Thursday, August 24, 2023

OCPA column: OU gets national attention — the wrong kind

OU gets national attention—the wrong kind
By Jonathan Small

The University of Oklahoma recently made national news—for the wrong reasons.

An investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that some of the United States’ best-known public universities “have been on an unfettered spending spree” with the bill “passed” on to students—and OU was identified as one of the worst offenders.

Between 2002 and 2022, the Journal found enrollment at OU increased 15 percent, but tuition increased by 36 percent even after adjusting for inflation. And, once student fees were included, the combined rate of growth was even more dramatic.

“At the University of Oklahoma, per-student tuition and fees rose 166%, the most of any flagship,” the Journal reported.

During that time OU spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring, remodeling and maintaining an Italian monastery.

Sadly, things may be even worse than The Wall Street Journal report indicated. OU has $1 billion in debt, and one official whose community bank bought bonds to finance a housing project at the college has complained that OU effectively defrauded banks.

At the same time, OU is spending substantia sums in court fighting to keep citizens from viewing two taxpayer-funded reports prepared by the Jones Day law firm regarding alleged decades of false claims about OU’s fundraising and allegations of sexual harassment by former OU President David Boren. (The university spent $1 million in taxpayer funds on those reports.)

OU officials’ responses to The Wall Street Journal are bizarre.

In an Aug. 10 email, OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr., responded that “the average annual cost of tuition and fees at OU, after factoring in discounts, has decreased by 6% for Oklahoma residents compared to five years ago.”

That’s only a dip in the bucket given the 166% increase over two decades, and it glosses over the fact that the modest reduction cited by Harroz occurred (in part) over his objection.

In June 2022, Harroz asked the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents to increase tuition rates by 3 percent. The Regents shot down that idea and instead maintained current rates for all but out-of-state students.

The response of one OU regent in a column published in The Oklahoman was no better.

Notably, both Harroz and the regent stressed that OU will be playing sports in the Southeastern Conference next year. Apparently, SEC football games are supposed to make up for the 166% increase in tuition and fees.

I like sports as much as anyone. But the core reason our state colleges exist is to provide an affordable education that allows people to move up the income ladder and provide for their families. If OU’s poor financial management closes the door of opportunity to Oklahoma students, weekend football games won’t make up for a lifetime of lost earnings.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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