The Oklahoma State Senate intends to step up and provide thorough vetting of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s latest nomination to the OU Board of Regents: OPUBCO President and CEO Gary Pierson.
If the phrase “step up” sounds familiar, it’s because Pierson made his biggest impression on lawmakers to date during last year’s proposed Step Up Oklahoma effort, a set of tax increases and government reforms touted as a compromise solution to the Legislature’s multi-year stalemate about how to raise new revenue.
Enter Gary Pierson, at the time a looming and controversial business leader of The Oklahoman. Widely disliked in the newspaper’s newsroom, Pierson packed his brash personality for a PR road-trip to the Oklahoma Legislature’s four caucuses, even appearing on The Oklahoman’s front page with attorney Glenn Coffee in a fluffy article along the way.
As details of the initially secretive Step Up proposal began to leak from lawmakers, one judgment seemed to have bipartisan support: Republicans and Democrats alike had problems with Gary Pierson.
“I did tell the governor’s office that it wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but that’s just a gut reaction,” Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) told The Oklahoman’s Carmen Forman last week. “There have been some concerns, but it hasn’t been a flurry. It’s been a trickle, and I’m not really sure how to quantify that.”
The 15-member Senate Education Committee will be tasked with quantifying it in the coming days or weeks as part of the Senate’s newly heightened confirmation process. As a “tier one” nominee of high priority, Pierson will be meeting with committee members to discuss his background and perception of OU, the state’s largest university that is currently investigation a former president and vice president for alleged wrongdoing. (OU’s political crossroads extend far and wide beyond that situation, too.)
As such, Pierson’s nomination to one of Oklahoma’s most important boards seems likely to face substantial scrutiny.
Amid concerns, law background could boost Pierson
Hours after Pierson was announced as Stitt’s latest OU regent nominee Tuesday, word spread around the Capitol that some people were confused and/or displeased. Some lawmakers said they did not recognize Pierson’s name, while others expressed surprise that concerns over Pierson’s aggressive attitude during Step Up may have been ignored by the governor’s office.
“I am pleased to appoint Gary Pierson to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents,” Stitt said in his press release announcement. “Gary is an accomplished Oklahoma attorney and businessman and a proud OU alum who will bring his professional expertise to the table to support the university’s goals of academic excellence and student success.”
In the same release, Pierson said he was “grateful and humbled” by the nomination.
“While there are some near term issues that need to be resolved at OU, the future remains quite bright and I look forward to working with the other regents and President (Jim) Gallogly in making sure that those opportunities are seized,” Pierson said.
How exactly Pierson feels about Gallogly remains to be seen, as people with direct knowledge of the nomination and confirmation process have relayed mixed messages. Some believe Pierson has been critical of Gallogly during initial conversations, but others have said Pierson’s name and skill set were pushed by university leaders. (An attorney, Pierson formerly worked at McAfee & Taft with an emphasis on labor and employment law, something that could help the OU Board of Regents in ongoing situations.)
During an interview, Treat denied rumors that he told the governor’s office Pierson would not be confirmed. Likewise, “the governor stands by his decision” according to Deputy Secretary of State Donelle Harder in a statement to The Oklahoman, which is no longer owned by Pierson’s company.
Pierson spoke to his former employees about his nomination, saying he hoped the confirmation would be “based on merit and not politics.” He told The Oklahoman he had not heard concerns about his selection, and he brushed off rumors that he had accessed documents and spoken to other regents as if he were already on the board.
“Any communications I have had are confidential,” Pierson told The Oklahoman.
Lawton would prefer representation
Another element of Pierson’s nomination drawing concern is his Oklahoma City residence. Pierson would be filling the unexpired term of Lawton attorney Bill Burgess, who died in February. A former owner of the Lawton Constitution, Burgess was a revered community leader in Comanche County and a graduate of Cameron University, which is governed by the OU Board of Regents.
Some in Lawton believe Burgess’ seat should be filled by a nominee with connections to Cameron, which enrolls more than 5,000 students in two-year, four-year and graduate programs. Pierson’s nomination does not meet those desires, though it’s unclear how many people with Cameron connections applied or were considered for the regent position.
Regent Phil Albert serves from Claremore, the primary campus of Rogers State University, which is also overseen by the OU board.
Public wants thoughtful, honest approach
In short, Gary Pierson’s nomination to the OU Board of Regents may serve as a litmus test for the heightened Senate scrutiny that Treat has publicly promised on the topic of confirming gubernatorial nominations.
On one hand, concerns about Pierson could be chalked up to grumpy journalists who didn’t care for their corporate overlord and self-confident legislators who didn’t appreciate an aggressive sales pitch. Pierson does have a legal background that could be of substantial value, and he has been praised privately by people with plenty of political stroke.
Alternatively, lawmakers unfamiliar with Pierson are likely to listen when certain colleagues — or those who have worked with the man — speak up about their concerns. Personality matters personally, to some.
All the public can ask is for senators to be thoughtful and honest in their approach to the confirmation process. Should Pierson’s nomination be confirmed, Oklahomans will need him to take the same approach with all aspects of the universities in question.