In 2014, University of Oklahoma President David Boren made $403,475 from his position on the board of Oklahoma energy company Continental Resources. President Boren’s decision to work both for a public university and for a powerful energy company at the least places a dark cloud over research conducted at the university and at the worst, allows for corruption to breed at the state’s most high-profile university. In order for the University of Oklahoma to protect its reputation and offer scientific understanding that is impartial to politics and backroom deals, students, state leaders and Oklahomans need to ask the question: Should David Boren be allowed to serve on the board of a company that is directly impacted by the university’s research?
President Boren has been a good if not great university president, but even great college presidents must remain impartial and protect researchers from the money and influence of outside interests. In a recent Tulsa World article, Boren is quoted defending a 2013 private meeting he had with Harold Hamm and Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland regarding Holland’s research on the connection between fracking and earthquakes. In other reports, and emails sent by Holland, questions are being raised about whether or not Hamm used the meeting to influence the research of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is supported by the University of Oklahoma.
Regardless of the content, the meeting alone is troubling. In an email to the World, President Boren said the meeting occurred because “Mr. Hamm is a very reputable producer and wanted to know if Mr. Holland had found any information which might be helpful to producers in adopting best practices that would help prevent any possible connection between drilling and seismic events,” Boren’s email states. If what President Boren is saying is true, then he is admitting to inviting an owner of an energy company to a public university to review unreleased research information, and the company that Mr. Hamm owns happens to be the same one that pays President Boren.
As president of the university, one of President Boren’s jobs must be to protect the university from threats to its credibility. Make no mistake, fault, if any, does not rest on Hamm’s shoulders as one of the largest donors in school history, but instead, fault must lay squarely on the shoulders of President Boren – a state employee that is taking money on the side and opening the door to the perception of impropriety at one of the nation’s best research universities. It is important to note, this was not Aubrey McClendon from American Energy Partners or Tom Ward from Tapstone Energy (both generous university donors), no, this was the man that pays Boren more than his annual base salary as university president.
As taxpayers, students and Oklahomans, we must ask “Why is Continental Resources paying President Boren?” Is it for his “leadership” as continental resources claims or is it his ability to influence industry changing research? Is it for his experience in dealing with highly complicated issues under pressure or is it his access to the resources at the University of Oklahoma? The truth is we don’t know and probably never will. However, we do know that this relationship between the president and Continental Resources has already implicated the university in the media. Unfortunately, the president has put the university in a position that requires the student body, alumni and state taxpayers to trust that his allegiance is to the university and not the company that pays him more than his university salary.