A few weeks into my new position at the University of Tulsa, I heard a faculty member down the hall, out of my sight, chide another faculty member. She said, “You need to understand that Dr. Clancy likes to move rapidly so you better get going on your project.” She was exactly right but the comment caused me to ask myself why I feel the need to always move so fast?
As a psychiatrist, I am trained to understand patterns of behavior that often predict terrible outcomes and intervene quickly before that outcome actually occurs. When I see trouble ahead for my patients, I need to act fast. Everyone wants their physician to act in the same manner — quickly heading off trouble before it occurs.
As I look back on Oklahoma’s past several years, I see declining public investments in key areas that predict a very worrisome future for the education, health, quality jobs and economic opportunities for our children. I again have a great sense of urgency, a desire to move quickly, for Oklahoma is standing still on investing in our children while the world accelerates away from us.
We need look no further than Arkansas and Texas, which are investing (not divesting) in education and recruiting away our teachers. I look at our fellow energy state, North Dakota, and see that between 2008 to 2016, that state’s funding per-student increased 27.2 percent while Oklahoma’s declined by 26.9 percent: a 54-point funding gap.
These states have remained conservative in government spending, but are still moving quickly and investing in their children’s future. All it takes is two simple things. First, the realization that education is a bridge to a better future for everyone. The second, making investments in education the absolute top priority, not a casually considered investment in direct competition with tax-cutting and tax-breaking.
Everyone knows that a college degree provides much higher earning capacity. Everyone knows a college degree changes the life for generations of families. My parents and my wife’s parents were first in their families to ever go to college and our families were forever changed because of education. But we need to get our kids to college first and that takes investing in education. Over the past several years, as school funding has declined, we have seen an increase in Oklahoma high school graduates who need remedial education before they move on to college.
Even faster moving than North Dakota, Texas and Arkansas is the great western front of China and the Xin Jiang province. Once thought by some to be too isolated and primitive to contribute to the world economy, the region is becoming a world economic powerhouse. The region has many similarities to Oklahoma and the American West — long traditions with horses, vast mountain ranges, deserts and prairies, a strong work ethic among the people, a low cost of living, a desire for energy independence, and oil, lots of oil. In fact, their lead energy city, Karamay, means Oil City of the World in the native Uyghur language. Sound familiar to Tulsa’s past?
What impressed me most with Karamay’s leaders is how quickly they are working to fulfill their economic vision. Their plan projects growth in the energy sectors, which are then leveraged to provide new investments in the knowledge sectors of technology, information systems and information services industries worldwide.
At the foundation of their growth strategy for world-wide energy, technology and information system sectors is the prioritization of investing in all aspects of education. Ironically, while Oklahoma suffered this year with a self-inflicted $878 million budget hole, Karamay leaders invested $800 million in energy, technology and information sciences education for their city’s university.
Because we have prioritized lowering taxes far ahead of investing in education, we have put our children’s future in jeopardy unless we quickly adjust. This includes funding education at the expense of the drive to lower taxes. This includes supporting the campaigns of legislators who have the same priority. This includes voting for those legislators that prioritize education. And finally, this includes acting quickly, for our competition is pulling away.
Gerard Clancy, M.D., is the president of the University of Tulsa. He wrote this column after returning from a trip to western China, where TU has established a Joint Education and Research Center for Culture and Science with China University of Petroleum Beijing and Karamay.