“We Change Lives.”
It is every institutional leader’s dream to be able to truthfully say those words. At the University of Oklahoma, they are at the heart of its strategic plan—not only to give students the tools to be successful but also to help them make a difference in the lives of others. And yet, at the same time, that painstaking focus is having another surprising outcome. Oklahoma is helping change the lives of its own employees.
Recently, Forbes magazine announced its Top 500 list of employers for 2022, and the University of Oklahoma was fourth among higher education institutions and in the top 50 in the nation of large employers. Better than Apple. Better than Microsoft. Better than Google.
“At OU, we pride ourselves on being a place where not only our students can thrive, but also our employees,” said Dorothy Anderson, vice president of human resources and chief human resources officer. “The university is committed to developing and retaining an outstanding and diverse workforce, and this recognition validates the progress we’ve been able to achieve.”
Oklahoma gives back to its employees through an array of supports, including professional development opportunities, internal promotions, flexible leave, robust health programs and a strong retirement plan. What OU gets in return is hard work, passion and purpose, says Joseph Harroz Jr., the president of the university, who notes the award from Forbes would not be possible without them. “We’re so thankful. This achievement is a testament to the remarkable commitment and care of our faculty and staff, who work hard every day to make the University of Oklahoma such a special place. It’s a feeling of fatigue and exhilaration at the same time.”
The honor, which also saw Yale, MIT and Alabama-Birmingham rank in the top five, is uplifting given its timing as universities were coping with new iterations of COVID-19. Harroz officially became president in the spring of 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic and while OU was creating its strategic plan. He asked a campus historian at the time to try to give him a sense of how bad it could be and the historian likened it to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. And it was. But remarkably, OU has since scored a number of achievements—its biggest and most qualified freshman class in more than 130 years, a new hospital partnership, nearly $450 million in research awards and a ground-shaking move to the Southeastern Conference set to take place in 2025.
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To learn more about this rising public flagship with 16,000 employees and 31,000-plus students, University Business sat down with the president, a longtime administrator and former Dean of OU’s College of Law, to get his take on leadership, employee success and new innovations happening at OU:
What did it mean to you and the university to be ranked that high on the Forbes list, which is determined by a survey of more than 60,000 workers across the U.S.?
You have to be proud, but have to be really honest about how [you landed] there. How do you make it something that’s not just one accolade, but keep it going and make it something meaningful? Purpose matters a lot to people, especially during a pandemic. We spent a lot of time together on our strategic plan. I refer to it probably 15 times a day. It’s got 139 tactics, 25 strategies, five pillars and one purpose, and that purpose is we change lives. Hopefully, people feel the purpose and realize they are a material part of it. They can see themselves in the strategic plan, and they can see a trajectory. It’s hard not to be inspired when you’re working alongside other people that are all trying to do the same thing you’re doing.
The pandemic could have derailed so many goals and everyday operations at OU. How did your university manage to keep it together?
Crises reveal character. A lot of the values were tested. We had to make big decisions about what to do to protect individuals, our mission and our purpose? We had to say unattractive words, like, there may be a need to declare a financial emergency, which is the thing no president ever wants to have to say, and we talked about all the things that might be necessary, and the sacrifices we might all have to make. But one of our pillars is that we are a place of belonging for students, faculty and staff, and alumni. At the end of the day, we never had to do a furlough. Move-in for housing ordinarily is this really joyous time. I walked in there and the people that are usually the quickest to be engaged didn’t have the time. They were grinding. That was sort of a harbinger of what we’d see, people putting in 14- to 15-hour days to make it happen. HR was at the table in a way that it never had been before. It was the housing teams, Student Affairs, facilities and they’re cleaning this was not one department. It’s been a collective belief around a purpose and this feeling of, we’re all doing it together.
Talk about taking over the presidential post during the first few months of the pandemic, how you handled it and what the university outcomes have been.
It’s funny how in life, you’re ambitious until you’re not, and then things start happening. Being a President is so different [from being a dean]. I’m very thankful to be doing it. You can make fundamental changes and impacts, but it’s nowhere near as much fun. You don’t get to be connected to the students like you were as a dean. You take more selfies. But after 26 years of being an executive officer, and it’s time for you to put up or shut up. All those ideas you had about how you would run it if you had the opportunity, suddenly you have to execute or get out of the way.
We have completely restructured and created the first academic health system that’s ever existed in Oklahoma. Obviously, there’s been a lot of press around [athletic] conference realignment. We had a record year of $241 million in fundraising, and we’re on pace for $300 million. Our research funding is up 24%. You worry about enrollments, but we had our largest freshman class last year, and we had a record minority population at 38%. That’s a stat that brings me to my knees. My dad was the first generation in his family to go to college and it changed our lives. This year in our freshman class, 25% of the students were the first in the history of their families to go to college. Those are the indicators we have to watch and make sure that we’re remaining truly open.
What are some of the financial considerations you and other university leaders have had to make during this challenging time?
We are in an interesting confluence of disruption. Thirty percent of universities going into the pandemic were losing money on their P&L. Institutions weren’t dealing with it. They were just levering up their balance sheet, borrowing money. We saw the structural change occurring with private liberal arts schools, many of which are on the brink of going, and will go, under. We did some housecleaning. The president prior to me did some audit cost savings. We didn’t increase tuition and fees for three of the last four years. We have looked at areas like online and we’ve now grown that to 3,000 students.
How are you managing to achieve those numbers when others are struggling to hit targets?
What is the secret formula? It is leveraging that brand, to be able to say to those students of today and tomorrow, if you come here, this is the vehicle for change in your life. You get to go to one of the best in terms of academic excellence. We don’t know what the jobs are going to be tomorrow, but here’s how we prepare you for it. Here’s why you want to be at a research institution. And it’s affordable. You’re going to grow intellectually and socially and emotionally. And you’ll be part of a diverse university. We know that students will not come to or stay at a research university, especially a flagship, unless they feel like they belong. We will give you purpose in your individual life as a student, with the same purpose have, which is to change lives. What we want for our students is that they can make a difference in the lives of others. That’s the meaning of life if you can care for and truly love others. We want to connect with students so they don’t just see something that is up on an ivory tower.