The University of Tulsa administration and faculty agree the semester that begins Monday will be the start of something transformational.
They disagree bitterly, though, about whether that transformation will be good or bad for the university.
The question is not academic. For 112 years, the university has been integral to Tulsa’s identity. Its endowment of more than $1.1 billion was built on the fortunes and philanthropy of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens, and its hard-won reputation has grown tremendously in recent decades.
Thus a lot depends on the success or failure of TU’s True Commitment, an academic reorganization initiative announced in April.
Simply put, True Commitment eliminates dozens of degree programs, mostly in the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, and shifts resources to high-enrollment areas such as engineering, computer science and certain business disciplines. The administration describes True Commitment as a “reimagining” and badly needed refocusing of TU’s academic programming.
But a substantial portion of the faculty and a large number of students and alumni are furious about not only the plan itself but the manner in which it was developed and presented to the university. They see it as a threat to both TU’s history and tradition and its future. The Arts and Sciences faculty voted 89-4 not to implement True Commitment, and more than 20 senior faculty members have reportedly taken early retirement.
Several opponents are even asking Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to intervene.
“I look at (the plan) and see the university transitioning from a comprehensive university to a sort of polytechnical institution,” said Brian Hosmer, H.G. Barnard professor of western American history.
TU administrators say that is a misreading of the plan’s direction and intent. President Gerry Clancy says the university remains committed to humanities as central to undergraduate education, but the reality is that professional degree programs in areas such as engineering and business have long predominated and are continuing to grow.
The university says engineering and natural sciences account for about 40% of the degrees TU confers each year, and business, law and health sciences account for another 40%.
This matters because TU, despite its substantial endowment, has been operating at a financial deficit Clancy says is unsustainable.
“I have a clear mandate from my board to generate new revenue,” he said. “That comes by way of growing our student body in areas where demand is high. That is, right now, engineering, computer sciences, cyber and health sciences.”
True Commitment opponents say that misses the point, that TU is chasing dollars instead of concentrating on fundamental education.
“If you’re a top 100 university, what do you do?” asked philosophy and religion professor Jacob Howland, one of True Commitment’s sharpest critics. “You sure as hell don’t throw away your brand.”
Clancy and Provost Janet Levit painted a dire picture of TU’s long-term prospects when they announced True Commitment in April.
The university, Clancy said, was spending $10,000 more per student than it was generating in tuition revenue. He cited a study declaring that the pool of potential college students is shrinking and that the number of universities is likely to shrink, as well, and intimated the Higher Learning Commission — the top accrediting agency — was giving the university’s management the evil eye.
As a private institution, TU’s books are closed to the public. Clancy and Levit have said money is a factor in the current reorganization, but they have also said the university is financially sound.
TU’s tax returns for 2017, the most recent year available, show revenue of $313 million with expenses of $294.5 million — an $18.5 million surplus — with net assets of $1.3 billion. University officials said the surplus may be more the result of cash flow related to endowment utilization than actual operations.
In 2016, the university reported a $7 million operating loss and net assets of $1.21 billion.
The university has taken some hard knocks in the past decade or so.
According to several people with knowledge of the situation, fundraising for at least two major building projects fell significantly short, causing the university to borrow money.
Then there was the short, calamitous presidency of Geoffrey Orsak. Hired in 2012, Orsak was fired within a matter of months, resulting in the reluctant return of his retired predecessor, Steadman Upham.
And with football attendance dwindling, athletics hemorrhaged money. Meanwhile the flow of international students, critical to TU and many other American universities because they pay full fare in cash, has slowed amid increasing U.S. hostility to foreigners.
This fall, the university says it will have a record number of entering “domestic” freshmen but only about 40 from outside the U.S. Just a few years ago TU counted on five to six times that many.
By late 2015 or early 2016, alarm bells were sounding, and in late 2016 Clancy, who had already been named Upham’s successor, was hurried into the president’s suite several months ahead of schedule.
Clancy immediately set to work on a five-year strategic plan. To his surprise, he found TU hadn’t really evaluated its academic programs or management in decades. When the plan was announced in 2017, it included a warning that some programs might be cut. But no one at TU had paid much attention to such things in the past, or at least not in a very long time, and so it came as something of a shock when it became clear that Clancy and Levit intended to do just that.
Said Clancy: “We had a board that said, ‘You will implement the plan and you will update us on the plan, and Gerry you will measure your vice presidents and deans by how they implement the plan.’”
End of academic ‘utopia’
Process and substance are at the heart of the dispute.
The administration says its proposal “doubles down” on TU’s best features: personal attention, undergraduate research opportunities, critical and creative thinking.
Those opposed to True Commitment — including more than 15 national academic organizations and 7,600 people who’ve signed an online petition — argue the plan will actually dilute the “special sauce,” as it’s called in one document, by de-emphasizing liberal arts, increasing class sizes and faculty course loads, and by making the university less attractive to faculty and, ultimately, students.
“Many of us were attracted to the university by the balance of teaching, research and service,” said English professor Bob Jackson.
One faculty member said TU had become something of an academic “utopia” in which the various departments were largely left to their own devices.
“We went from a state of benign neglect to malign neglect,” said Howland.
There does seem to be a general if grudging agreement among opponents of True Commitment that the university’s academic side needed some attention. What galls them is that the administration seemed to put more faith in a Washington-based consultant than its own personnel.
“We weren’t consulted in any meaningful way,” said law professor Tamara Piety.
That wouldn’t be unusual in the business world, but academia is different. Universities grew up around teachers, not administrators, and to this day professors expect to be included in decisions about academic programs. They are, they say, the experts on teaching and curriculum.
Shared governance is insisted upon by accrediting agencies and academic associations. Even TU’s internal policies require changes in curriculum to go through the faculty senate — a provision Clancy himself asked for. Early on, Clancy also arranged for the president and vice president of the faculty senate to become non-voting members of the board of trustees.
True Commitment is touted as the product of a faculty committee — the Provost’s Program Review Committee. In virtually every statement about True Commitment, it refers to the process as “faculty-led,” which is true in that a faculty committee formulated the recommendations. According to the university, those recommendations were based on data gathered from the various academic units.
But committee members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements that other faculty members say prevented or at least hindered real discussion.
Clancy said the agreements were intended to protect committee members. Essentially, the administration did not want the members being lobbied or singled out if individual positions on the various decisions became known.
“When you look at programs that may be phased out, you need to be able to put those faculty that are doing the reviews in a position where they can have open and honest conversations,” he said. “But we have learned from that, and going forward it’s a different nondisclosure type form.”
In the meantime, the university was working with EAB, a large education consulting firm. It’s unclear what role EAB played in the reorganization or how much it was paid, but its presence in the process further inflamed opponents.
Thus, True Commitment critics say, hardly anyone knew what was in the proposal until it was presented to the university as more or less a fait accompli on April 11.
Plans not etched in stone
Publicly, the university does not acknowledge significant opposition to its plans. Some minor alterations have been made, including the deletion of “super” from the term “professional super college” used to describe a possible combining of the colleges of law, business and health sciences.
Officials say that combination is now looking more like a “consortium” that may share some administrative costs.
Similarly, they say academic departments will not be eliminated, as the plan announced in April indicated. And class sizes will not be growing, as suggested in one report generated by the review — officials said the idea is to eliminate classes of fewer than five when possible, but to also split larger classes into multiple sections.
Clancy has met individually with more than 70 faculty members over the summer. He says their concerns have influenced him.
“This is evolving,” he said. “This is not something that’s etched in hard stone no matter what.”
Some faculty are not convinced.
“I don’t think anybody is really optimistic,” said Jackson.
Tulsa Police Sgt. Jennifer Murphy talks about the Tulsa Police new reading program and school supply handout at the Darlington Apartments.