Faculty raise concerns about cronyism at U. of Oklahoma
In his almost two decades as president of the University of Oklahoma, David L. Boren has garnered praise for his fund-raising ability and the way the former U.S. senator has used his political clout to build up the institution. But a series of recent administrative appointments -- and one departure -- have some faculty members wondering if Boren is overstepping his boundaries to cement his legacy.
Faculty members at the university, many of whom spoke on a condition of anonymity due to concerns about their job security, described Boren’s tenure as president as one marked by pragmatism but definite progress. But professors also said Boren, who served for 16 years in the U.S. Senate and as governor of Oklahoma before that, has also shown a willingness to replace his critics. They said he is constructing his legacy one appointment at a time through a new generation of administrators.
“I think what you have is a president who is recognizing that the end of his time is approaching ... and I think we're seeing a kind of endgame,” one professor said. “Many people think that’s why he’s trying to install very young people he’s cultivated in offices of power and influence. When he steps down eventually, there won’t be an entire administration full of people ready to pick up the reins and push forward.”
Professors said they were caught by surprise on Wednesday by the announcement that Paul B. Bell Jr., dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, where he had strong backing from professors, would step down after 16 years. In an e-mail to the faculty, Bell said he is stepping down "at the request of the president."
To Inside Higher Ed, Bell said he was forced out. “I was given two options: either resign or be removed,” he said. He stressed the decision was not a result of personal conflicts, but rather a disagreement over pedagogies and the role of technology in the classroom
While Bell did not elaborate, some professors said that a point of tension between Boren and academic leaders at the university has been the president's involvement in the history and political science departments, which a professor said have been told to teach more of their classes in large lecture-style formats.
"President Boren’s real brilliance is that he focused on the things presidents should be focused on, but what we now see is that he’s at least parting from that model and beginning to directly impose his will on the curriculum," the professor said.
In an email, Provost Nancy L. Mergler said the decision to make more senior faculty members teach freshman survey courses was a recommendation of a committee consisting of professors and deans, and that Boren "indicated his full support" for the suggested curriculum changes.
"The president does not give orders to departments and certainly not to individual faculty members," Mergler said. "For someone to make such a suggestion to you indicates that they have no understanding of faculty governance at the university."
One of the members of the Mergler's committee, outgoing history department chair Robert Griswold, said in an email that the changes came from faculty members in the department. Although some professors "voiced perfectly understandable reservations," Griswold said, "Virtually all of my senior colleagues have embraced these ideas with great enthusiasm."
Apart from the curriculum changes, several professors said they believed that Boren, who left the Senate in 1994 to become president of the university, has already handpicked those he wants to lead the university after he leaves. Among them are Kyle Harper, an associate professor in the department of classics and letters who in December was promoted to senior vice provost, and Joseph Harroz Jr., dean of the College of Law. Harroz is rumored to be Boren’s candidate for president.
Harper graduated from Oklahoma in 2001 and returned in 2007 after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was named the director of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage when it was established in 2009. Harroz served as Boren’s legislative director and legal counsel in the Senate.
Both Harper and Harroz denied that their appointments are part of any large-scale effort.
Michael Nash, special assistant to the president, said the appointments reflect Harper and Harroz’s performance in their previous positions, adding that Boren “would plan to follow a normal national search process for permanent successors.”
“[Boren] has made decisions on administrative positions based on his assessment of the most qualified people to serve,” Nash said in a statement. “It is coincidental that some of these positions have become vacant at the same time.”
Nash called the rumors about Boren’s retirement plans “completely false,” and said he intends to break George Lynn Cross’s record as the university’s longest-serving president. Cross served for 25 years, while Boren this year sits at 19.
While some faculty members said the reshuffling amounts to cronyism, others dismissed the complaints as hyperbole.
“My feeling is that it’s much ado about nothing,” said Susan Vehik, chair of the department of anthropology, who suggested Boren asked Bell to step down because he “crossed swords with him.”
Another professor, who also spoke on a condition of anonymity due to past arguments with Boren over policy decisions, said Boren has acted consistently during his almost two decades as president, and that the changes in staffing do not represent a new strategy.
“I think what’s changed is that he wants to make some changes,” the professor said. “Do I like the decisions President Boren is making? No. Do I think he has the right to make them? Yes.”