Joe Harroz is midway through a high-stakes audition.
He didn’t land the part last time.
Eight months ago, Harroz was tasked with leading the University of Oklahoma — a sprawling, three-campus, 31,000-student institution — for at least 15 months. If he gets his wish, it’ll be longer.
In December, Harroz told the OU Daily, and the OU community, that he wants to be OU’s next president. He wanted the spot in 2018, when the regents chose James Gallogly — now retired — as OU’s 14th president, but stayed in his position as dean of OU’s School of Law when he didn’t get it.
If all goes according to plan, the university’s Board of Regents should begin its next presidential search in the coming months. Harroz is just over halfway through the interim presidency, a job that started at the tail end of a tumultuous period at OU. In the past three years, OU has had three presidents, weathered multiple public instances of racism, seen former executive leaders investigated for sexual harassment and assault, and been stripped of national rankings for misreporting donation numbers.
Harroz didn’t walk into the job blindly. He’s been at OU for more than two decades now, and knows the institution he’s working with. He knew the university needed a period of stability — a time to settle down and reflect — and then a time to start moving forward. But how, in the middle of the audition for a job he’s wanted for years, could he help do that?
“I truly believe our best days are ahead of us, for sure,” Harroz said during an interview Tuesday. “And then the question becomes, OK, optimism is great, but based on what? What’s the plan to get there?”
‘Do the hard work first’
The audition started off with a bang.
Harroz was appointed interim president in an OU Board of Regents meeting that lasted until about 2 a.m. May 17, 2019. Just a few hours later, the new interim was off to meetings with executive officers and university deans. He wanted to know: “what’s our strategy?”
On assignment from the regents, Harroz quickly began to help create and shoulder that strategy. He and other university executives have taken on an ambitious task: building a plan that will carry OU – its academic standing, its finances, and its public image — into the future.
In coming weeks, Harroz and other OU administrators will present the regents with the strategic framework, a vision for what the university can become and a set of tactics that can take it there. The plan includes broad, ambitious goals (become an excellent, affordable research institution) and specific tactics for getting there (reach certain benchmarks from the Association of American Universities).
To the best of Harroz’ knowledge, it’s the first time that anyone has set out a university-wide strategic framework. The plan goes beyond goals and strategies — it’s got to have funding. While OU has budgeted one fiscal year at a time, the strategic framework will include at least a five-year budget to fund all its initiatives and ideas.
“What we’re going to do is produce — it won’t be perfect — but will be to produce a five-year budget that articulates how we’re going to pay for this,” Harroz said. “The three things I always talk about is, we have to be bold, honest and clear eyed — bold in terms of our goals, honest about where we are, and what it takes to get there, and clear-eyed about what that means. And so as we do this, and it’s not done, we have to put a price tag on it and figure out how to fund it.”
It’s taken a lot of learning and undoing and circling back, Harroz and other administrators have said. The university has released a survey for community feedback, hosted a series of town halls to hear from various community members and been through multiple drafts, Harroz said. University leadership likely won’t get the framework in front of the regents until the board’s March meetings, he said.
If all goes according to plan, the strategic framework will propel OU into the future where the university isn’t just stable, but grows.
The framework’s impact on OU may not be felt for years. But in the past eight months, Harroz has also been working on another priority — one that’s even more urgent at OU.
For months, Harroz has publicly discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion on campus, emphasizing that if OU can’t create an environment where all students feel that they belong, “nothing else matters.”
Harroz wanted to recognize diversity and inclusion on campus during the first week of the 2019 fall semester, he said. But the leaders around him told Harroz that OU needed to wait to hold the celebration until university leadership had invested time and resources into the hard work of creating a more truly inclusive campus. After all, he was coming into the presidency on the tail end of a spring semester that began with two blackface incidents and a university response that failed to call the first incident racist.
“They said, ‘no, that’s a terrible idea — we don’t have the right to that yet. We need to do the hard work first, before we can begin doing celebrations,’” Harroz said. “Because it’s too easy to go around, try and create a show or a production whenever you haven’t done the listening, and the structural work that needs to take place.”
Eight months in, Harroz said he feels his administration has started to do that.
Since last May, OU has changed the Office of University Community to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, created a new space for the office that will officially open this week, hired a new full-time vice president for diversity and inclusion and kicked off the “#WeAre” campaign, among other things. This week, OU will host its inaugural “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Week,” beginning the celebration Harroz hoped for months ago.
“There’s a lot of things that didn’t have a lot of sizzle to them... it wasn’t individually press release worthy,” Harroz said. “But they’re the hard work and the conversations and the listening and the structures and the relocating of offices, right from the periphery of campus to the heart of campus. It was all those things that made us credible.”
The audition’s not over, but Harroz already knows the job of OU president wouldn’t be easy.
Even in an interim role, he’s already made controversial, unpopular decisions. In June 2019, weeks after entering the interim position, Harroz oversaw OU’s second round of layoffs that year, cutting 69 university employees. That same month, in a move Harroz said was planned before his appointment as interim, the university cut the American Organ Institute, an organ technology and repair program within the College of Fine Arts. Despite community protest and continued backlash, Harroz and his administration told institute supporters that OU would not be saving the program.
Despite the community criticism around these events, and others since, Harroz is confident when he looks back over the last few months.
“I think we’ve seen people taking a deep breath,” Harroz said. “We’ve seen, hopefully, everyone realize that things have calmed down, and hopefully a collective understanding that together, we’re going to forge the next generation of excellence, and my hope is that excitement is what replaces the anxiety, uncertainty and drama that preceded it.”
He knows that over the past few years, the university’s situation has been rocky. But with a stated commitment to stability and diversity and inclusion, he thinks he’s the person to carry OU into the future.
When Harroz didn’t get the job in 2018, he was happy to keep doing his dean’s job at the OU law school, he said. Over the years, OU has always drawn him back from other parts of the country or jobs because university life is his passion, he said.
But when the regents finally asked him about the interim presidency last year, he immediately had his answer.
“I was like, ‘yeah, I’m still interested in doing it,’ and it’s because I think I can add something,” Harroz said, “and because I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to do it. And so yeah, it’s a lot of work. It’s also something that I’ve got enough perspective to know that I’m really fortunate to have a chance to be a part of this...the days are long, evenings are long, but I 100% know how lucky I am.”
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