Keeping the Faith
The president of the University of Oklahoma looked from his window in Evans Hall with a worried frown. He knew he had to face faculty and staff with a difficult situation. Economic conditions threatened the forward momentum the university had gained in the years since he had taken office. Neither the legislature nor the governor seemed to consider higher education a priority; state appropriations had been steadily declining each year. Improvements across the board—from new residence halls to a growing international presence—were at risk of stalling despite growing enrollment.
The year was 1930 and OU President William Bennett Bizzell had just begun to grapple with the effects of the Great Depression. Throughout the early ’30s Bizzell remained focused on the university’s future and the well-being of its students, knowing that to do otherwise would compromise the potential of a generation. A student loan program created with a $50,000 gift from Ponca City oilman Lew Wentz in 1925 was the lifeline that helped many stay in school.
“World conditions are vastly different today from what they were when you entered college,” Bizzell told the graduating class of 1932. “I am sure that many of you are wondering today what you will do after you leave this campus.”
But he added prophetically, “Let me remind you that existing conditions will not last forever. When that day comes, you will be prepared to avail yourself of the opportunities that life will offer.”
When President Bizzell left office in 1941, he had steered the university safely through treacherous economic seas, lifting the standards of academic integrity for undergraduates and conferring OU’s first doctoral degrees. His bricks-and-mortar contributions include the University of Oklahoma Press, Buchanan Hall, the Field House, and his most important legacy — a regal, scholarly library, complete with turrets and gargoyles, that still bears his name.
Fast forward to 1982 when OU President William S. Banowsky looked through the same Evans Hall window, literally and metaphorically. The former president of Pepperdine had arrived from Malibu, Calif., in 1978 with an ambitious vision for the university and the fundraising expertise to make it happen. He launched the Campaign for Academic Excellence with a goal of $103 million for 18 key projects.
During the early years of Banowsky’s term, assets at the OU Foundation rose by 154 percent. Private gifts and state budget allocations elevated faculty salaries from last place to first in the Big 8, and campus morale soared alongside. But a storm of inflated oil prices and unsecured business loans loomed on the horizon, and when the oil market crashed, many of OU’s largest donors crashed with it.
“We are faced with a choice between quality and mediocrity, and that kind of blow will be a decade long,” Banowsky said. Yet despite state cuts, Banowsky’s tenure ended on a positive note thanks to the uncompromising faith of OU donors. More than $155 million in private funding helped build Sarkeys Energy Center, Catlett Music Hall, a 150,000-square-foot expansion to Bizzell Memorial Library and a new pharmacy building on OU’s Health Sciences Center campus in Oklahoma City. The National Weather Service moved from Oklahoma City to OU’s north campus, a precursor of the internationally renowned facility that anchors the university’s south research campus.
Today, OU is met once again with a budget challenge delivered by the unwelcome, but familiar, twins of falling oil prices and decreased state funding.
“We are facing a very serious situation,” President David Boren recently told a group of faculty and staff gathered in Beaird Lounge. “It’s the largest single cut to the budget of this university from the state that I’ve seen in my 22-year history.”
For the past eight years, direct cuts to the university budget and an increase in fixed costs have left OU with $150 million less, but with 1,500 more students, Boren said. Yet, across the board, excellence in teaching and measured academic performance has never been higher. “We’ve been doing some remarkable things. To be doing that during a time of economic downturn is even more remarkable,” he added.
Boren is the first to admit he could not have done it alone. Since taking office in 1994, donors have contributed $2.2 billion to university initiatives, including capital campaigns; endowed faculty positions; new degree programs; and the increasingly important scholarship support for undergraduates, master’s students and Ph.D. candidates.
“Where would we be without their help?” he asked.
Well, there wouldn’t be a cancer center or a diabetes center on the HSC campus in Oklahoma City. There wouldn’t be a Schusterman campus or a School of Community Medicine in Tulsa. There would be no Reynolds Performing Arts Center, no life sciences center on OU’s south research campus — there probably wouldn’t even be a south research campus. And thousands of OU alumni might have ended their academic careers in high school if not for millions of dollars in scholarship support.
As OU degree candidates marched to their places inside the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium for Commencement 2016, there was little doubt that each person sporting a mortar board was there through someone’s generosity and sacrifice, whether it was a beloved family member or a benevolent stranger. Boren reminded the 2016 graduates that they, too, shared an obligation to give back. “We have a moral responsibility to educate the next generation by giving them the tools to succeed.”
As lightning flashed and dark clouds gathered above the stadium, the intellectual firepower about to be unleashed on the world crackled with its own electricity. When sprinkles dotted the caps and gowns, Boren called a halt to the ceremony, but not before the OU Chant ended in an explosion of fireworks.
The graduating class of 2016 achieved their dreams with hard work and the generosity of OU donors. With their ongoing help—and only with their help—the University of Oklahoma, too, will weather the storm.
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