During an unusual and sparsely-attended lunch meeting, the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents today nominated and selected member Gary Pierson as the board’s next chairman effective March 2020.
Regents selected Renzi Stone to be vice chairman of the board. Discussion about the selections occurred in room 345 of Gould Hall with no members of the public present. OU legal counsel Anil Gollahalli, contracted attorney Drew Neville and board secretary Chris Purcell were in attendance along with all seven regents.
I walked into the meeting in time to hear the vote and stayed for the remaining two hours of the meeting. A board notice of several committee and special meetings was posted Monday, and it stated “potential action” could occur at the meeting:
Discussion and potential action pertaining to issues of Board governance, including but not limited to issues addressed in the Board Bylaws (e.g. committee and meeting structure and scheduling, communications protocols, Board leadership, agenda protocols), assessment and discussion of Oklahoma higher education structure, and interaction and coordination of institutions currently governed by the Board.
No item-by-item agenda was posted for the meeting as is typically done with OU Board of Regents meetings, such as Wednesday’s full meeting which features a 272-page agenda.
Immediately after the vote naming Pierson as the board’s next chairman, current Chairwoman Leslie Rainbolt-Forbes asked regent Eric Stevenson whether the board should discuss potential consolidation of university programs, a topic she said had been brought up earlier.
“I was not aware this was an open meeting. I am definitely not prepared to have this conversation in an open meeting,” Stevenson said. “Can I move it to an executive session?”
Gollahalli noted that an executive session was not listed on the board’s lunch meeting agenda and that the topic at hand did not qualify under the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act anyway.
“You can’t move it to an executive session,” he said.
After brief discussion of whether consolidating programs would involve personnel actions and real estate transactions — which are authorized reasons for a board to enter a closed executive session — regent Natalie Shirley asked that the board move on.
“I think right now we are just not prepared,” she said. “Why don’t we just table it until we get more information?”
Shirley then made a motion to enter executive session to discuss litigation pending against the university.
“It is posted for tomorrow,” Gollahalli said, and Shirley withdrew the motion.
Gary Pierson: ‘These are important times for higher education’
After the meeting concluded almost two hours later, Rainbolt-Forbes conferred with Neville, Purcell and private public relations practitioner Brent Gooden for 30 minutes before revealing that Pierson had been selected as the board’s next chairman.
Gooden then distributed statements about the selection of Pierson, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt to finish the unexpired term of Bill Burgess, who died in February.
“Regent Burgess would have become chair next year. Being from Lawton, he had a special place in his heart for his alma mater, Cameron University,” Rainbolt-Forbes said in her statement. “He was a delightful presence on our board with a good heart and abundant enthusiasm for higher education. It seems fitting we maintain the sequence in honor of regent Burgess by appointing his replacement, regent Pierson, to serve as the next chair.”
She also praised Pierson.
“Since joining our Board, regent Pierson’s expertise in business and law, as well as his experience leading large complex enterprises, has been invaluable in helping us bring resolution to some significant matters in the past several months,” she said. “Additionally, regent Pierson’s appointment as chair ensures continuity especially as it relates to the skills he will bring to support developing a comprehensive strategic plan for OU. I am looking forward to supporting him as chair next year.”
In the same document provided by Gooden, Pierson said he appreciates the confidence his fellow members have placed in him.
“These are important times for higher education in Oklahoma and the three universities we serve as OU regents. We’ve made some difficult decisions in the past year, particularly related to OU,” Pierson said. “Interim President (Joe) Harroz has brought much needed steady and energetic leadership as well as financial prudence, and he’s bringing a new inclusive, unifying vision to OU. That’s why I am excited about the future and believe our best days at OU are ahead of us.”
Pierson said he will work to make sure OU, Cameron and Rogers State all “have the resources and support as well as decisive leadership to help them move forward with their missions and visions.”
Earlier this month, the OU Board of Regents received the “black hole” award from Freedom of Information Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization focused on transparency in state and local government.
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‘The governance piece is critical’ for OU Board of Regents
After the executive session discussion, Stevenson led a conversation about improving the board’s governance structure and the request for proposal OU had issued this summer seeking analysis and recommendations from a consulting firm.
“The governance piece is critical. There is no reason for us to recreate the wheel on our own. It is going to take us longer, and we won’t benefit from that outside perspective,” Stevenson said. “Why wouldn’t we learn from (…) other universities?”
Regent and former Gov. Frank Keating asked Stevenson to describe why he believes the board needs assistance analyzing and potentially reforming its governance and oversight duties.
“That conversation we just had was awkward and uncomfortable, so that would be one example,” Stevenson said. “We are coming off a historical time-period. (…) It was difficult to know what you were to do and not to do given how things were structured. There should be processes in place that aren’t people-specific. That’s not how you run a university. It needs to be more structured.”
Keating noted that when he joined the board, former OU President David Boren “didn’t really want” certain things from regents.
After ‘awkward’ meeting, Renzi Stone resigns as OU regent by Tres Savage
“That is exactly the question: How much stuff do we do? How much paper do we get to the detriment of what we should be doing?” Pierson asked.
That spurred Keating to discuss his hope that, moving forward, regents can be provided more useful and manageable information in an efficient way.
“The first meeting I had on the budget, I had to go to Home Depot to get a plastic bag to put everything in,” Keating said. “I laid it out on the dining room table, and there were codes that were completely incomprehensible. It was an insult, I thought, to the regents the way that thing was presented.”
Harroz eventually joined the regents at Tuesday’s lunch meeting and was involved in a discussion about whether the consulting firm being hired to advise the board on governance should also assist with an ongoing effort to develop OU’s strategic plan.
Ultimately, regents unanimously approved re-issuing the RFP with an emphasis on board governance consulting and an option for analysis of the strategic plan, which faces a self-imposed Jan. 17 first-draft deadline.
“This is incredibly helpful,” Harroz said. “Really.”
Stevenson praised the nearly two-hour discussion of board governance and the strategic plan.
“I feel like this process and this debate is when we are at our best — when we are having this kind of dialogue, this pushback,” he said. “To me, this is very, very helpful.”
(Clarification: This article was updated at 6:28 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, to be further clear that the OU Board of Regents never entered executive session during its lunch meeting.)