The future of the University of Oklahoma will involve a continued focus on efficiency, fewer new buildings and an expansion of online learning, based on the comments of officials appearing before the Senate Education Committee.
Gary Pierson, an Oklahoma City lawyer and businessman nominated by Gov. Kevin Stitt to serve on the Board of Regents for the University of Oklahoma, told lawmakers he believes regents must take an active role.
“Based upon my life in and around the University of Oklahoma, which stretches back to the mid-70s, I’ve always believed that being a regent was a bit of a ceremonial position, traditionally,” Pierson said. “There’s no longer time or need for that. It needs serious people because there’s serious issues.”
Asked how he would help keep tuition costs under control, Pierson was blunt.
“First, we have to quit wasting money,” Pierson said. “If there’s fat in the system, you have to take the fat out, just like any business. And with a $2 billion budget and as many moving parts as there are at a university the size and scope of OU—three campuses—invariably, there’s going to be waste.”
He said regents should focus not just on tuition, but fees.
“We’ve got to rationalize the difference between tuition and fees,” Pierson said. “I have a student down there right now and I’m always amused—that is maybe a good word—the fees almost equal the tuition but there’s no direction on where the fees go.”
University of Oklahoma President James Gallogly echoed that assessment.
“For a number of years, the university was bragging about the fact that tuition remained flat,” Gallogly told lawmakers. “We did that by increasing fees time after time after time. You have to look at those two things together. And then when you do, over the last five-plus years we’ve been increasing tuition-and-fees about 5 percent. When you do that time after time after time, in a short period of time a great education becomes unaffordable for the average Oklahoman.”
Pierson also said college officials need to focus on increasing online learning opportunities.
“I’ve been through several industries that have found themselves involved in fundamental disruption where everything changes, much like we see in news organizations, retail, real estate, entertainment,” Pierson said. “That’s going to happen in education. In fact, that’s happening now in education.”
He said the future college experience will involve two campuses.
“You’re going to have a traditional, brick-and-mortar campus where students go and live and stay and get the four- or five-year education without post-graduate work,” Pierson said. “The other campus is going to be a digital campus. And this is where the person that for whatever reason can’t come to Norman—needs to stay where they live to take care of parents or family or business or simply can’t afford it—can get an equal education in a different format.”
While a digital campus has some initial start-up costs, Pierson said it would be “a relatively inexpensive proposition” overall.
He indicated officials should not expect “any new building” at OU in the near future, partly because of efforts to increase online offerings but also because of existing debt.
“We’ve perhaps had too many buildings and too much debt,” Pierson said. “And I don’t think there’s much question about that.”
Pierson said the “better path” is to “get rid of the debt” and “invest in digital learning.”
Restating comments he has previously aired, Gallogly agreed.
“Frankly, we went on a building binge on campus housing that we did not need,” Gallogly said, “and as a result of that there’s very low residency in those buildings, sometimes 60 percent.”
Taxpayers are now on the hook to repay millions in bond financing for those buildings, he noted.
Gallogly encouraged senators to support Pierson’s nomination, saying, “We need business people who see around corners and understand that that’s not the best value for either the university, or the students, or the taxpayer.”
Gallogly said the school’s goal is to provide both a great and affordable education, which requires paying “a lot of attention to the bottom line.” He said “significant additional savings” will be announced at the next meeting of the regents, savings that will come on top of the $35 million in efficiencies already generated.
Pierson’s nomination advanced from the Senate Education Committee on a 13-0 vote.