Gov. Kevin Stitt has appointed Eric Stevenson, a senior vice president at Nationwide, to the University of Oklahoma’s Board of Regents. The new OU regent lives in Ohio and would be the first African American to serve on the board in two decades.
“I’m just incredibly honored to have the support and confidence of Gov. Stitt and President (Jim) Gallogly to partner with the other regents for the benefit of a place that I love so much and that means so much to me,” Stevenson told NonDoc shortly before this afternoon’s official announcement.
During his press conference, Stitt praised Stevenson as “the best candidate for the job” owing to “business acumen” and broad professional experiences.
“When I ran for office, I committed to Oklahomans that I would recruit and attract the very best people to help me on boards and commissions during Oklahoma’s turnaround,” Stitt said during his announcement of Stevenson’s appointment. “We found the perfect candidate.”
Stevenson, 55, earned a bachelor’s of business administration in finance degree from OU in 1985, one year before Gov. George Nigh appointed Sylvia Lewis as the first black OU Board of Regent member.
Concerns about OU’s campus climate for minority students have made national headlines in recent years. Video of a racist fraternity chant in 2015 drew outrage and protest. In January, social media posts surfaced of current and former students using racial slurs. One of the videos featured a student wearing blackface, and days later another person wearing blackface was seen on campus.
“I’m anxious to learn more about some of the issues that are happening, and we will certainly partner and talk to collaborate in the best way that we can,” Stevenson said.
A native of Wagoner, Stevenson’s appointment will require confirmation from the Oklahoma State Senate, although it is unclear who will carry Stevenson’s nomination owing to his Ohio residence. Stevenson would replace Clay Bennett, who resigned from the board Jan. 30 for reasons of health.
“I didn’t care that he lives in Columbus, Ohio — I wish he lived in Norman, I would invite you to move back to Norman — but he is the best candidate for the job,” Stitt said to laughter. “He happens to be African American, and that is another plus for me and the University of Oklahoma.”
The OU Board of Regents has not featured an African American since 1999. Gov. David Walters appointed Melvin Hall and Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher to the board on the same day in April 1992.
Sipuel Fisher was the first black person admitted to the University of Oklahoma College of Law in 1949. She sued the Board of Regents and won admission to the law school after a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. She died in 1995. Hall is an attorney with the Riggs Abney law firm and an adjunct instructor in OU’s African American Studies program.
Stitt said he interviewed 12 people for the position. He has a second pending appointment to the OU Board of Regents owing to the death of Bill Burgess on Feb. 8.
Background on new OU regent Eric Stevenson
According to his LinkedIn profile, Stevenson serves on the OU Price College of Business Finance Department Advisory Board and the advisory board for the Central Ohio chapter of the Salvation Army.
Stevenson’s LinkedIn profile also says he serves on board of directors “for the National Association of Securities Professionals (NASP), the premier organization in the United States advocating for the inclusion of women and people of color in financial services.”
Stevenson said Nationwide would be providing his travel to and from OU for board meetings and other events.
He recalled beginning his professional career by working for Xerox at 50 Penn Place in Oklahoma City. He also referenced more than a decade’s worth of side work as the owner of a Wendy’s franchise.
“I was a small business owner until a few months ago. My wife and I had bought into the Wendy’s franchise,” Stevenson said. “So if this doesn’t work out, I can also make hamburgers.”
Fraternity brother: ‘He’s had a huge impact on my life’
Stevenson was a chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha, and one of his fraternity brothers attended Friday’s announcement.
“He’s had a huge impact on my life. He is the reason I went to business school,” said Sherad Cravens, who described himself as semi-retired while serving as an adjunct marketing instructor at OU and a teacher at Taft Middle School in Oklahoma City.
Cravens said he and Stevenson both enrolled early at OU for summer school.
“We just kind of bonded immediately. I was kind of the city boy, and he was the country boy from Wagoner,” Cravens said. “It was a nice balance between the two of us.”
Concerning his friend’s Ohio residency, Cravens said Stevenson “is here all the time.”
“I see him frequently now that I’m back in Oklahoma because he is very committed to the university, and he invests a lot of his — not just money — but his time as well,” Cravens said.
Asked his thoughts on how OU can address the racial concerns surrounding the university, Cravens said leadership must come from adults.
“It’s kind of a challenge [to] look at what 18 year olds do when you look at what some of the adults are doing,” Cravens said. “I think we just need to be, as the adult society, the ones who set the example. So I think having more people like him that the young people can emulate, that will help.”
Cravens said diversifying the student body can lead to students escaping prejudices they may have learned at a young age.
“You can only be aware and sensitive to what you experience day-to-day. I see that in the classroom, whether it’s my experience with Oklahoma City Public Schools or my experience at the University of Oklahoma,” he said. “Part of life is learning and being exposed to people. That exposure requires diversity.”
(Update: This story was updated at 2:58 p.m. Friday, March 1, to include additional quotes from Stevenson and Stitt. It was updated again at 4 p.m. to include additional details and quotes from Cravens.)