scholarship and teaching,” over a year ago, but Harroz asked him to remain in the position. The move most recently follows a three-day sit-in at Evans Hall in February in which students called for, among other moves, his resignation.

“(Harper’s) leadership these past six years has been critical in helping to guide the University through a period of transformation, and he is certainly deserving of the chance to pursue his scholarship with full focus,” Harroz said.

In the statement, Harroz said during Harper’s tenure, academic programs on the Norman campus “enjoyed immense growth and success,” and the university’s retention and graduation rates “dramatically improved.” 

According to OU’s Fact Book, freshman retention rates under Harper’s 2015 to 2020 tenure showed no consistent upward trend, with graduation rates rising from a low of 86.1 percent to a high of 92.1 percent, then back down to 88.2 percent. Four-year graduation showed a consistent rise from 43.2 percent to 50.1 percent, and six-year graduation rates rose from 67.9 percent to 68.5 percent, dipped to 67.3 percent, then rose to 70.3 percent.

Students have called for Harper’s resignation several times for failing to speak out against racist incidents on campus. After multiple instances of blackface, the OU Black Emergency Response Team held a press conference in which Jamelia Reed, then BERT’s co-director, asked how diversity and inclusion can be a top priority when Harper “is not trusted by marginalized students, staff and faculty.” 

Harroz said in the statement — which comes one day before the June OU Board of Regents meeting — the university will immediately launch a nationwide search for the next Senior Vice President and Provost for the Norman Campus. 

Jill Irvine, presidential professor of international and area studies, will serve as interim during the search. Irvine has served as chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and founding director of the OU Center for Social Justice, among other university leadership positions.

Harroz said during the transition, Harper will work in teaching and scholarship, but will also serve in a “senior advisory role” to assist Irvine and help implement the Safe and Resilient Instructional plan for returning to campus in the fall.

Harper leaves a complicated legacy as senior vice president and provost. After former OU President James Gallogly’s retirement in May 2019, but before Harroz’s selection as university president, some OU community members voiced concerns over Harper’s potential appointment to the interim presidency. 

During the February 2020 sit-in, BERT members demanded Harper’s removal from the position, citing what they considered to be an insufficient response to two incidents of professors using a racial slur in their classrooms.

Despite the campuswide campaign, #thehateyouhire and #harperhastogo, Harper was not removed from the position, per a February statement from Harroz:

“I cannot engage the demand for the immediate resignation of the Provost. I listened to BERT’s concerns and will always listen to concerns from our students. However, I told them I will not meet this demand. My reasons are based on principle, fairness, and precedent. As a matter of practice, we do not discuss personnel evaluations of employees in this public manner. We can never allow our desire for expediency to deter us from being fair in our evaluations.”

Destinee Dickson, then-officer for BERT, said the sit-in caused Harper to evaluate how he and the university handles issues of diversity and discrimination.

“I think we made Provost Harper realize a lot of things about his silence and inaction, and what it looks like at the university,” Dickson said March 1.

In a statement emailed to the university community Wednesday morning, Harper said he wanted to take the time away from his administrative position to focus on teaching and his book about the global history of infectious disease.

“... When President Harroz asked me to stay in my role a while longer and see through the transition to the next chapter of the university’s history, I was honored to do so,” Harper said in the statement. “And now, with the Norman campus strategic plan nearly complete, a remarkable team of academic leaders firmly in place and stability in President Harroz’s leadership, OU is poised for remarkable success. I can focus on teaching and my book, with full confidence that OU’s future is bright.”

Harper said the most inspiring part of being provost was the opportunity to interact with an array of disciplines offered at the university.

“On any given day, I might get to talk to a student in aviation or anthropology or music, or hear from a faculty member working on biochemistry, supply chain management or quantum physics,” Harper said in the statement. “The sheer intellectual variety and energy of our university amazes me.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research and news managing editor.

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