A Gala for the Future
OU's 'Lead On' campaign celebrates $900 million and keeps its sights on changing lives.
Oklahoma Memorial Union’s Molly Shi Boren Ballroom became a wonderland of color, light and shared stories as nearly 400 alumni and friends gathered Oct. 20 to celebrate the past year’s successes and the continuing mission of the $2 billion “Lead On: The University of Oklahoma’s Campaign for the Future.”
“Lead On” is the largest philanthropic campaign in Oklahoma’s history and OU’s first comprehensive campaign in more than two decades. The seven-year effort has raised $900 million to date, a revelation OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. shared to deafening applause.
The campaign prioritizes increasing access through enhanced student support, fostering faculty growth, creating research opportunities, and encouraging a welcoming campus culture—each in alignment with OU’s “Lead On, University” Strategic Plan. A $500 million commitment to scholarship and student support and $300 million to recruit and retain outstanding faculty are central to the campaign’s goals.
Harroz lauded other recent OU milestones, including a record-breaking freshman enrollment. This year’s class had the highest GPA in OU history. Among the students, 40% are minorities and 26% are the first in their family to attend college.
The president shared national challenges facing higher education, including a decreasing number of high school graduates choosing college. Currently, only 26% of Oklahoma citizens have earned a university education.
“All of us know that, at the end of the day, the greatest ladder to improving your life is a university,” Harroz said.
“When we look at what a college degree means, it changes the life of an individual and the life of the state. You can gauge the economic prosperity of a state by the percentage of individuals who have graduated with a four-year degree.”
Data shows a growing number of future jobs will require college-educated employees, he said, yet there will be 5 to 7 million too few college graduates to fill them.
OU has answered this challenge by focusing on excellence and affordability, Harroz stressed, noting that the university has increased need-based aid 48% over the past five years. “No citizen of this state who has the talent should have to pass on an education at the University of Oklahoma because they can’t afford it.”
Likewise, the university has invested in becoming a top-tier public research institution, Harroz said, with research expenditures exceeding $400 million and research activity increasing by 7 percent this year alone. Oklahoma’s workforce development will also be improved and supported by the University of Oklahoma Polytechnic Institute at OU-Tulsa, which launches next fall.
“We have to find solutions today for tomorrow,” he said.
Among those solutions are addressing Oklahoma’s pressing health disparities by admitting every eligible student to the Fran and Earl Ziegler College of Nursing, rapidly growing the number of students admitted to programs at OU’s Health Sciences Center campus in Oklahoma City and establishing a new branch of the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU-Tulsa.
The Stephenson Center remains Oklahoma’s only NCI-designated cancer center, Harroz said, adding that patients who seek treatment at a research-driven academic center have a 25% increased survival rate in the first year.
Before the gala came to a close with the singing of the “OU Chant” and before hundreds of guests in formal wear streamed out of the crimson-swathed ballroom holding glowing wands on their way to OU’s first nighttime Homecoming parade, Harroz related the urgency of their shared mission.
“What’s taking place at our university matters,” he said. “It matters to the state, our nation, and quite frankly, the world. Our job is to do more. We’re all in this brief window of time and position where we can make a difference. We’re the ones who can change things, and who knows how long that will last?”
Harroz believes reaching for the “Lead On” Campaign’s $2 billion goal represents more than just aspiration.
“By the time the campaign ends on June 30, 2027, we will have done it—not because we’re chasing a number, but because we’re chasing the legacy we inherited.
“We are going to make the American dream available to every citizen in the state. We are dead focused not just on being affordable, but also being excellent. We will become an American Association of Universities-level institution.
“We will, because we must.”
To comment on this story, click here.