OU policy restricting employees’ political ambitions under review from faculty

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.”

“Seven Days of Heroin: This is What an Epidemic Looks Like” by Terry DeMio

Cincinnati’s heroin epidemic is both enormously overwhelming and numbingly normal.

Terry Demio knows best — she’s been reporting on the subject since 2012, when she first noticed the issue.

In 2015, she began working the heroin beat for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and by September 2017, Terry’s beat had turned into “Seven Days of Heroin,” a series of vignettes, photos and videos laid out to display a week of addiction and epidemic in Cincinnati.

“Seven Days of Heroin” is something DeMio, fellow project writer Dan Horn and Enquirer editors have been conceptualizing for about two years, she said. Layoffs and management shifts kept them from bringing up the concept again until May 2017, when they presented the story to editors who wanted to pursue a big project.

“We were trying to think of a different way of presenting the heroin epidemic and thought, ‘people probably…hear about it, they see some results, they see whatever stories are out there, but do they really get just how entrenched into our community this is?’” DeMio said.

The final product DeMio’s team produced profoundly proves that aspect of the epidemic. The story takes readers to a Burger King bathroom, a city park and a car driving down the highway, all of which are locations of overdose.  

The enormous undertaking, which gives shots into the lives of dozens of Cincinnati residents somehow touched by the epidemic, involved a team of more than 60 reporters, videographers, photographers and interns. DeMio said after delegating and volunteering to handle all the piece’s moving parts, all the contributors pulled together to track the heroin crisis for one week in July 2017.

In the end, DeMio and Horn wrote the story, drawing on notes and interviews from the rest of the team and finishing the story by the end of August.

Sourcing for the piece, much of which relies on the honest stories of current and former addicts or the family members of those who overdosed, fell into place because of DeMio’s consistent beat reporting on the subject, she said. While other reporters had official sources or local government contacts who were helpful, the heart of the story was in DeMio’s established relationships, many of whom were in the throes of addiction.

The uncertainty of their situations was the hardest part of telling this story, DeMio said.

“I (interviewed) the active addiction people, and I just really liked being able to connect with them, but I guess not knowing what would happen at any given moment with them is certainly something that (was a challenge),” DeMio said.

But including those sources was important to DeMio, who said she wanted to show readers just how average heroin users can look.

“We needed to show their pain — we needed to show how real and how difficult this is,” she said. “We also needed to be at places like the jail, treatment places or the methadone clinic. People don’t know that people who take methadone are quite probably on their way to work, dressed in a suit or a uniform of some kind, and I thought it was important for people to see it.”

DeMio has known the stunning normalcy of addiction and overdose since she first began reporting on the subject while working at the Enquirer’s Kentucky edition five years ago.

“People were having all these vigils and stuff, and it was in these little suburban communities, and people had overdosed on heroin, and I thought ‘that’s odd,’ because it was just very persistent,” DeMio said.

DeMio, then a general assignment reporter, began looking into the problem. Her investigations became a beat as she moved back to Cincinnati and an editor saw her coverage as an opportunity to engage the community in a growing issue.

When she first began reporting on heroin, the lack of governmental response to the crisis led DeMio to focus on those directly affected by the heroin epidemic. The consistency, empathy and respect she shows addicts is key to building the relationships that let her tell stories like “Seven Days of Heroin,” DeMio said.

“I just approach (addicts) using the body language that shows respect and that I care, and that I know it’s difficult,” DeMio said. “And the beat work is really important…I think a lot of it is contact, being around, being there.”

DeMio said her years of practice in crime reporting, when she used to talk with addicts, prostitutes or families of gun violence victims, readied her for this beat. While continual engagement with such a sobering subject can be difficult, DeMio said compartmentalizing the different aspects of her life (one of which is being a single mother) is helpful.

“I used to cover crime and victims a long time ago, so yes you feel it. And you let people know that you’re feeling — you’re human,” DeMio said. “But you just have to segregate things sometimes in your mind.”

While DeMio has learned to deal with and expect the tragedy she faces on her beat, she said some of the Enquirer’s reporters got to see the issue up-close for the first time while writing “Seven Days of Heroin.”    

The terrible toll of heroin really hit reporters who took a look into the life of Stephanie Gaffney, a new mother who got clean while pregnant with her baby, DeMio said. The Enquirer’s team got to film the baby’s checkup at the doctor, to see Gaffney’s new  commitment with a healthy daughter. At the end of Gaffney’s brief, hopeful story, DeMio and Horn include one sentence that DeMio said “seems to have really captured a lot of people”: “(Ten days later, Gaffney is dead from a heroin overdose.)”  

“It wasn’t shocking — to me it was sad,” DeMio said. “Tragic, horrible, but it wasn’t shocking. And I think that is kind of one of the realities that people learned.”

The piece struck readers all over the world as well, DeMio said, and received incredibly positive feedback.

“We got an overwhelming response to “Seven Days of Heroin,” I mean, from all over the globe,” DeMio said. “We were just truly shocked, stunned at how much response there was.”

But the response to DeMio’s regular coverage isn’t always so glowing. 

“There are people who don’t like or understand or care about saving people who are addicted to heroin, and they make a lot of nasty comments, especially when it’s posted on Facebook,” DeMio said.

Part of “Seven Days of Heroin”’s mission was to break through and reach those readers, DeMio said, to show the issue in a new light. While she knows some people won’t see the story as news anymore, she does hope the story made some difference.

“To me in a way, it was a little bit of a relief to know that anybody who wanted to read that and was happy to read the whole thing, or even a little bit of it, or watched the video…knew much better what is happening day-in and day-out in just any old week,” DeMio said. “I hope it was helpful.”

Q&A with Breea Clark: Making her mark by Emma Keith

One thing is clear from the thick stacks of files and papers lining the walls of Breea Clark’s OU office: between her two jobs, Clark is quite the multi-tasker.

First, there’s Breea Clark the enforcer. Clark works as associate director of OU’s Academic Integrity Program, which she helped start, to train students in OU’s integrity standards and help oversee the correction process when students don’t meet those standards.

Then there’s Breea Clark the councilwoman. Clark has served Norman’s Ward 6 since 2016 after years of work in public service positions, and ran on a platform of a greener, more inclusive and more family-friendly city. She’s currently fighting to reclaim a portion of Norman history by pushing to rename DeBarr Avenue, a street near OU’s campus named to honor a former KKK grand dragon and OU professor.


Emma Keith: Why are you passionate about serving the city of Norman?

Breea Clark: To be honest, I’d never really thought of local government until I came to Norman and kind of became a grownup and started paying taxes and voting regularly, and realized that local government is the level that affects you in your day-to-day life the fastest and most directly…it’s been a big learning curve in a variety of areas, because people take so much for granted …I’ve gotten to learn a lot — my favorite phrase is, ‘my brain is so big after being on city council.’

One of the reasons that I really wanted to run was I felt disconnected from city government, which is crazy…and I figured in the age of social media, there’s no excuse for that… (the fact that I won) sent a signal to me that my feeling and my hand on the pulse was correct and people want to be more connected.

EK: Have you found serving on city council has been an effective way to make change in Norman?

BC: I think so — I think that’s where you have to start…everyone looks at the federal level, which is great — I mean, that’s where I think maybe the lasting change comes from, the historic change…but I’m the person you can call and go have lunch with if you have an issue with your government, and I find that interesting, and I think it’s the same way with affecting change…

Last night, I publicly called for an investigation into the name of DeBarr Avenue… I think that the majority of Norman as a whole wants it to be changed. But there has been some kickback on that. I personally have received emails that people will never vote for me again because I’ve ‘wasted time’ on this issue. People have told be to focus on an issue that matters…people have accused me of being a publicity hound…I have lost friends over it, both in reality and on social media. It’s sad that it has to come to that, but the whole experience from March when I first started publicly pursuing this issue has been very eye-opening, both with our history and our values and where we want to go, and just how hard change is for some people — it’s not easy. I knew it wouldn’t be, but I was very naive about how hard it would be…I think I am a better representative and advocate for that experience.

EK: Why is that cause something you’re so dedicated to?

BC: I believe in a culture and a community where people genuinely feel safe and appreciated. And I have talked to so many people of color — my residents, my students here at OU — and I know for a fact that the fact that we know who (DeBarr) was and we’ve just left it there has made them feel less welcome in Norman…I often think of my own children. I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old and they’re white males — I don’t think they’re going to have that hard of a life. But I like to think of other mothers, who are people of color, and what their sons are going to go through. I never want my children to feel the way people have told me they feel, ever. And I’m in a position to work on that and I intend to. And if I don’t get reelected after this, I don’t have a problem with this, because this is what needed to be done.

EK: How do those passions and values you exercise on the city council translate to what you do here on campus?

BC: It’s funny you say that, because working in the integrity office for a decade has really changed me in so many ways  — everything from if I forget to pay for a 12-pack of soda on the bottom of my shopping cart, I walk back in and pay for it, to making sure that this generation’s voice is heard and that our values are represented…I really have a strong sense of integrity and I’ll always tell the truth…I’m very grateful for my time here at the University of Oklahoma, as well as the opportunity to have real conversations with our students and what matters, because I believe the future of Norman is what your generation represents.

EK: Do you think you’ve seen that students’ minds are changed and bettered by the work your office does?

BC: I very much do. I speak to thousands of students a semester in classroom presentations — Gateway’s my favorite because I love talking to freshmen right when they get here, scare them a little bit…How many parents actually sit down and say, ‘let’s talk about integrity — let’s talk about what that value means to our family’? I get to be one of the first people at OU to say that to thousands of freshmen and get them to be like, ‘oh, I never looked at it that way.’

EK: How is it being the ‘enforcer’ on campus — how does that shape your relationship with students?

BC: It’s hard… what’s funny is to people in the community service side of what I do, especially the city side (is)…everyone’s kind of surprised when they hear what a hardass I am on campus. And then vice-versa…here, they’re surprised that I’m nice, ever. And that’s fine — I like to think I’ve gotten softer in my old age because it’s hard to be the bad guy and the mean one all the time. But I think you have to have a little bit of an enforcer attitude…one of the best compliments I’ve gotten about a presentation was ‘I’ve never been as scared and as entertained as I was during your presentation.’

This job has given me so many opportunities — not just the big things, like a sense of integrity and working with young people, really helping to prioritize what matters — but also public speaking, and dealing with confrontation. It’s just been a great opportunity for me and it’s really shaped my leadership style and again, priorities.

EK: Do you see yourself continuing both here and on city council in the future?

BC: I think it’s hard to imagine OU without the scary integrity lady. And I do enjoy it on multiple levels, but I’ve also been doing it for 10 years. So, I don’t know — part of me is ready to pivot, to look at something new. But part of me can’t imagine anything else…it takes a special person to do this job, and I helped create it.

Essay: Change is growth

BY EMMA KEITH, JMC3023

I am 7 years old, sitting at my kitchen table in Houston with my family, crying.

My mother asks why I’m crying and I’m furious she doesn’t know. Not long after, my family packs up our home of two years and moves to another city.

Though this is the first of my family’s moves I remember, I’ve already moved three times by this point, thanks to my father’s job.

But I adjust. I’m a kid still, resilient and outgoing. My family finds a new home, new friends, a new way of life, and we grow comfortable in Dallas, a city we grow to call ours. I wasn’t born a Texan, but by the time I’m a teenager, I call myself one. My friends, my family, my life is there.

I am 17 years old, sitting in our home office in Dallas with my family, sobbing.

This time, my family is sobbing with me; this is the first time I will see my father cry. I am a senior in high school, full of hope for the future that now feels far away.      

I had a plan: To spend the next four years at the University of Oklahoma, only three hours from my home in Dallas. Three hours is a comfortable distance; not so close your parents and brother can visit every weekend, not so far you can’t go home when you miss them.

Suddenly, I have no plan: My family is moving to Atlanta the week after I graduate from high school. I will spend the summer there, and I will spend the next few years 900 miles from the three people I love the most.

I will spend the next few months descending into a deep darkness in a hot, oppressive, lonely city; my family is with me, but I know no one else in Atlanta. No, home is still Dallas, the city where I left so much and had staked my future.

I still don’t have friends my age in Atlanta today. I’m a college student who sometimes lives there for brief stints, too short to befriend anyone. Three summers in, Atlanta is horribly lonely still.

Then and now I think how different life might be if not for that time. I would not be writing this now; I would not have experienced the horrible lows of depression and anger and self-pity. I would not be me.

I realized something talking — and yes, crying — to my best friend on the phone the other day.

She and I, like all my most cherished relationships, apparently, are long distance — she called me from Manhattan, the island she now calls home.

She listened as I bemoaned spending Labor Day without my family while all my friends went home. She’s been with me through the past eight years — through plenty of high school drama, through that one terrible summer, through the uncertainties and newness of college. I talk to her about home and family regularly since she’s an honorary family member by now.

We talk about Atlanta a lot. My feelings have changed throughout the years and she’s seen it all. She heard my tears when I called her from Atlanta one night this summer, sobbing out of loneliness; she heard my joy when she called me as I walked through Midtown Atlanta by myself, content in the sunshine and the city. She knows I want to move to the city when I graduate and she knows despite the pain I feel there, I am drawn to the place.

“Do you tell people you’re from Atlanta?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” I said, admitting it makes me feel like a fraud to say I’m from a city where I didn’t even go to high school.

“You know, I think all this has made you grow up faster than everyone else around you,” she told me. You don’t have the luxuries a lot of your friends have related to home, she said.

She’s right — I can’t run to my family when something goes wrong; I can’t even call my mom sometimes because the hour time difference means she’ll be asleep. I see my parents twice a semester, my brother once every four months; we never spend our birthdays together.

My roommates’ parents come to stay every two weeks. I long to be able to do that.

I am 19 years old, sitting on my porch in Atlanta with my family, trying to hide angry tears.

I barely hear as my parents tell my brother and me we will lose the home I thought we had, the one I was finally comfortable with. My parents tell us as soon as they find out, sitting us down for what they always call a “family meeting.” At first I think they’re playing a cruel joke. They’re not.

My family will move back to Dallas next year, in summer 2018, the week after my brother graduates high school. Atlanta is a city full of music and festivals and art and beauty, a city I was excited to know more of. Dallas has nothing left for me.

My initial reaction to the news is terrible, then my mother reminds me of my reaction to the same news two years ago. She reminds me how terrible I was to everyone then, how she thought I’d grown, how she thought I would be able to react better this time. And I should be able to, so I pull myself together by the end of the weekend.

And I savor my summer with my family and in my city. I go camping with my brother along the Appalachian Trail and floating down the Chattahoochee River two miles from our house; I go to every single weekend art fair in the city with my parents. I go to the art museum and walk around Midtown and visit coffee shops by myself, soaking in the city.

This is my last summer here, and I am making the most of my love for a city that will soon slip away from me.

I am 20 years old, hoping home feels closer soon.

That place has always been hazy in my mind, so I’ve formed my own.

Some people have strong ties to the place they’re from, the state or the city or the tiny town that raised them like a family member.

Places change. Two decades and six cities in, I’ve come to understand my home is the people I love and who love me.

One part of my home moved to New York City a few weeks ago; three members of my home are, for now, in a suburb of Atlanta. Dozens of pieces of my home roam my campus every day, drawing me back to the things that matter.

Am I always content with home? No. When I’m in Norman, I want to be in Atlanta; when I’m in Atlanta, I want to be in Dallas. I am just a fickle human, changing daily.

Two years ago, when I went to college, I wanted nothing more than to get away from my family after spending an entire summer with no one but them.

Now, change and time have made me grow into my love for my family. The ones I love are home in that they anchor me, give me something constant to turn back to, give me love to run to.