As the president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber in 1994, Howard Barnett recalled that a frequent visitor to the city was Jim Halligan, then-president of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Halligan was a strong proponent of increasing his school's presence in Tulsa from simply being a member of the University Center at Tulsa--a consortium of the state's higher education institutions--to opening a full-fledged branch campus.
"He started coming over here in the mid '90s and preaching the gospel of what bringing a comprehensive research university to Tulsa could mean to Tulsa," Barnett said.
Halligan realized he needed the support of Tulsa leaders if his idea was to gain any traction.
"One of the first partners Jim sought out and cultivated was the Tulsa Chamber," Barnett said. "So we heard his spiel a lot, and it really resonated with me."
After Barnett left the chamber, he went on to other pursuits, serving as secretary of commerce and chief of staff for Gov. Frank Keating in Oklahoma City and then returning to the business world in Tulsa, while simultaneously working on behalf of a number of nonprofit organizations across the state. But he never forgot about Halligan's vision, which became a reality on Jan. 1, 1999, when OSU-Tulsa opened.
Barnett watched with interest as Gary Trennepohl led the campus through its first decade of existence, when enrollment mushroomed from an initial 1,187 students to its current total of nearly 2,700. When Trennepohl announced his intention to step down and return to teaching in March, it didn't take Barnett long to come to the realization it was a position he might be interested in pursuing.
Nine months later, this past October, he moved into the president's office, having been chosen by the OSU-Tulsa Board of Trustees and the Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents to succeed Trennepohl.
Now, barely two months later, he is faced with the task of guiding the campus into its second decade at a time when many questions exist about the role OSU-Tulsa will play in the larger community. And for anyone who doubts the intentions of the 59-year-old Tulsa native, Barnett has a message.
"As I've told everybody from the very first interview through any talk I've given on campus since then, I'm not OSU, I didn't graduate from OSU, I didn't go to OSU," he said. "I can learn, I've got my orange shirt. But I really came at this from a standpoint of helping Tulsa."
Barnett sees a symbiotic relationship between his new employer and his hometown, and he intends to do everything he can to nurture that association in his new position.
"Tulsa has been very supportive of this (campus) ever since it became OSU," Barnett said, noting that $30 million in Vision 2025 funds were funneled into the campus' Helmerich Advanced Technology Research Center. "So I really felt between the investment Tulsa had made in OSU-Tulsa and the vision that Jim Halligan had had back in the '90s, there were still legs there of providing Tulsa with the benefits of degrees from a comprehensive research university.
"I keep using that phrase because it's very important to distinguish an OSU degree from maybe some other degree offerings," he said. "I want to emphasize ... that the degree that's issued out of this campus is an OSU degree. It does not say OSU-Tulsa, it does not have a little asterisk or something like 'Matriculated in Tulsa.' It's exactly the same. So from the outside world standpoint, there is absolutely no difference. And I would venture to say from an educational standpoint, there is absolutely no difference."
A different market
That pronouncement may sound a tad defensive, but it's important to note that Barnett said it with a smile creasing his face. His point in making that distinction is that OSU-Tulsa need not take a back seat to the main campus 85 miles to the west at the other end of the Cimarron Turnpike.
On the other hand, that's not to say Barnett is trying to convince anybody to choose Tulsa over Stillwater as a college destination.
"If you're 18 years old and have the financial wherewithal to go to Stillwater, you ought to go to Stillwater," he said.
Barnett's campus, he believes, exists to serve primarily a different market--local residents who can't afford to move to Stillwater or have obligations here that would keep them from doing so, including many older students who are married and perhaps even have families.
"What OSU has wanted to do here in Tulsa has been to make that quality degree from a comprehensive research institution available to anyone who, for whatever reason, can't go to Stillwater," he said.
Barnett places a particular emphasis on the word quality.
"I'm quite convinced, from talking to people (who) have gone to school here, who are going to school here, to faculty and administrators both here and in Stillwater that the quality of the instruction, the quality of the education that you get here is absolutely comparable with what you get in Stillwater," he said. "This is not a dumping ground for bad professors. To a degree, it's exactly the opposite."
OSU-Tulsa has 75 resident faculty members, but Barnett said many members of the Stillwater faculty teach here. And he said there is a great deal of interaction between the two campuses at the faculty level, though he acknowledges it's important that there be more.
"With only 75 faculty members, there's not as much opportunity, within a particular department, for collegial relationships," he said. "So it's important they get over to Stillwater to have that kind of impact, that kind of interaction. A lot of people may not know we have a lot of Stillwater students come over here, particularly at the graduate level ... So I think it's an interesting model and one that still has a lot of opportunities for growth and for opportunity to give to Tulsa what Tulsa students, businesses, community leaders want to see out of this school."
But there are some frustrations, as well. Despite its considerable growth during its first decade, OSU-Tulsa likely would have an even greater enrollment if it were not kept from offering degree programs in a number of basic areas. The reasons for that are complicated, Barnett said, acknowledging that few Tulsans have a good grasp of the situation.
"The issue is the same issue we've had from the moment of birth," Barnett said, referring to the legislation that created OSU-Tulsa, as well as a handful of other entities, including OU-Tulsa and Langston-Tulsa, OSU-Tulsa's neighbor to the north. "You suddenly went from the UCAT model to an explosion. It was basically a wild scramble of higher education offerings."
Part of the fallout from that scramble, Barnett said, was the legislation related to a consent decree that the state Higher Regents have been under since 1978 along with the U.S. Department of Education, which granted Langston a special urban mission in Tulsa as part of the desegregation movement. As a result, he said, Langston has the right to exclusively offer a number of degree programs in Tulsa. An examination of OSU-Tulsa's undergraduate degree program offerings reveals a lack of options in English, mathematics and the sciences.
But the law regarding the issue apparently is somewhat murky.
"There's a lot of continuing discussion about what that means and what we can't offer," Barnett said.
As Barnett indicated, the limitations under which OSU-Tulsa operates are not well known generally, and many Tulsans labor under erroneous ideas when it comes to talking about what the campus is capable of doing.
"Everybody wants to see more programs, more opportunities afforded students on this campus," he said. "We're in total agreement there, but I don't think there's as good an understanding of what we can and can't do, so ideas are brought back to reality."
Barnett emphasized he doesn't want to sound as if the situation is an albatross for his campus.
"We're not trying to use that as an excuse," Barnett said. "The law is the law, and we're going to follow the law. But by the same token, we've got to find our niches and find things that we can do that still meet the needs of the student body here."
Barnett has the advantage of serving as president of a campus that appears to be very popular locally. Almost any substantive conversation with city leaders about the future of downtown Tulsa quickly leads to a discussion of the role OSU-Tulsa might play in the area's rejuvenation.
"We certainly want to be a participant in that," he said. "At minimum, to the point of just being a good neighbor."
In Barnett's mind, that includes such things as the possibility of being able to offer excess parking to the Tulsa Drillers when the minor-league baseball team opens play this spring in its new ballpark just a few blocks from the OSU-Tulsa campus. Discussions with the team on that subject already have been initiated.
"We're one of the few universities with no parking problem," Barnett observed wryly.
But OSU's potential contribution goes beyond a surplus of parking. Downtown boosters point to the significance of adding new residents to the district and practically salivate at the idea of having hundreds of OSU-Tulsa students included in that mix. It's an idea that is not out of the realm of possibility, Barnett acknowledged.
"In our original master plan, which is now obsolete, there were residents envisioned here," he said, though there are no current plans to add student housing. "We've got an interesting student body. A lot of our students have families. One thing that is pretty clear to me, but I would certainly keep an open mind to this, I don't see 10-story dormitories on this campus just because of the nature of the people going to school here. I could see the possibility of apartment-type living on some of the land."
Greenwood Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Reuben Gant, whose district lies adjacent to the OSU-Tulsa campus, indicated he would welcome the addition of student housing.
"If they were to do that, it would be an indication of growth, which would certainly be a positive," Gant said. "I'd certainly like to see the campus become a full-fledged campus with student housing. That would mean a lot more actual pedestrians for the Greenwood business area. And it would really signal to Tulsa we have this full-fledged, full-service, four-year college in the urban center."
Barnett said it's important that such notions remain flexible.
"While I think that there probably are students on this campus that would really like to have the opportunity to have reasonably priced housing, it may not have to be on this campus," he said. "It could be a few blocks away ... Would it be better for Tulsa and the Brady Arts District if housing was developed on the other side of (Interstate) 244, and might we help our students participate in that in a way which was beneficial to getting a housing development done in the first place, and to our students? Let's just see where it goes. That's one of the things I think people have to grapple with. Where does housing make the most sense?"
Barnett believes it would benefit many Tulsans to pay a visit to the campus.
"It's amazing how many people have never been down here," he said. "They've never been to the north side of Tulsa to start with. So we deal with a lot of misconceptions. People wonder whether it's safe. Yeah, it's safe. You've got a better chance of having your car broken into at Woodland Hills Mall than you do on our campus, for example. That's one reason we're really excited about the ballpark opening up. There'll be 5,000 people a game down there for 65 or 70 games a year. My guess is that 75 to 80 percent of those people have never been here, and they'll be able to see this is an interesting part of town."
Not surprisingly, Gant--an OSU alum who was an All-American tight end for the Cowboys in 1973 before going on to play professionally for the Buffalo Bills from 1974 to 1980--would like to see his alma mater take advantage of the opportunities downtown offers in terms of sports, as well.
"We have a fantastic facility called the BOK Center," Gant said. "I would love to see OSU commit to doing sporting events at the BOK Center such as basketball games. I would love to see OSU conduct or have other sports there, as well--wrestling, gymnastics, volleyball.
"I see an entire menu of sporting events brought here by OSU to offer to students on campus and make it an integral part of the big campus," he continued. "That would demonstrate the loyalty and attractiveness of OSU athletics to Tulsa. And it would demonstrate the utility of the BOK Center, as well, and demonstrate it could be a draw from the region."
Barnett pointed out that the OSU baseball team will be making its debut at the new ONEOK field on May 7, 2010, as part of its annual four-game series with the University of Oklahoma.
"That's an opportunity for us to wave the OSU flag with the athletic department," Barnett said. "But as for what else that leads to, I don't know. We certainly welcome the opportunity for any of the Stillwater-based athletic programs to come over here. I don't know what the opportunities are, but we are open to discussing that with (OSU athletic director) Mike Holder or anyone else."
Barnett is open to other ideas, as well. He noted there has been an ongoing discussion in academia for several years about the evolving role of universities in their communities.
"No longer should you think about town-and-gown issues. No longer should you be thinking of your ivory tower," he said. "You have a responsibility to engage your community and to find out how your community wants you to help them be what they want to be. We need to be a convener. I think we have a wonderful location, for example, to help Tulsa start having or continue to have an appropriate dialog about race relations."
Finding his place
As for the role Barnett will play in sorting all that out, he's the first to admit he has a lot to figure out just two months into his latest assignment. He never gave serious thought to becoming a university president, he said, until he actually sat down and read the job description that OSU posted when Trennepohl announced his intention to step aside.
Of the eight to 10 bullet points listed on the description, Barnett said, he realized only two really had anything to do with academics, and those regarded building relations with the faculty.
"The other seven or eight included representing the university in the community, raising money, managing the budget--the kind of things I'd basically been doing my whole life," he said.
After being encouraged to do so by Larry Mocha, chairman of the OSU-Tulsa Board of Trustees and head of the search committee, Barnett applied for the job. Eventually, he was chosen for the job over the other finalist, Bob Clark, vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Edwards Campus.
"It was a four-month process (that) my friends assure me was lightning speed (for academia)," he said, laughing.
Barnett's breadth of professional experience--lawyer, businessman and public servant--contributed to making him feel like he had a good handle on what OSU-Tulsa needed in its new president, he said. But it was his experience with a slew of nonprofits that was perhaps even more important, he said.
"I've gotten a real good feel for what goes on in this state," he said. "Not to mention, obviously, as chief of staff for the governor, you get a very clear view of what all parts of the state think are important to them.
"All of that combined, I would like to think, puts me in a position to really help lead OSU-Tulsa into its next life. We're entering our second decade here, and of course Gary Trennepohl was the first and, until (two months) ago, only president of OSU-Tulsa. He built a great foundation during that 10 years, basically going from our old consortium model to a real branch campus of a comprehensive research institution. That's going to be our beginning point, hopefully, the foundation that he's been so successful in building."
Barnett's path to the presidency of OSU-Tulsa was not a traditional one. But that hardly makes him unique in the current higher-education environment.
"I've been asked by a lot of people, including faculty and others, why there seems to be a trend for non-academics to become the leaders of universities," he said. "I look at the reasons why I think I was hired, and I think that translates pretty well why Burns (Hargis) was hired as president of OSU, why David Boren was hired at OU.
"So much about being the president of a public university has more to do with community involvement and a lot more to do with fundraising than it does with academia," he continued. "The academic side, you've got provosts, you've got deans, and to a large degree, that's their job. I'd like to think the president can help set a vision and a course for where we want to go, but how we go about getting there, that's really up to the provosts and the deans."
Barnett seems to view himself running a company more than as a traditional university president.
"It's not about academics in the sense that probably 50 years ago the president of a public university was," he said. "Let's face it, too--the economics of a public university is very different that it was, particularly comprehensive research universities like OU or OSU. The percentage of their revenues that are generated from state funds is probably a lot less than people think. Depending on the school, it's well under 50 percent.
"The rest of it's got to be raised," he said from federal sources, grants, endowments or general fundraising. "In this state, David Boren has certainly raised the bar on what that means."
That aspect of the job only becomes more significant as time goes by, leading some observers to speculate that any university president who can't raise large amounts of money these days is not a good university president. Crass as it seems, Barnett said that statement is largely true.
"Probably 90 percent," he said, indicating his degree of agreement. "It's such a vital element. Right now, we have fairly limited scholarship funds. We have some real nice endowed chairs that help us attract some top-notch faculty. They've done a real nice job of getting those in here, which really helps. And obviously the contributions of the Helmerich family to the Helmerich Research Center has changed a lot of the way this university can be perceived if we do our job right.
"What we don't have is scholarship money. That really is going to be my focus. We depend almost entirely on tuition and fees and state support. We've got to begin to develop our own alternative funding sources if we want to attract the kind of students we want to meet the needs of the community."
While his experience has been limited so far, Barnett compares his new position in many ways to his time in government.
"It's not like being a CEO," he said. "While a good CEO is certainly going to relay on a team and try to bring everybody else along, at the end of the day, if the CEO says, 'I want this room painted blue,' you're going to paint the room blue. It's not quite that direct in government and in education. You need to be much more conscious in both worlds of the various constituencies that need to (be) brought along appropriately, that need to be involved appropriately, in any decision of any significance."
The more deliberate pace of decision-making in academia has been an adjustment for him, he did acknowledge.
"Hopefully, some of it can adjust to me, and we can meet in the middle," he said. "To make an important decision, you need to think through very carefully what the appropriate process is and to involve the right people in that decision. You're always going to have to have more people involved in the decision process than would allow the decision to be made quickly. That's kind of the nature of the beast, but I understood that going in."
Even so, Barnett's impatience sometimes gets the best of him.
"You want to ask my wife that?" he said, laughing. "I have my moments, yes."
Where to from here?
OSU-Tulsa's "next life," as Barnett puts it, is one that is still being worked out. A long-term strategic planning process will begin next year, and for now, Barnett offers only vague suggestions of where that process might lead.
"I don't have a clear vision at this point," he said. "Obviously, there is a desire on the part of the Tulsa community for us to grow, and we certainly want to meet that desire. And that would be growth of programs, growth of enrollment and ultimately growth in financial support."
Barnett is confident the completion of the planning process will help answer many of the questions Tulsans have about the kind of growth they can expect from OSU-Tulsa and how many of their expectations it can meet.
"Between that effort and hopefully getting some clarity on the legal issues I spoke about earlier, from that can emerge a clear vision," he said.
That's not to say Barnett doesn't have a few ideas of his own.
"One of the things we've talked about is embracing the OSU Stillwater alums in Tulsa," he said, noting that there are approximately 25,000 in the area. "We certainly want to think about how we can welcome them to this campus and make them feel good about this being an extension of their university."
Barnett insists he isn't trying to be coy about what lies ahead for OSU-Tulsa. But as much as he wants the campus to have a positive impact on the community at large, he points out OSU-Tulsa has a basic role to play for its students that supersedes that.
"I don't want to be presumptuous to the process that we're going to be establishing to develop our for strategic plan for the next three to five years, but I think what it really comes down to, ultimately, is having enough students and enough faculty and enough programs that they support each other," he said. "You've got enough faculty in a particular department that they have the colleagues they need to be productive and to feel good about coming to work every day. There are enough students of diverse backgrounds to be able to provide the kind of classroom discussion and dialog that really is why, in the age of online learning, buildings and classrooms still and will always exist because there is so much learning that goes on between students with each other."
Barnett has moved from job to job throughout time, beginning his career as a lawyer before becoming a businessman, then going into public service and back to business. He doesn't provide a clear answer when asked how long he plans to serve as president of OSU-Tulsa.
"Oh, at least another six months," he said, laughing, before turning serious. "I really haven't thought about it in that context. My wife kind of asked me the same question when I took the job. I think it'll just have to play out. A minimum of five years is what I would ask the Tulsa community to give me to try to establish that vision and put in the mechanisms to implement that vision ... After that, who knows?"
Despite professing reluctance toward articulating any sort of vision for his campus until the strategic planning process is over next year, Barnett can't help but express two seemingly straightforward goals. Both sound as if they are likely to play an important role in whatever emerges from the planning process.
"I really want to use my connections, my history in Tulsa to have OSU viewed as more of the fabric of the community," he said. "Our ultimate goal is for Tulsa to think of OSU-Tulsa as its first choice for public higher education in this town."
Share this article: