Speaking to a crowd of local business and civic leaders, interim University of Oklahoma President Joseph Harroz broadly outlined his vision for OU.
Acknowledging that the past academic year was a difficult one for the OU community, Harroz said the challenges facing the university can be overcome.
“I don’t want to sugar coat it and say there aren’t problems, but I think context matters,” he said. “The financial situation is something we’re addressing, and we’re not done. There’s work to be done, but we’ve made real progress financially over the course of the last year, albeit painful. We owe it to the people we serve to be excellent and efficient. We’re going to get there… we’re going to do it together, and we’re going to communicate.”
Harroz, who was working as dean of OU’s law college, replaced former president James Gallogly, who lasted 10 months in the role before stepping down in May.
“Leaders come and go, but institutions endure,” Harroz said. “Institutions only endure if they work in a way that makes sense, and for the University of Oklahoma to flourish, Norman has to flourish. It has to be this partnership. When there are hard conversations to have, we’ll talk about it, we all have challenges to deal with; but if we act in an isolated way, we’re not going to solve our problems.”
Harroz emphasized communication, compromise and a focus on buttressing the university’s research efforts. Being able to share education across the world using technology is a “great democratizing force,” he said, adding the university’s health sciences center in Oklahoma City needs to “become a greater engine than it is now.”
“We’re a research institution, we create knowledge,” he said. “Investing in our research component is essential to the progress of not just the university but the state, and the nation in a broader sense.
“We have to use new technologies to spread the ability to receive education in Oklahoma and around the world. How we do that matters: Oklahoma is about opportunity, based on merit and not last name and not your economic situation.”
The Oklahoma legislature appropriated 28 million more dollars to state universities for this fiscal year.
“The last legislative session was terrific,” Harroz said. “I’ve been around for a long time, and it’s been rough in terms of funding for education. $28 million in new funding that went into the formula that helped out schools. We gave a pay increase to the faculty this past year; this year’s session is giving us the opportunity to do more and better for faculty and staff.”
Harroz noted that some $8.3 million in one-time funding is heading OU’s way.
“We’re going to invest that with the help of the legislature in quantum physics… quantum technologies, aerospace — which is the second largest industry in Oklahoma — and in computer science,” he said. “Turns out computers might be important.”
• Norman delegation: Also speaking at the lunch were four of Norman’s five state legislators: Sen. Rob Standridge, Sen. Mary Brown Boren, Rep. Merleyn Bell and Rep. Jacob Rosecrants. The legislators highlighted bills they’d worked on during the session, and several pointed out how much more amiable the Capitol was under new Gov. Kevin Stitt and with a budget surplus in hand.
“This is my seventh year, and it’s the first year we’ve had money,” Standridge, who served as chairman of the senate’s transportation committee for the first time, said. “Stitt has such a refreshing style of leadership.”
Standridge said the state has a serious backlog of CDLs, and his SB 378, which Stitt signed, will allow the private sector to train commercial drivers and clear out that backlog — $5 million in unfilled jobs, he said — in a matter of months. HB 2330 requires state agencies to communicate a rationale for contracting with a company headquartered outside of the state.
One of nine senate Democrats, Boren said her first year was about building relationships and keeping a positive outlook. She noted that, as a member of the energy committee and agriculture and wildlife committee, she expects to have a lot of policy conversations over the next year.
Rosecrants was one of two Democrats on the House of Representatives’ medical marijuana working group: HB 2621, which addresses medical marijuana testing for employees, came out of that group.
“It was a very successful compromise, and we’ll probably be legislating State Question 788 [which authorized the sale of medical marijuana] for quite a while,” he said. “You see a new business popping up every single day, and you in the business world know that’s not going to last.”
Bell worked on HB 1004, which would have addressed the issue of copper wire theft comprehensively, she said. It didn’t pass this session, but Bell said there will be an interim study on the issue, and she’ll bring the legislation back next year.
“It’s not only affecting the private sector —thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars are being lost by companies here in Oklahoma — but also the public sector, because our department of transportation is really suffering in terms of the money they’re having to put back into construction projects,” she said.