By Jordan Miller
After three presidents in three years, a million-dollar investigation behind closed doors and broader criticisms over transparency, OU’s Board of Regents has decided to ask for help.
In August, the board issued a request-for-proposals to assemble a report of best practices for university governance across the nation with implications of those findings for OU. In October, the board tried a new open discussion strategy with public committee meetings – but in between meetings, the way it selected a new chair may have violated the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act, according to Freedom of Information Oklahoma – who also awarded the board the “black hole” award for lack of transparency.
Compared to two other comparable universities, OU’s board lacks much of the community representation, staffing support and student perspective that boards at similar institutions have.
Those who don’t have a seat at the table feel the lack of representation. Student Government Association President Adran Gibbs said SGA and other community stakeholders have been pushing for more input for a while to at least get a nonvoting student on the board, but have not been successful.
“We don’t have a lot of input at the Board of Regents level, besides the public meetings that they hold a couple times a semester, but you don’t have speaking privileges — no one does at the… meetings,” Gibbs said. “(A nonvoting student regent is) not something that’s been accepted at all — especially by the Board of Regents or anyone higher up in the decision-making process.”
The best thought processes
OU’s Board of Regents is made up of seven governor-appointed regents who ultimately approve some of the biggest decisions for the OU system, which also includes Cameron University and Rogers State University.
The regents “oversee and support and assist in the governance of a public institution,” said Alisa Fryar, OU associate political science professor and an expert on higher education policy. This board has more specific powers targeted toward the OU system, rather than across all Oklahoma institutions as a whole, Fryar said.
The board typically holds regular meetings seven to eight times a year, usually with the attendance of the university president and occasionally other senior university officials, such as Ken Rowe, senior vice president and chief financial officer, or Athletic Director Joe Castiglione. The meeting locations shift among the various campuses the board represents.
By comparison, other university boards have many constituencies that help advise on board decisions — rather than just having the university presidents speak for all institutional aspects.
The University of Kansas, which was ranked 130th in the nation this year by U.S. News and World Report, is comparable to OU according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s 2018 Data Feedback Report. OU recently regained its ranking in U.S. News and World Report after misreporting of alumni donations during former President David Boren’s tenure, and the university is now ranked 132nd.
The University of Kansas is governed by the Kansas Board of Regents, whose members meet once a month at their office in Topeka and oversee six state institutions, coordinate with other community or technical colleges and regulate the state’s private universities, said Matthew Keith, director of communications for the Kansas Board of Regents.
Although the board’s monthly meetings are in Topeka, it also holds three campus visits each year, Keith said. The board’s monthly meetings are public and live-streamed — whereas OU has live-streamed only the selection of former OU president James Gallogly in recent years.
“(On these visits) they always meet with the faculty, and they meet with students as well, just to try and get that shared governance view on each campus, because obviously… they’re the elected leaders for the Faculty Senate, or for the SGA on the campus,” Keith said.
While OU regents’ meetings typically go through and approve agenda items for each campus, Kansas regents’ meetings are usually two-fold: One day for discussion of issues within committees and another day for committees to present reports to the entire board before it makes a decision. This is a practice OU’s board tried at its October meeting.
“They really rely a lot on hearing from all of those different groups from across the system to really help provide some insight,” Keith said of the Kansas system. “Board staff helps coordinate those groups as well and provide that information to the regents because it is a lot. They do a lot of different roles.”
Keith said three councils make up committees for the Kansas board: Governance, fiscal affairs and academic affairs. Each group has subgroups that report to it — such as a council of business officers across Kansas institutions, and another for chief business officers from community and technical colleges across the wider state system.
In addition to these advising groups, the Kansas board starts meetings with reports from the council of presidents and the system council of presidents, the council of faculty senate presidents and the student advisory committee, Keith said. This committee, which has been required by state statute since 1975, is made up of SGA presidents from each campus, Keith said.
OU’s board, in comparison, has seven committees: athletics, finance/audit, Norman campus, Tulsa campus, Health Sciences Center, Cameron University and Rogers State University, according to the October special meeting agenda.
Three regents serve on each committee, chair Leslie Rainbolt said, and with the recent open special committee meetings, she said the board is trying different things to be more transparent with its decision-making. Rainbolt said they are testing practices from other institutions — such as Oklahoma State University, where Regent Natalie Shirley drew upon the idea for this type of committee meeting — to come up with the “best decisions.”
“I think it was fruitful and interesting. I liked hearing what everybody’s thinking… the best decisions come from the best thought processes,” Rainbolt said.
At the October meeting of the Norman campus committee, the regents discussed issues more openly than at a typical meeting, with Vice President of Operations Eric Conrad fielding questions about one of the agenda items.
Faculty Senate Chair Joshua Nelson also attended, and when Rainbolt was asked if more community members would be brought in to these meetings, she said people should look at how Faculty Senate chairs have come to general meetings as an example of how to get involved.
“First of all, I’d like everyone to show interest and come to the general meeting. If you’re really interested, show up for that,” Rainbolt said.
According to a recent special meeting agenda, committee discussion occasionally can involve outside members giving advice to the regents, such as Conrad’s inclusion in their discussion of the Norman campus.
Indiana University Bloomington, which was ranked 79th by U.S. News and World Report and is another comparable university according to the 2018 Data Feedback Report, has a meeting structure similar to the Kansas board’s. Its meetings typically last two days, with separate committees for areas like academic affairs and student relations, said Debbie Lemon, secretary of the Indiana University Board of Trustees.
Each committee is led by different regents, but all regents serve on each committee, along with a president’s liaison, Lemon said. Each president’s liaison is a university vice president, except for the liaison for student relations, who is the president’s chief of staff.
Lemon said these liaisons help the Indiana board run most efficiently.
“That helps because that really informs, especially the committee chair, if there’s any late breaking things going on, and what’s really important for that particular committee going forward,” Lemon said. “Those relationships are really important.”
During their business meetings, the Indiana trustees also hear faculty reports from their University Faculty Council, which has three co-chairs — one each from system location in Bloomington, Indianapolis and the regional campuses, Lemon said.
Fryar said a big reason why reason OU’s board does not have its own advisory committees or councils is a lack of staffing and being on the board is not a full-time job for the regents, either. Boards like Kansas’ often have full-time staff members with expertise in areas like academic affairs who provide independent advising support.
Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that works to uphold academic excellence and accountability at universities nationwide, said having committees of regents specialize in specific issues — which OU’s board does — is a big advantage for smaller boards.
“The committees are able to share their longer and deeper engagement on those particular topics,” Poliakoff said. “I would recommend that there be — for all boards — something beyond simply the public presentations at board meetings with these constituencies. Having an opportunity for subgroups of trustees or regents to meet with greater focus on very specific issues, and then sharing that with the board, is a real advantage.”
An effective trustee or regent
OU’s governor-appointed board is small but ideal, Poliakoff said, as long as the governor is deliberate about appointing members with representative backgrounds of expertise.
Indiana’s board has had a governor-selected student trustee since 1976, Lemon said. Although this adds a student perspective to the board, it can lead to issues with the board being an independent trust of the university, Poliakoff said.
“(Student trustees) can be extremely effective,” Poliakoff said. “But here’s the caveat: An effective trustee or regent should leave his or her constituency at the boardroom door. The board members should listen to everybody, but be beholden to nobody, except — in the case of a public institution — the citizens that they serve, and the institution through which they serve them. It’s crucial that governing boards have that level of independence.”
Indiana’s student trustee serves a two-year term and is selected through a trustee search, Lemon said. The committee, which is composed of the presidents of student government organizations across the Indiana University campuses, meets several times a year and narrows the candidates to 10 with an open application and interview process.
Those finalists are then sent to the governor for review and, although the search is closed, the president and chair of the board of trustees are both given the list of names before the governor makes the final decision, Lemon said.
“Our student has all the same powers as everybody else,” Lemon said.
When OU had student representation on the presidential search committee before Gallogly’s selection in 2018, the three students in the group had one-third of a vote each, in comparison to a half of a vote each from two staff members and a full vote each from 12 faculty and at-large members.
Six of the nine Indiana trustees are appointed by the governor, but the remaining three are elected annually by alumni, and every trustee except the student serves three-year terms.
Some boards may have political constraints, such as Kansas’ governor-appointed board requirement that no more than five of the nine members can be of the same political party, according to the board’s policy manual. No two regents can reside in the same county at the time of their appointment, either. In comparison, several OU regents are based in Oklahoma City, according to the regents’ online biographies, though the board also represents campuses in Lawton, Tulsa, Norman and Claremore.
Poliakoff said although political controls on regents can be representative — as seen at the University of Colorado, where regents are chosen through direct elections — constituent loyalty can be a barrier to the ultimate purpose of a governing board, but there is no “silver bullet” to guarantee the board will be loyal to the university yet independent.
Amid all these selection processes and composition regulations for governing boards, Poliakoff said the best trustees are the ones who stay in touch with the university outside of board presentations and the school newspaper — whether it be through a university appointee or through contact with university constituencies.
“A good trustee is somebody that is intensely informed about the institution and about higher education and policies around the nation,” Poliakoff said. “The trustees are also a window outward from the institution to see what best practices are and what challenges are around the nation.”
The single most important responsibility
Each governing board in Kansas, Indiana and Oklahoma has one large task in common: selecting the university president.
In the past three years, OU’s Board of Regents has had to select a university president — who then retired less than a year into his term — and an interim president who will serve a minimum of 15 months, when another search will commence.
The regents received criticism for the closed search in early 2018, when no candidates were announced throughout the process except one who announced himself. However, this process is not uncommon at other institutions.
“You have to be kind of judicious about (transparency). … There are times when I appreciate the deliberative value that comes from being able to discuss things in ways that aren’t fully public,” Fryar said. “At the same time, there are other spaces where … the optics made it difficult to say that there was meaningful transparency, and there were probably reasons to believe there was not meaningful transparency.”
The Kansas Board of Regents appoints the presidents at the six state universities it represents, Keith said. This board has two options when conducting a presidential search: They can have the board lead the search, or, most commonly, they can hold a committee-led search with a chair, one regent, the previous board president, faculty, students and community leaders.
This committee vets initial candidates and conducts official interviews, then forwards its finalists to the board.
The board can conduct either a closed or open presidential search, but Keith said the board typically chooses a closed search to keep candidates’ names confidential, though it has conducted open searches.
This search process is very similar to the type conducted to find Gallogly, where faculty, students, staff and other members of the university community formed a 17-member committee and submitted finalists to the board after going through applications and an interview process.
Although Indiana has had the same university president since 2007, Lemon said Indiana’s board also would assemble a committee when the next search arises, with a similar composition to Kansas’ committee.
The last time there was a search at Indiana, another advisory board gave feedback to the primary search committee, with even more academics and alumni giving input as board members, Lemon said.
Although Lemon said she was unaware of whether Indiana’s previous search was open, Indiana state law “does not limit — and presumptively requires — the release of the following information in an applicant’s file: ‘Name, compensation, job title, …’” according to the Student Press Law Center’s state-by-state guide to executive personnel searches.
Oklahoma’s laws are more restrictive of such information. Open records law exempts selection materials related to hiring a public employee, and open meetings law allows closed meetings when discussing hiring of a public employee, according to the Student Press Law Center’s guide.
Poliakoff said the first step toward a successful presidential search is for the board to determine its vision for the university’s future, so members can be clear about expectations for the successor. Next, the board needs to listen to “every constituency in the university” through focus groups to clarify the criteria for the next president — something OU implemented in the search for Gallogly.
Without a clearly defined vision for the university’s future, the search can end up “far more ambiguous than it should be,” Poliakoff said.
“(The appointment of the university president) is the single most important responsibility of the board,” Poliakoff said. “Whether it uses an executive search firm or not, it must never delegate away any of that engagement or responsibility. If that process is followed, it has a much better chance of a really vibrant working relationship with the (university) CEO.”
Amid a tumultuous time at OU, Poliakoff said the biggest thing the regents can take from the past few years is to learn from the experience — which it seems they are doing, he said, considering the delayed search for a permanent president.
“This shows a prudent instinct in making sure the next selection is one that is based on a very measured and considered understanding of what OU needs to continue to be the great institution that it is,” Poliakoff said. “Then, to be able to articulate criteria from that understanding and to ensure that every board member is fully engaged in the search process — and when that’s done, I think the university has far less to fear.”
In the board’s solicitation to determine best practices for university governance, due to be presented in December, the regents are attempting to further understand what the best ways are to run OU efficiently.
“By taking prudent measures,” Poliakoff said, “one greatly enhances the possibility of an outcome that will allow the institution to be everything that it wants to be.”