Three members of the Oklahoma Legislature sat in on the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents’ executive session Wednesday, listening to brief updates on pending and potential litigation facing OU and learning more about the regents’ governance duties.
Two of the lawmakers came directly from Wednesday’s meeting of the State Regents for Higher Education. Those regents did not go into executive session, a provision in the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act for boards to discuss business in private.
“I think it’s important just to know what is going on,” said Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore). “There are things you hear, you hear different sides, you hear things in the press. So it’s good to hear from their side and from their point of view what is going on.”
McBride, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck (R-Elgin) and Sen. John Michael Montgomery (R-Lawton) joined OU regents in executive session for about 25 minutes. The OU board has spent considerable time in executive session this year owing to university turmoil, and House leadership made a commitment last week to begin strategically employing a provision of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act that allows legislative attendance of executive sessions.
“From our perspective, we want the regents to do well and do what is best for students,” Montgomery said after Wednesday’s meeting. “I think there is a lot of interest in other boards across the state, so the same is true. We want them to do well and do it transparently.”
Montgomery received undergraduate and masters degrees from OU, and Hasenbeck holds a masters degree from Cameron University, which is also governed by the OU Board of Regents.
“My initial reaction was that we should probably include regents, school board members, school administrators and college administrators in our prayers at night because they have a lot of stuff that they have to think about and make good decisions on that honestly could even affect the economic bottom line of our state,” Hasenbeck said. “So I think it’s really important, and they have a lot of decisions they could make.”
Harroz: ‘I think it’s a healthy process’
For his part, OU President Joe Harroz was positive about lawmakers entering Wednesday’s executive session, which he also attended.
“I think it’s positive,” Harroz said. “They were fantastic. They were open and helpful and interested.”
Harroz said the lawmakers did not ask questions Wednesday. The meeting’s agenda listed six purposes for the special session, including “periodic review” of university presidents, review of pending negligence claims and review of potential claims involving real estate operations.
In all, 11 existing lawsuits were listed on the agenda, including one against OU and former Vice President Tripp Hall, who is also the focus of a rape investigation being conducted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
“They were mainly listening in there today,” Harroz said of lawmakers. “Having them in there shows that they care and hopefully shows them that we take our role seriously, so I think it’s a healthy process.”
Prior to the executive session, Harroz asked the three legislators to stand and introduce themselves for university members and the public. He also reiterated the university’s appreciation for increased appropriations from the Legislature last year.
Theoretically, lawmakers attending more agency board meetings and gaining additional confidence about governance and operations could make future appropriation increases additionally palatable. But Harroz was not ready to connect those dots completely.
“I think it helps on two levels,” Harroz said after the meeting. “I think it helps them better understand the issues we are facing and how we are doing. I also think it’s important in terms of the way we project ourselves as a university — that we are not an island and we are part of this overall team for the state.”
After the board returned from executive session, regent Phil Albert made a motion to elect Gary Pierson as vice chairman of board, replacing Renzi Stone who resigned unexpectedly Tuesday after Pierson was named chairman-elect.
All three legislators who attended Wednesday’s executive session emphasized that they were not going to reveal details of those discussions. Lawmakers are allowed to attend board executive sessions if they sit on legislative committees with oversight of the agency in question. McBride and Hasenbeck are the chairman and vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education.
“As the Legislature, we need to tread lightly. There are rules we need to follow. We need to be respectful and do our job but do it the right way,” McBride said. “It’s important, and it’s important for the Legislature to have some kind of idea of what’s going on because we appropriate funds to the different universities, schools and agencies.”
McBride and Hasenbeck said they were planning to attend today’s Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting as well. An executive session is proposed on the agenda for that meeting.