Oklahoma higher education reform: Lessons from Idaho

Higher Education

J. Mark Ousley | June 15, 2021

Oklahoma higher education reform: Lessons from Idaho

J. Mark Ousley

Just days after Governor Kevin Stitt signed HB 1775, prohibiting schools from teaching racial superiority or that anyone is inherently racist, an elite group of University of Oklahoma graduates gathered at the Gaylord Family–Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to receive their doctoral hoods.

The graduates have an “incredible obligation to serve society and each other,” OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. told them.

“The speed and utter devastation that has come from a once-in-a-century virus. The worst attack on our nation's capital since the War of 1812. Widening political divisions exposing the fragility and preciousness of our democracy. A nation reckoning with systemic racism. What do all these have in common?” Harroz asked.

“They have acutely exposed weakness in our society. They have shown that the need for leaders who are willing and able to step up and work together has never been greater. … How will we engage in real and meaningful healing? The answer, of course, is you.”

Putting aside for the moment the purposely ambiguous and widely disputed notion of “systemic racism,” and putting aside the comment about the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol (is Harroz unaware of the Weather Underground bombing, the May 19th Communist Organization bombing, Flight 93, et al.?), his remarks do serve to remind us that his “top priority” has been to bureaucratically entrench the controversial DEI/CRT/Antiracist ideology and activism at OU.

Just days before Governor Stitt signed HB 1775, OU announced that its Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is expanding into a full-blown Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, headed by a university official who is already paid $230,000 annually in salary alone. This expansion signals a dramatic shift of university funds, resources, personnel, and administrative power to what will in effect function as a division of ideological enforcement. The student newspaper summarized the new DEI efforts to continue this coercive activism: “members of the Inclusion Council serve as diversity liaisons across all three campuses and will continue their work to make sure their strategies are realized. The liaisons collaborate with colleges, administrative areas, and non-academic departments to create and implement strategic initiatives.”

This is a blatant shift by OU to exert an ethnocentric academic despotism over OU faculty, staff, and students via administrative fiat. And it presents a very real, direct, and systemic threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Why are OU parents and Oklahoma voters paying for this? Reform is badly needed, and recent developments in Idaho may help point the way forward.

A recent Newsweek column (“Idaho's blueprint for red state higher education reform”) on the fight to dislodge academic despotism is instructive. In 2020, lawmakers in the Gem State used the power of the purse to attempt to rein in spending on DEI initiatives, but entrenched university interests made it difficult to make any meaningful headway. But before Idaho’s 2021 legislative session commenced, the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute teamed up to release two reports on social justice ideology in Idaho higher education—one focusing on Boise State University and the other on the University of Idaho.

These reports led to a flurry of policy proposals encouraging elected officials to provide oversight of the bureaucratic spending in higher-education institutions. Although some of the proposals have yet to pass, the Idaho legislature has laid the groundwork for meaningful supervision of despotic college administrators and bureaucracies.

The parallels between those institutions and OU are alarming. Policymakers should read the reports and work to bring much-needed transparency and oversight to Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education.

[For more articles about higher education in Oklahoma, visit]

J. Mark Ousley

J. Mark Ousley is a doctoral candidate in choral conducting at the University of Oklahoma and a graduate of OCPA’s J. Rufus Fears Fellowship program.

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