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OU Board of Regents approves tuition increase despite one dissenting vote, OU Health merger with public comment

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Members Gary Pierson and Joseph Harroz of the OU Board of Regents on March 5.

The OU Board of Regents approved the university’s FY22 budget — with a 2.75 percent increase in tuition — during its Tuesday meeting, despite the opposition of its newest regent, Rick Nagel, and finalized agreements for the OU Health merger. 

The regents allowed for public comment on both items, giving each person two minutes to address OU President Joseph Harroz and the seven regents who govern the university. Here are the highlights of the discussion by topic, with additional comments following the meeting’s end. 

2.75 percent tuition increase: After three years of not increasing tuition, the regents voted to increase tuition and mandatory fees on OU’s campus. 

The increase is mirrored in changes to the 15 credit hour flat tuition undergraduate rates and per credit hour graduate rates. Resident tuition increased from $4,531.25 to $4,655.70, non-resident from $12,221.75 to $12,557.70, resident graduate from $289.30 to $334.75 and nonresident graduate from $610.80 to $627.60, according to the agenda. This decision follows OSU’s move last week to increase its tuition by 2.5 percent

In an uncommon move for a body that typically approves agenda items in unanimous votes, Nagel, a former OU SGA member, said he was against the tuition increase, noting he is still fighting in good faith for the student body. He said although he recognizes the budget was “thoughtfully put together,” he feels that, from the standpoint of timing, affordability and transparency, these late days of a pandemic that staggered the nation are not the time to approve the increase.   

"I feel strongly that there were potentially other areas of the budget that could have been more thoroughly examined," said Nagel, an OU College of Engineering alumnus and CEO and managing partner of Acorn Growth Companies

As a parent of an OU student, Nagel said students who experienced part of their university education during the back half of 2020 and early 2021 faced a difficult learning curve as they adapted to a remote education. He said he is not one for raising prices until the product is better.  

“I would just hope you would join me in making sure the administration works incredibly hard to put this money to use it's intended to be, which would be the pursuit of the strategic plan’s objectives, making sure our kids have a great educational experience in the next fiscal year and, at the same time, start pointing towards … jobs that line up with our new economy.” 

OU first announced the move publicly in an email to the university community shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday. Harroz said when he spoke with students Monday night — late on a day the university closed on short notice in observance of the newly recognized Juneteenth federal holiday — hours before meeting with regents. 

Students present expressed concerns about transparency surrounding the budget process, indicating they didn’t feel included in the decision making. Harroz said he hopes to engage more directly and in advance with students in the future on agenda items that affect them.   

During the public comment section, SGA chair Crispin South and vice chair Sidney May spoke on the tuition increase. 

South said although he is thankful Harroz took the time to speak with him Monday, he remains opposed to the tuition increase. He said he feels it is an amount some students cannot afford, and it is "not the right time."  

Although Harroz committed to better engaging with students in the future, South said they still felt left out of this process. Although these decisions are normally made without student input, he said he would like to see OU "rise above the rest of the pack" by releasing documents to students to show them where their money is going. He called for this transparency in a statement released hours before the meeting on behalf of SGA. 

May asked whether Harroz thought it was possible to put parts of the $45 million donation regents formally accepted Tuesday from alumni Fran and Earl Ziegler toward decreasing the burden of tuition on students. She said, given the pandemic, she felt this option could have created more affordability.  

Harroz said portions of the donation will go toward scholarships and fellowships in petroleum engineering. He said, however, he understands when the university receives large donations, he should have conversations with student leadership.

Ultimately, Harroz said budgetary changes should be viewed through the lens of what the university has endured the past three years.  

He said the university went through a 14-month process to build its Lead On, University strategic plan to achieve its goals while also being financially responsible. He said the "incredibly difficult and complex" pursuit of sustaining the university’s mission and future should be considered. 

"We arrive today at a point that I think has to be in the context of the journey we are making and that we're making together," Harroz said. "It's not one fixed on an isolated moment in time, but one that says, 'Do we believe in our strategic plan?' and '(Do) we both believe in each one of the pillars of that strategic plan?'" 

In terms of investments, Harroz said the university plans to hire 25 new faculty each year for five years to create a place of "true academic excellence." He also said the university will launch a center for student success and put $25 million toward deferred maintenance. 

Ultimately, the regents approved the three budget-related agenda items by a vote of 5-1 for each, with Nagel the only vote in opposition and the absence of Vice-Chairman Frank Keating.

Following the vote, Harroz said this decision was all about affordability and excellence. He said he understands the impact tuition increases will have, but he also hopes to maintain the university’s momentum and educational value.  

“Again, you never want a tuition increase, but when you do, you want to be planful and thoughtful as part of a disciplined budget and one that’s accountable to the students,” Harroz said. “I believe this is one of those.” 

South said he was disappointed by the increase, and despite understanding some of the reasoning, he maintains this decision came at the wrong time. He said, as an SGA chair, he hopes to lead Student Congress in providing support and representation to students affected by this vote. 

“I want to use my office to provide that kind of support and just make sure that students are always able to achieve excellence on campus,” South said. “While I do think that this will hurt students’ abilities to achieve excellence on OU’s campus, I hope that SGA will be able to kind of step in and provide some of the support to students. We may not be able to do that financially, but at the very least, we can provide representation and connections to students so that they can get the resources that they need.” 

OU Health merger: The regents also finalized the terms of the merger that will combine OU Physicians with the nonprofit OU Medicine to create the nonprofit OU Health. The agreement is made up of 14 terms, according to the agenda, which reflect the new integrated academic health system, bylaws and employee agreements. 

OU Health will serve as a premier health and academic system, according to the agenda, delivering “high-quality multidisciplinary care, education focused on the needs of our state and funded research.” 

Jason Sanders, the senior vice president and provost of the OU Health Sciences Center, said he regrets the public did not hear about this merger until March. He did, however, speak to the success the College of Medicine has experienced, despite the pandemic, through hospital transitions and building its operations.  

Sanders said although the 14 agreements in the merger are "tremendously difficult and complex," they also include steps that will help lead OU's physicians in the clinics.  

"In the terms of what's before you in the agreements, we recommend that you approve. It is a starting line," Sanders said, describing how it would ultimately create “a high-functioning system where physicians now lead in partnership with operational leaders and nurses to improve care to do what we want." 

Kate Morris, the vice chair of academic and research advancement for the OU College of Medicine, spoke during public comment and said she is concerned about the expedited merger, which will begin July 1. She said she worries there is a lack of deep and shared understanding surrounding the data for the merger recommendations and the likely impacts on the ability of faculty to care for patients.

Morris said the most positive comment she has heard surrounding the merger is "Well, I guess it's not that bad." She said there are many things to consider and discuss surrounding future recruitment and the high stakes of this decision.  

"I very respectfully request that we pause and bring people along with open dialogue and that we implement this the right way, albeit slower, but with consensus," Morris said. "I genuinely, truly believe that with more time, with open dialogue and attention to detail, we can be innovative. Not just do what other health systems are doing, or what consultants recommend, but to become the healthcare employer of choice for the region, and potentially, the nation."

Harroz said although merger is "terribly complicated," the university will benefit from the opportunities it will create to expand its research influence and expertise. He said it is a real change the university needs to create to provide “a level of healthcare Oklahomans deserve.” 

“The approval sought here today is a moment in history that I believe we'll all look back at and say ‘This is when Oklahoma had a chance to become much healthier,’” Harroz said. “This is when we can make and how we make a healthier Oklahoma.” 

The item was approved unanimously. 

Other items: The regents also recognized OU-Tulsa President John Schumann for his service. Schumann will resign July 30 and be replaced in the interim by James Sluss Jr., the associate vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the Tulsa Graduate College at OU-Tulsa. 

The university also accepted the $45 million donation from the Ziegler family. The OU Foundation will receive the donation, allocating $21 million to the OUHSC campus and $14 million to the Stephenson Cancer Center to support cancer research. The Sam Noble Museum also will receive an operational endowment. 

Harroz said the gift is one of the largest the university has received. He said he is thankful for the Ziegler family's selflessness and the philanthropy they encouraged at the university level. 

The meeting concluded the regents gatherings for the 2020-21 academic year. They aren’t scheduled to meet again until Oct. 18-19 in Norman. 

Editor's note: This article was changed from a live update format into a write-up to reflect the highlights of the meeting. 

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