James Gallogly and David Boren shake hands

David L. Boren (right) congratulates James Gallogly after the University of Oklahoma announced in March that Gallogly would succeed Boren as OU president. Just a few months later, the two were at odds. STEVE SISNEY/The Oklahoman

Not so long ago, University of Oklahoma President James Gallogly and his predecessor, David Boren, were good friends.

They’ve known each other for 25 years, and until recently they sometimes sat together at OU football games. A graduate of the OU College of Law, Gallogly is a major donor to the university; an engineering building on the Norman campus is named for him and his wife, Janet Gallogly, even though neither is an engineer.

For most of the 25 years of their friendship, Gallogly was an executive with Phillips and then ConocoPhillips, companies with deep roots in Oklahoma and long ties to the university. Boren was a director of both companies at various times.

Now Boren and Gallogly haven’t spoken in months. At least to outsiders, they appear to be in a struggle to define Boren’s nearly quarter-century at OU’s helm and to determine the direction it might take under Gallogly.

“I really don’t know,” Gallogly said last week when asked why the situation deteriorated so rapidly, “but I didn’t sleep very much last night.”

Boren and Gallogly’s differences burst into the open last summer when Gallogly, days before officially assuming the presidency upon Boren’s retirement, sounded a dire warning about the university’s finances.

Boren immediately rebutted Gallogly’s claim, saying there was nothing unusual about OU’s balance sheets.

Through an intermediary, Gallogly then reportedly threatened to “destroy” Boren if he “crossed” him again, according to a story published last week by the Norman Transcript.

It’s that story that was keeping Gallogly awake. Whether true or not — Gallogly says it isn’t, other sources told the World it is — it suggests that the new president has less than full control of the narrative surrounding the transition.

An acrimonious transition

Gallogly said last week’s story should have been that tuition isn’t increasing, the faculty are getting their first salary increase in five years, and $31 million in efficiencies have been squeezed from the university’s operation.

Instead, it was about his relationship with Boren and whether there is a concerted effort to diminish the former Democratic governor and U.S. senator’s legacy in a state now controlled by Republicans.

“Everybody trying to make this a shootout between two people are missing the whole point,” Gallogly said. “’He said this; he said that.’

“It’s not about (us).”

Boren, citing poor health, declined to be interviewed, but his long-time associate Bob Burke said the “rift” between the two is “sad.”

Such an openly acrimonious transition in university administrations is unusual. Far greater financial difficulties than those Gallogly alleges have been papered over with far less public strife — which is why observers are so puzzled by what’s been going on at OU.

Few insiders are willing to talk on the record about the current situation, but off the record, many say its real origins long predate Gallogly’s arrival on the scene.

They cite Boren’s deteriorating relationship with the state’s political leadership, particularly after he spearheaded a failed 2016 ballot initiative for a 1 percent state sales tax to benefit education.

The political game

Universities and politicians are often at odds, and nowhere is that more true than in Oklahoma.

State appropriations for the public higher education system this fiscal year are $41.2 million less than they were 18 years ago and more than $275 million less than in 2008. In 2016, with state revenue shriveling, lawmakers took a $100 million hunk out of higher education in what many perceived as a reaction to Boren’s 1-percent education tax campaign.

Among those reportedly angered were powerful Oklahoma City business leaders and several OU regents. Regular critics of the state’s higher education system, including the influential Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, trained their guns on Boren and OU.

Their targets included an Italian monastery donated to the university for a study abroad campus and what seemed to be a growing tier of upper administration.

Some conservatives advocated ending higher education appropriations altogether. Legislators harped about rising tuition and the growing cost of Boren’s signature Merit Scholars program.

But Boren continued to complain about what he deemed the abandonment of public higher education. When OU ran deficits in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, he blamed it primarily on annualized reductions since 2015 approaching $50 million.

Although a Democrat, Boren had for most of his public career worked easily with Republicans. But as tension mounted over the state’s declining finances and Boren became increasingly active in denouncing cuts to education, patience wore thin. Democrats appointed by Gov. Brad Henry cycled off the Board of Regents, replaced by Republicans appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin.

In September 2017, Boren announced that he would retire the following summer.

The abrupt changes

Any chance of a harmonious transfer seems to have ended with the June exchange between Gallogly and Boren, followed a few days later by the dismissal of a half-dozen senior administrators, including at least one who had been with Boren throughout his tenure.

The changes in personnel were not unexpected, but some thought them needlessly abrupt and cold-blooded.

Beyond that, though, were subtler moves some interpreted as pokes at David and Molly Boren. The residential colleges that had been a pet project of David Boren became Gallogly’s Exhibit A for wasteful spending. When 50 people were laid off at the end of October, it so happened most worked in the landscaping department, an area the Borens had given particular attention.

Then there was the matter of a plaque that was to be placed in memory of Molly Boren’s brother, Dr. Augustin Henry Shi V.

After Shi died of cancer in 2016, the Borens contributed $25,000, with the understanding that a plaque would be installed in the Stephenson Cancer Center at the OU Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.

Accounts differ as to why the plaque’s placement was still undone when Gallogly became president 18 months later, but he says he believed that the OU regents needed to act on it. Gallogly says that when he offered to present the matter to the board, the Borens withdrew their gift.

Last week, Gallogly also sometimes sounded aggrieved.

“I spent my first morning of my first day in office laying people off, and that’s not what I thought I was signing on for,” he said.

He also seemed to find the discovery that OU had misrepresented some of its fundraising numbers personally irksome.

“We had a major campaign, … supposed to be a half-billion dollar campaign,” he said. “I was on the committee. We met one time, and not too long after that, I heard we’d met our goal. Now I find out it was because of (the misrepresentation).”

Different backgrounds

Some think the situation has been exacerbated by Boren’s and Gallogly’s different personalities, backgrounds and styles.

Boren was a congressman’s son who played hide-and-seek with the speaker of the U.S. House as a boy, graduated from Yale and Oxford, was a governor and became one of the most respected members of the U.S. Senate before coming to OU.

Boren’s entire life has been on the public stage. He’s a master of controlling the message and surrounded himself with loyal communications people.

Perhaps most fundamentally, he’s a big-picture person who tends to care more about results than process.

Gallogly, by contrast, had to scrap for everything. He was one of 10 children, and his father was an Air Force enlisted man. Gallogly worked his way through the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs as a grocery store clerk. His wife worked at a Safeway to put him through law school.

Gallogly’s career has been in boardrooms and executive suites. Reportedly, he was surprised to learn that his emails and memos are public records.

His unfamiliarity with public life and the importance of messaging is perhaps indicated by his decision to fire OU’s communications director in July without any apparent succession plan. A new director was hired only this month and doesn’t officially begin work until January.

Where Boren used gaudy fundraising numbers and the elite Merit Scholars program to pump up publicity for the university, Gallogly seems more concerned with keeping tuition down and spending more on need-based aid.

Where Boren focused on building the reputation of OU’s undergraduate education, Gallogly wants to strengthen its graduate school and research.

By most accounts, facts and rules matter a lot to Gallogly. Learning that some OU administrators had knowingly submitted misleading figures related to the school’s fundraising seemed to genuinely upset him.

In the big scheme of things, the misrepresentations themselves had relatively little impact, but that was not the point, Gallogly said.

“When I see this kind of behavior in my university,” he said, “it troubles me very deeply.”

Randy Krehbiel

918-581-8365

randy.krehbiel@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @rkrehbiel

Randy has been with the Tulsa World since 1979. He is a native of Hinton, Okla., and graduate of Oklahoma State University. Krehbiel primarily covers government and politics. Phone: 918-581-8365