To close out 14 years of service on the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, Chairwoman Leslie Rainbolt-Forbes did not want a public party. Considering her penchant for humility, her distaste of public speaking and the turbulence OU has felt in recent years, Rainbolt-Forbes’ feelings about celebratory recognition were well known to fellow regents, university administrators and observers.
As a result, interim OU President Joe Harroz employed the rhetorical device apophasis at Tuesday’s full meeting of the Board of Regents.
“I’ve been warned against any recognition of regent Rainbolt-Forbes, therefore I am not going to say how proud we are of her and her 14 years, but rather save it for later,” Harroz said to laughter.
Later during Tuesday’s meeting, incoming Chairman Gary Pierson also praised the retired pediatric dermatologist for her public service.
“Although she has threatened me with physical violence for making these remarks, I want to say on behalf of the board and as vice chairman, we appreciate you,” Pierson said. “The university appreciates you, and the state of Oklahoma appreciates you very, very much.”
Blushing momentarily before laughing at Pierson’s joke — “that’s not true,” she mouthed — Rainbolt-Forbes nodded and thanked her peers for a display of gifts propped behind her. After the meeting adjourned, she spoke to media about what she will take away from her regent tenure.
“Every student that graduates and goes on is a great thing that happened here. To me, that’s our focus,” Rainbolt-Forbes said. “Every young person who walks out that door is all of our future. All of that is a great thing that happens here, and it happens every day. It doesn’t happen in a single event. The whole thing is a celebration of the kids.”
Racist events have been ‘pretty embarrassing’
For the past month, however, many OU students have not been celebrating. Two instances where faculty members uttered the N-word in class led to the student body’s Black Emergency Response Team occupying the Evans Hall administration building in a quest for action to address the university’s series of race-related problems in recent years.
Miles Francisco, a co-founder of BERT and an OU senior, attended Tuesday’s main regents meeting. During its two-hour executive session, Francisco described how the university’s string of racist events has affected him.
“Even before I really began speaking out and being a student activist, that pressure it has on you to be on this campus already at this predominantly white institution as a marginalized student and a black student is hard enough,” Francisco said. “Then to experience these microaggressions on a daily basis and these overt racist actions every single semester, it makes being here and really attempting to thrive and get our education quite difficult.”
A political science and African and African American Studies dual major, Francisco grew up in east Oklahoma City, graduated from Heritage Hall High School and rooted for OU athletic programs. Scholarships and the university’s relative affordability led him to enroll at his father’s alma mater.
But Francisco’s freshman year came in the aftermath of members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity being caught on camera using a racial slur to chant about how black men would never be admitted to their house. In subsequent years, other offensive video recordings surfaced as well.
“I really can’t put into words how hard it has been, but I would say just the onslaught — honestly — of incidents that we’ve had over my four years here have been pretty embarrassing and have been incredibly hard for all black students and for my community,” Francisco said.
To conclude their Evans Hall sit-in at the end of February, Francisco and other BERT members received word that some of their demands for action — faculty training, executive leadership reviews and a new multicultural center — were being incorporated into OU’s new strategic framework, a first draft of which was presented to regents behind closed doors Wednesday.
“My hope as I near graduation is that the university acknowledges its problems and acknowledges the root of its problems, right?” Francisco said. “Which are the foundations of this university that are founded upon settler colonialism and white supremacy and understanding the ways that shows up into today’s culture here at OU.”
Community leaders also have been watching OU’s response to its various problematic situations. Last week, billionaire Paycom CEO Chad Richison sent Harroz and the OU Board of Regents a letter criticizing “poor judgment and policy” in wake of the university’s turmoil. Richison said the payroll and technology company was withdrawing much of its advertising from OU until “meaningful action” is taken.
Prior to the board’s executive session Tuesday, Harroz spoke on the general situation, promised “a plan” and mentioned Francisco and other students by name.
“You don’t lead with a big event. You do the big work that is often hard to see,” Harroz said. “The solution has to be real and systemic to address a systemic problem that exists. It requires a great deal of honesty.”
Francisco called for a plan “to get at that root cause and bring some real cultural change here at OU that is past due.”
“I appreciate President Harroz’s words today, but it needs to be followed by the Board of Regents showing support for marginalized students and for black students on campus who, as President Harroz said, have experienced these things our entire career here,” Francisco said.
Two hours later when regents returned from an executive session, Rainbolt-Forbes read a statement on the topic:
We appreciate the work underway to make sure every member of our campus community is included. We know honest conversations have occurred with students. We support Interim President Joe Harroz and the rest of his team for their active engagement. A dialogue has started, and these conversations must lead to meaningful changes. We know words matter and words hurt, and some words are unacceptable. We abhor the use of the offensive word; it is disgusting, and it is simply wrong. We have students who have been marginalized. Students should not have to take time away from their education to do this work. As Regents and administrators, we will be your advocates. Now, we have work to do. So, let’s make it meaningful and let’s make it last.
Soon after, the board voted to make former Gov. Frank Keating vice chairman, and the meeting adjourned and Rainbolt-Forbes told reporters why the board issued the above statement.
“The kids that took their time to [advocate], and every student who has been marginalized needs to know that the support is there from us and that it will change,” she said. “It will, period. It was wrong, and it will change.”
Keating: ‘I think it was an excellent meeting’
What should change about the University of Oklahoma in the coming years was discussed for more than seven hours Wednesday during an executive session of the Board of Regents.
At 90, Gene Rainbolt still causing change in Oklahoma by Heide Brandes
University leaders are developing a strategic framework to guide three campuses — Norman, the OU Health Sciences Center and OU Tulsa — for years to come. Guiding principles of the framework are expected to direct the university’s efforts to take advantage of financial opportunities, ensure tuition affordability, recruit students, hire faculty and adjust to state and national changes in the higher education realm.
After regents returned from executive session around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, they adjourned their meeting.
“I think it was an excellent meeting,” Keating said afterward. “Very factual, very helpful and constructive.”
The university issued a statement earlier in the afternoon:
A written draft of the strategic plan was delivered for the first time to the Board of Regents today. As part of the overall evaluation of the interim president’s performance, aspects such as the plan’s development process and breadth of input were discussed. Board members were asked to read and review the draft plan and provide feedback at a later date through an ad hoc committee of the board that will partner with university leadership. At an upcoming meeting, the board will take up formal consideration and approval of the strategic plan.
Wednesday’s full-room presentation, however, did not feature Rainbolt-Forbes. First appointed by Gov. Brad Henry in 2006 and re-appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2013, Rainbolt-Forbes had often served as a primary OU regent focused on the OU Health Sciences Center. Instead, successor Anita Holloway participated in Wednesday’s executive session after being named Tuesday as a “special advisor to the board” pending State Senate confirmation.
Keating praised Rainbolt-Forbes as he exited the Bizzell Memorial Library after the week’s final meeting.
“The Rainbolt family are extraordinarily gifted and significant assets to Oklahoma,” Keating said. “She was a wonderful chairwoman. I wish her everything that is good.”