When Breea Clark considered running for Oklahoma House District 45 earlier this year, she found herself choosing between the political position and her job of 10 years.
Clark, associate director of academic integrity programs at OU, was preparing to announce her candidacy for the House seat when she and her superiors realized she couldn’t if she wanted to stay in her position at the university.
Clark and all other OU employees cannot publicly announce candidacy for a county, state or federal elected position without first leaving their job at the university due to an OU policy that is gaining new scrutiny from the university’s faculty.
“I just find it really discouraging and truly unfortunate that thousands of people aren’t even able to consider running for a county, state or federal office — it seems almost anti-democratic,” Clark said.
The Board of Regents’ Candidacy for Political Office Policy, which dates to 1943, prohibits any conflict of interest by mandating that a university employee “offer his/her resignation to the Board of Regents, without reservation” before declaring candidacy for a partisan political office.
OU press secretary Matt Epting said in an email OU “avoids a variety of administrative conflicts of interest” between partisan candidates and a publicly-funded university with the policy, which is evenly applied to all university employees.
Epting said while the state of Oklahoma’s policies no longer prohibit state employees from announcing candidacy or running for office, state ethics policies still contain “similar conflict of interest principles” to those enforced by OU’s Candidacy for Political Office Policy. State ethics regulations mandate that state employees “show impartiality when discharging their duties,” that they “should separate their time, funds, and resources as a state officer or employee from that used for campaigns” and that a state employee not hold two state positions at once.
OU’s policy has drawn scrutiny from the university’s faculty senate, which decided to investigate the policy in its Nov. 13 meeting. Faculty senate chair Sarah Ellis said the item was brought to the senate’s discussion simply “because faculty asked us to,” and faculty senate secretary Joshua Nelson said the policy is an issue “faculty senate executive committee members heard about from a few faculty members in general conversation.”
While Ellis and Nelson declined to comment on the senate’s ongoing review of the policy, Nelson said in an email the policy is currently moving through investigation from the Faculty Welfare Committee, which reviews policy issues concerning the senate and recommends changes.
The senate’s Nov. 13 agenda, which notes the body’s intention to look into the policy, conveys the senate’s view that the policy “effectively precludes some of the most qualified among our citizenry from serving in public office and divests them of the right of civic participation.”
Even if the faculty senate investigated the policy and supported change, true amendment must happen at the Board of Regents’ level, said Cindy Rosenthal, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research & Studies Center and former Norman mayor. According to the faculty senate’s agenda, the senate would consider a leave of absence for employees running for office as an acceptable alternative to resignation.
At a public institution that promotes civic engagement in its student population, Rosenthal said expecting immediate resignation of employees with higher political ambitions sends students mixed messages.
“(The extent of the policy) really deters a lot of people from being able to make a commitment to public service,” Rosenthal said. “I think it’s at odds with the philosophy that has been espoused for encouraging our students to become active and engaged members of the community.”
Rosenthal said while it’s “not unusual” for public institutions to avoid conflicts of interest by prohibiting dual office holding, OU’s policy is “particularly severe” in its mandate that employees resign upon announcement.
“Comparatively, there’s no question when you look at other institutions of higher education or other public institutions and public schools — it really is very punitive on people that want to give back to their community,” Rosenthal said.
The faculty senate agenda compares OU’s policy to that of other public universities, noting that institutions like the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska grant a leave of absence to employees who declare candidacy and only require resignation if that employee is actually sworn into office.
Oklahoma State University’s policy requires that employees receive approval from supervisors and potentially the president’s office before announcing candidacy (in order to evaluate conflicts of time and interest), grants unpaid leave of absence during campaigning and requires resignation if an employee assumes the position.
Rosenthal said she thinks a leave of absence is an appropriate requirement, but OU’s current policy puts employees in a tough position economically.
“In my own case, as a tenured faculty member, are you going to give up your rights to tenure in order to throw your hat in a campaign? Probably very unlikely,” Rosenthal said.
Clark has been able to serve in a city government position as Norman’s Ward 6 councilwoman for the past year, a position not restricted by the policy because of it doesn’t require party affiliation. But Clark can’t go any further than city positions if she wishes to retain her job at OU, a position she helped found and enjoys.
“That would be the problem,” Clark said. “Is that I now have to choose between a job where I work with young people that I’m very good at because I’ve been doing it for 10 years that I really think makes a difference for future professionals, and running for higher office and serving my constituency and the residents of Oklahoma, which I think is entirely unfair.”