While Oklahoma Dawdles, Its Universities Rot

Even in the reddest of states, higher-ed reform doesn’t come easy.

[Editor’s note: The following article continues the Martin Center’s series on the status of higher-ed reform in states of interest to our readers. Please read our reports on Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, and West Virginia. And check this space regularly for updates on reform efforts in South Dakota and elsewhere.]

When accepting the Heritage Foundation’s 2024 Salvatori Prize on May 22, Chris Rufo remarked that state legislatures in red states such as Oklahoma need to start exercising oversight of their public universities.

He’s right. “There is an endemic rot of indoctrination, politicization, and intellectual intimidation,” Joel Gardner observed on this website in 2020, “that is eviscerating the historical purpose and nature of our institutions of higher learning.” This remains true today and not just in elite institutions. The rot is widespread even in public universities in Oklahoma, one of the reddest states in the nation.

Fortunately, with Republicans in possession of supermajority control of both houses of the legislature and holding all statewide elected offices, higher-ed reform is possible here, right?

The most effective reform would be for Oklahoma to reduce appropriations to higher education.Proposed Reforms 

The most effective reform, for starters, would be for Oklahoma’s political leaders to send a message to regents and college presidents by reducing appropriations to higher education. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s legislative session ended on May 30, and higher education received a hefty funding boost.

Public choice theory provides a possible clue here: Soon-to-be-former lawmakers sometimes want “a cushy place to land.”

How about rolling back DEI? Both the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Oklahoma State University (OSU) have more DEI staffers than history faculty, and indeed “diversity” is a key part of OU’s strategic plan. Even Oklahoma’s community colleges are not immune. As Florida, Texas, and other states are making progress on this front, an Oklahoma state senator from Norman filed four bills aimed at eliminating DEI practices in higher education. None of the bills received a committee hearing. To his credit, Gov. Kevin Stitt did issue an executive order on DEI. OU responded with some cosmetic changes—with the university president assuring everyone that “nobody’s losing their job”—while Oklahoma State University’s president responded by saying, “an initial review indicates that no significant changes to our processes or practices are needed.”

Another proposed reform attempted to wire around the wokerati by creating a workforce-scholarships program in the state Department of Commerce, which “could provide students with $10,000 a year towards tuition and fees if they enroll in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program,” as Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) president Jonathan Small explained. This “could pay for students to attend not just public universities, but also for-profit and private colleges, expanding opportunity for Oklahoma youth and boosting the number of potential graduates in high-need fields.” The reform was not enacted.

Another reform suggested by Small would have allowed for “a private cause of action, with attorneys’ fees and punitive damages allowed for winning plaintiffs, for any student who faces illegal discrimination at schools that continue to endorse DEI radicalism.” Providing a link to model legislation, Small argued that “it’s time to subject university employees to private civil liability when they disobey the law and violate people’s rights. Personnel is policy, and it has become abundantly clear that many Oklahoma college officials will not give up their obsessions with bizarre racial and gender theories unless the schools and the officials personally face severe sanctions.” This reform also was not enacted.

Another proposed reform that has gone nowhere is simple budget transparency. “What each ‘budget unit’ requests and receives is the real budget—the budget the social-justice activists don’t want to expose to outside scrutiny,” David Randall has pointed out for OCPA.

Policymakers should require each public university to publish prominently on its website a collated annual report of the requested budget and approved budget of each budget unit within the higher education institution—in other words, the budget that each department and administrative office requests and receives. Each of these budget units should provide their spending not just by broad IPEDS data divisions such as instruction, research, and student services, but also by listing categories including individual salaries, benefits, travel expenses, equipment and supplies, honoraria, scholarships, sponsored events, and revenues received from external grants.

In short, state policymakers have no real interest in reforming higher education. But how about enacting change at the university level? After all, Gov. Stitt, a conservative Republican, has appointed all seven of the current regents at the University of Oklahoma. Perhaps some Ron DeSantis/New College of Florida-style reform is forthcoming?

Oklahoma policymakers have no real interest in reforming higher education.Alas, no. The chairman of OU’s board of regents donated $25,000 to a Joe Biden super PAC, if that tells you anything. The current university president is someone who worked for Democrat politician (and former OU president) David Boren for two decades. A Richard Corcoran or Ben Sasse is nowhere in sight.

Indeed, the flagship university in this oil-and-gas red state remains as problematic as ever. How to Blow Up a Pipeline was required reading in one English course this spring, while the university was also looking to hire a “climate justice” professor whose research is “oriented to social action” and specifically toward the transition to green-energy sources. Meanwhile, the university spent more than $56,000 last year on men in blackface prancing around as hypersexualized caricatures of women. (Just kidding about the blackface part; obviously, offensive and degrading stereotypes would never be permitted on campus.)

Reform from Without?

Perhaps, then, reform can be imposed on universities from the outside. Already, some prominent former donors—including a neurosurgeon and two members of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame—have said enough is enough. As a headline last year on a national FOX News story put it, “Donors flee from ‘very disturbed’ university in Oklahoma amid radical DEI agenda.”

And it’s not just donors. Plaintiffs can effect change, too. The organization Speech First secured a settlement this year requiring Oklahoma State University to make significant policy changes, most notably disbanding its Bias Response Team. “I hope universities learn from OSU’s experience that there is a high cost to violating students’ constitutional rights,” said Speech First executive director Cherise Trump.

Now it’s OU’s turn. As FOX News reported on May 15, “Students at the University of Oklahoma on Wednesday filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the school violated their equal-protection-clause rights by awarding students financial aid on the basis of race.” According to the complaint, “racial preferences continue to exist at the University of Oklahoma. Rather than determining who to admit based on their race, the University of Oklahoma determines how much financial aid it gives to students based on their race. That is unlawful.” Furthermore:

A statistical analysis of publicly available data indicates that the University of Oklahoma considers race when awarding financial aid to its students. Based on the University of Oklahoma’s published enrollment data and the financial-aid data that it reported to the Department of Education from 2009 to 2022, statistical analysis shows that black students receive more institutional grant aid from the University of Oklahoma than other students, even when controlling to the extent possible for factors such as family income.

This statistical analysis provides evidence of the extent of discrimination stemming from affirmative action policies in university grants that benefit some favored group (in this case, black students) and harm other disfavored groups (in this case, non-black students). The analysis uses data at the university-year level regarding the net price of tuition at the institution, the proportion of students enrolled from a group that appears to receive beneficial treatment, and measures of the family income of enrolled students.

According to the complaint, an OU admissions official told one of the plaintiffs that “financial aid was generally not available to students like her, but would have been if she were African American.”

To reverse the rot in higher education, donors and plaintiffs may have to lead the way. Oklahoma’s elected officials and regents seem blissfully unconcerned.

Brandon Dutcher is senior vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free-market think tank in Oklahoma City.