Colleges seek more state borrowing for professors

Budget & Tax , Higher Education

Ray Carter | January 15, 2021

Colleges seek more state borrowing for professors

Ray Carter

Last May, Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed legislation authorizing $314.4 million in state debt to fund endowed chairs for college professors in Oklahoma, but members of the Legislature overrode Stitt’s veto.

Just eight months later, state colleges are now asking lawmakers to approve millions more in debt to create additional endowed chairs.

Under the endowed-chair program, the state matches private donations given to colleges to create jobs for professors. During a recent budget hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, Glen D. Johnson, chancellor of the State Regents for Higher Education, told lawmakers a $161 million state backlog for the program still exists, but said colleges were “not asking for that amount” all at once.

“We could fund a bond issue for $10.4 million in order to address that backlog,” Johnson said.

The request for additional state borrowing comes less than a year after lawmakers approved House Bill 2750 in the 2020 legislative session. That bill doubled the amount of bonds the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority could issue to fund the state match for endowed chairs, authorizing $314.4 million in bonds for endowed chairs.

Stitt vetoed HB 2749, noting the state had already provided roughly $500 million in matching funds for the endowed-chair program since its inception “with no input from the legislature or Governor as to what types of chairs and professorships would be matched.”

The governor also noted the state still has $93.1 million in principal outstanding from prior bonds issued to fund endowed chair positions.

Stitt said the “the more fiscally responsible course would be to eliminate matching monies altogether,” and that “requiring the state of Oklahoma to continue to match those private donations is unsustainable.”

However, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to override Stitt’s veto. In doing so, they preserved a program that has used Oklahoma taxpayer funds to pay salaries to college officials to teach classes in New Mexico, direct theatre performances in state prisons, and study classic films, and the program may soon promote “Native American spirituality.”

The professorial jobs funded by the endowed-chair program include the Oklahoma State University Vennerberg Professorship in Art, a position whose holder focuses “on work currently conducted at the new, multi-disciplinary Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos, N.M.”

The endowed-chair program also pays for the Holmes, Morris and Newell Endowed Lectureship in Classic Films at Cameron University in Lawton, and the Mary L. Lemon Professor of Underrepresented Voices at Oklahoma State University, which has supported theatre performances by incarcerated individuals in Oklahoma prisons.

At the University of Oklahoma, the program has helped fund the Farzaneh Family Professorship in Iranian Architecture & Culture, and OU officials have announced receiving private funding to create an endowed chair in “Native American spirituality and the environment” and place “the cultures of Native peoples and the sovereignty of Native Nations at the center of academic study across all three OU campuses.”

Even as lawmakers have used state debt to fund those positions, other programs at the college level have gone wanting.

During the budget hearing, Johnson also asked for additional funding for the state’s National Guard tuition waiver program, which reduces the cost of college for Guard members.

“Right now, we’re being able to fund only 48 percent of those,” Johnson said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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