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University of Tulsa administration, faculty grapple over budget priorities

The University of Tulsa spends its money in a reasonable manner, the school’s chief financial officer said last week after a faculty member’s widely distributed analysis claimed otherwise.

The professor, Matt Hendricks — whose research area is K-12 finances — said his calculations show TU spends a smaller share of its overall budget on instruction and more on academic support and auxiliary enterprises than most peer institutions.

Instruction primarily includes faculty salaries and benefits. Auxiliary enterprises include housing, food service and intercollegiate athletics.

Academic support includes academic administration — typically the provost’s office — and nonteaching support staff such as counselors. Academic support also includes museums and other academically related facilities.

The president’s office and other administrators are under another category, called institutional support. TU’s spending in this category is actually at the low end of the scale.

TU’s chief financial officer, Executive Vice President Kevan Buck, said Hendricks’ analysis is based on old data and skewed by factors such as Gilcrease Museum, which weighs in at more than 25% of TU’s academic support budget.

Taking Gilcrease’s $8 million budget out of the equation lowers the share of academic support spending, but it wouldn’t increase the actual dollars allocated anywhere else because the $8 million would stay with the museum.

(Buck said Gilcrease is currently self-sufficient but was previously subsidized by the university for several years. A policy statement last spring said TU will no longer “backstop” museum operations.)

“No matter what else is said, every year, year in, year out, we spend much more on instruction than we do any other category,” said Buck.

Hendricks agrees per-pupil spending is about average for schools like TU but says it could be higher.

“I try to identify where TU should be given its innate characteristics,” Hendricks said. “(Instruction) should be at about 33%. Instead we’re at about 27½ or so.”

Hendricks also contends TU’s per-student administrative costs are among the highest in the country.

Underlying the dispute is anger and suspicion over an academic reorganization that critics say was formulated without sufficient faculty input.

The administration says the reorganization is necessary given recent financial reversals and market place realities.

Skeptics say the university is scrimping on academic quality — i.e., faculty — while overspending on administration and things like buildings and athletics.

In particular, they have zeroed in on an expansion of the provost’s office, which is accounted for under academic support, and whose chief occupant, Janet Levit, has become a major target of the reorganization’s opponents.

Buck acknowledged the provost’s office has added personnel in the past few years but said those additions are related to efforts to improve the school’s graduation and retention rates.

“We invested in the provost’s office, without question,” said Buck. “Frankly, we needed it. We needed more people in it to deal with the issues we were dealing with at the time and that we’re currently dealing with.”

Those “issues,” Buck said, surfaced largely because of changes in the methodology for the U.S. News and World Reports college rankings.

Those changes highlighted low graduation and retention rates based on expectations given entering students’ academic records, and low graduation and retention of Pell Grant recipients.

The later criteria is new and was added to the formula as a measure of “upward mobility” — that is, the extent to which the university helps students overcome financial constraints.

Buck said those two elements have been factors in TU’s slide from No. 75 in the ratings in the early 2010s to No. 121 in the 2020 edition, including a drop of 15 spots in just one year.

Buck pointed out TU’s highest ranking for an individual criteria — No. 36, up three spots from 2019 — was faculty support.

While such rankings are widely disparaged, they are nevertheless important to universities, especially private schools such as TU that must convince families they are worth the higher tuition.

So TU decided to spend more on academic support in the form of academic counselors and “financial coaches” who begin working with students before they even arrive on campus, as well as on other student support services.

Buck said the school’s largest auxiliary expense is for student housing and food service. The university owes a total of about $120 million on campus buildings and also has a significant number of new buildings that are paid off but show up as expenses because of depreciation.

Buck acknowledged a significant spike in athletics spending several years ago, but said the department has since taken a $2 million budget cut.

“The problem is not on the expense side,” said Buck. “It’s on the revenue side.”

And revenue from student tuition is declining — about $6 million a year from 2014 — even while enrollment has remained stable.

A big reason for that, Buck said, is the virtual disappearance of international students. TU’s international enrollment has declined by more than 80% over the past six years.

That’s important because, unlike domestic students, internationals usually paid full rates.

“In 2014, one international student equaled three domestic students in terms of revenue,” Buck said.

Hendricks and others argue that the university is putting money in the wrong place, that its priority should be hiring more and better faculty.

They also complain that communication and lack of access to the university’s budget details contribute to the tension with faculty. More generalized financial statements are available online through 2018.

Hendricks built his analysis on a data set that ends in 2015, and was able to extrapolate it out to 2017.

Buck said the university was at its financial nadir in 2015, hit by a succession of calamities that caused it to lay off more than 50 staff members and suspend contributions to employee pension funds. It also had to write off $14.5 million in pledged contributions that did not materialize.

Buck said TU is currently spending more than 30% of its budget on instruction. He didn’t dispute Hendricks’ data, but did question the significance.

By one measure of money spent on instruction employed by Hendricks, TU ranks ahead of Dartmouth, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On a scale of “academic efficiency” devised by Hendricks, TU is ahead of Stanford, Tufts and Harvard.

“That’s company I don’t mind keeping,” Buck said.

Hendricks, who has presented his findings both on campus and at downtown Tulsa’s Central Library, said he’s continuing to refine his model to allow for differences among institutions. And each time he does, he says, TU comes out near the bottom.

“Ultimately, I think what we have is the administration believes the best way to improve student outcomes at TU is to grow the administration and shrink the faculty, essentially, when research shows just the opposite improves student outcomes,” he said.

TU, in fact, has said it does not intend to eliminate faculty slots. And, instructional spending is one of the few areas in which the university has increased spending in the past two years.

The concern, however, is that recruiting and retaining top-notch professors in areas most affected by the reorganization will become more difficult.

“The thing that really worries me is that once these numbers are out there and people realize where their donations are going and where their tuition money is going it will really turn them off to future donations or even sending their kids to TU,” said Hendricks.

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House Democrats plan 1st formal vote on impeachment inquiry

WASHINGTON — A military officer at the National Security Council twice raised concerns over the Trump administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden, according to testimony the official is prepared to deliver Tuesday in the House impeachment inquiry.

Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and, later, as a diplomat, is prepared to tell House investigators that he listened to President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with new Ukraine President Volodymr Zelenskiy and reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel.

“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman will say, according to prepared testimony obtained Monday night by The Associated Press. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

Vindman will be the first current White House official set to appear as the impeachment inquiry reaches deeper into the Trump administration and Democrats prepare for the next, public phase of the probe.

The 20-year military officer will testify that he first reported his concerns after an earlier meeting July 10 in which U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a company linked to the family of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Vindman says he told Sondland that “his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

That account differs from Sondland’s, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump inauguration and testified before the impeachment investigators that no one from the NSC “ever expressed any concerns.” He also testified that he did not realize any connection between Biden and Burisma.

For the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Vindman said he listened in the Situation Room with colleagues from the NSC and Vice President Mike Pence’s office, and was concerned. He again reported his concerns to NSC’s lead counsel, he said.

He wrote, “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

Vindman, who arrived in the United States as a 3-year-old from the former Soviet Union, served in various military and diplomatic posts before joining the NSC. He was the director for European affairs and a Ukraine expert under Fiona Hill, a former official who testified earlier in the impeachment probe. Hill worked for former national security adviser John Bolton.

Vindman will be a key witness. He attended Zelenskiy’s inauguration with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and he and Hill were both part of a Ukraine briefing with Sondland that others have testified irritated Bolton at the White House.

Vindland will testify that he is not the whistleblower, the still unnamed government official who filed the initial complaint over Trump’s conversation with the Ukraine president that sparked the House impeachment inquiry. He will say he does not know who the whistleblower is.

“I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” wrote Vindman, who was wounded in Iraq and awarded a Purple Heart.

“For over twenty years as an active duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he wrote.

The testimony is expected the day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump. The vote is expected Thursday.

At its core, the impeachment inquiry is looking into Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, when he asked the new Ukraine president for a “favor” in what Democrats say was a quid pro quo that could be an impeachable offense.

Pelosi’s announcement Monday came just hours after a former White House national security official defied a House subpoena for closed-door testimony, escalating the standoff between Congress and the White House over who will testify.

Charles Kupperman, who was a deputy to Bolton, failed to show up for the scheduled closed-door deposition after filing a lawsuit asking a federal court in Washington to rule on whether he was legally required to appear.

The argument advanced by Kupperman’s lawyers turns on his status as a close adviser to the president and may not be available for other administration officials who are lower down the executive branch organization chart or who did not have regular contact with Trump.

Democrats have indicated they are likely to use no-show witnesses to write an article of impeachment against Trump for obstruction of justice, rather than launching potentially lengthy court battles to obtain testimony.

State, tribes hold historic meeting on gaming compacts: 'You have to walk before you can run'

SHAWNEE — State and tribal leaders held a historic meeting Monday to discuss the future of the multimillion-dollar gaming compacts.

But nothing appeared to be resolved.

The meeting was held at the Grand Casino, owned by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, just outside of Shawnee.

About 200 tribal leaders and their representatives met with Attorney General Mike Hunter, who is representing the state.

About 31 of the 35 tribes involved in gaming were present.

“We had a very positive and constructive conversation today with tribal leaders,” Hunter said. “We are going to convene again in the very near future. Not to be trite, but you have to walk before you can run.”

The attorney general said he could not provide specifics about Monday’s discussions.

Tribal leaders began meeting just before 9 a.m. Hunter arrived around 1 p.m. He talked to reporters shortly before 4 p.m., saying the state began a conversation with tribes to find a path forward on the future of the state’s tribal gaming compacts.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has said the fees the tribes pay to the state for exclusive gaming rights are too low. Those rates range from 4% to 10%.

In fiscal year 2018, Oklahoma collected nearly $139 million in tribal gaming exclusivity fees, according to a report from the state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services. That was a 3.48% increase over fiscal 2017.

Stitt did not attend the meeting, but has met with various tribes.

His senior adviser, Donelle Harder, and Chief of Staff Michael Junk were present.

Some tribes have said the fees should not be raised, given the amount of dollars the state gets in addition to other contributions the tribes make. They also point to the jobs they have created.

A major sticking point has been duration of the existing compacts.

Stitt believes they expire on Jan. 1, 2020, while the tribes believe the compacts automatically renew.

That issue wasn’t resolved when the meeting ended.

“It is clear the state has a major dispute over automatic renewal,” said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. “Tribal leaders will take time to assess today’s discussion with Attorney General Hunter. Nothing is more important to the tribes than resolving the automatic renewal and we are committed to continued dialogue.”

Hunter said the sides are working on a process to resolve the dispute.

“We are hopeful of getting resolution with respect to that issue as well as sitting down and negotiating generally on the compact,” Hunter said. “Today was important because today was an opportunity to discuss the state’s position.”

Adding sports betting and online gaming may have some appeal to tribes.

The state recently added ball-and-dice games to the list of approved gaming in an effort to raise additional revenue for its coffers.

“It is important for the tribes and the state that this part of our economy remains competitive and as successful as it has been in the past,” Hunter said.

Tribal gaming is a $4 billion-plus industry that generates more than $130 million for the state, Hunter said.

“The stakes are very significant here,” Hunter said.

Stitt issued a statement after the meeting praising the attorney general’s role as the state’s lead negotiator in the “government-to-government discussion.”

“When we are all working together, I am confident the state and Oklahoma’s 39 tribes can achieve a win-win for all 4 million Oklahomans,” the governor said.

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Tulsa Remote wants to double the number of people receiving $10,000 to move here

A friend from Los Angeles sent a link to Kate Yanov Birtch, who was wanting to move back to the States after a year in Singapore. Then, the next day, Yanov Birtch’s mother tagged her on a Facebook post about it. And a second friend from Hawaii mentioned the same program: a Tulsa billionaire was offering to pay people $10,000 to spend a year in the city.

“I took it as some kind of signal to me from the universe that I should apply,” said Yanov Birtch, who grew up near San Fransisco. “I never thought about Tulsa before, but all of a sudden everybody was telling me what a great city it was.”

Everybody, indeed, seemed to be talking about Tulsa.

A year ago, when the George Kaiser Family Foundation created the Tulsa Remote program and announced plans to offer people cash if they agreed to spend a year in Tulsa, officials expected to bring 20, maybe 25, newcomers to the city.

They never expected the avalanche it triggered: Nearly 1,000 applied in just the first 24 hours. And over the next few weeks, Tulsa Remote processed more than 10,000 applications from all 50 states and 165 different countries.

Eventually, a total of 115 people came to Tulsa this year as a direct result of the program’s offer.

Inspired by that overwhelming response, Tulsa Remote will announce plans Tuesday to more than double the size of the program in 2020, when officials hope to bring at least 250 new people to Tulsa with the same offer.

Applicants must already have a job that will let them work “remotely” from Tulsa. And if chosen, they will receive $10,000 plus free co-working space and curated housing options along with help connecting to various community groups.

In exchange, they simply agree to spend one year living in Tulsa.

The hope, of course, is that they will want to stay longer.

Yanov Birtch, for one, plans to stay for good. Running her own insurance company, she and her husband plan to start a family next year and consider Tulsa the perfect place to raise children.

“I know the size of city that I do well in,” Yanov Birtch said. “Small enough not to have terrible traffic but big enough to have stores, restaurants, cultural opportunities. Tulsa is just the right size.”

Tulsa Remote has not surveyed participants to know exactly how many plan to stay permanently. But anecdotally, it seems many will at least be here for a while, said Aaron Bolzle, the program’s executive director. At least a dozen participants have already bought homes in Tulsa and several more are looking for houses, he said.

“The vast majority have exceptionally enjoyed Tulsa and are planning to stay longer,” Bolzle said. “It worked exactly the way we thought it would. Once people get to know Tulsa, they love it.”

Obum Ukabam saw Tulsa Remote mentioned on Facebook while living in Riverside, California.

“Tulsa is the kind of place that you’ve heard of, but that you don’t know much about,” Ukabam said. “The more I researched it, the more interesting it sounded, especially when I read about the history of Black Wall Street and the entrepreneurial spirit that has always been a part of Tulsa. That intrigued me.”

Less than a year after moving here, he has already become involved in multiple community groups and serves as a debate coach at a local elementary school. And Ukabam’s wife, who had never lived outside of California before, “has totally fallen in love with the city,” he said.

“It’s the Tulsa Remote staff that makes it work,” he said. “They have become a family to us. We were new to Tulsa but we already had this amazing support group that basically made everything easy for us.”

Adam Recvlohe, a software developer, had lived in Tulsa from 2009 to 2012 before moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was intrigued to hear about Tulsa Remote’s offer.

“Downtown has changed quite a bit,” Recvlohe said. “Previously, I didn’t frequent downtown much. There were just a few business here and there. But now, downtown has a really good feel.”

Tulsa also offers more opportunities “to become involved in the community,” he said, especially with his tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, where he hopes to encourage more young people to pursue careers in software development.

“I want to have a meaningful impact on the place where live,” Recvlohe said. “And Tulsa is the kind of place where you can do that.”

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