Allison Garrett
Allison Garrett has been selected as the next chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education. (NonDoc)

The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education voted today to hire Emporia State University President Allison Garrett as the state’s new systemwide chancellor, a decision that concludes a multi-year effort to find Glen Johnson’s successor and that will bring Garrett back to a state where she earned degrees from two private universities.

“This is a historic day for the state of Oklahoma and the state regents as we select the first female chancellor to lead our state’s system,” said state regent Courtney Warmington. “President Garrett brings with her a wealth of experience, both in higher ed and higher ed administration. (…) Her experience will be a tremendous asset to our board.”

A former general counsel for Walmart who has worked in the administration of public and private universities, Garrett will succeed Johnson, a former Oklahoma House speaker who assumed the chancellor position in January 2007.

Garrett’s salary will be $415,000, with an annual wellness benefit of $1,200, health insurance and retirement benefits. The compensation package is roughly equal to what Johnson received, although Johnson’s compensation was partially broken down into housing and transportation allowances.

Garrett’s first day in her new position is slated for Nov. 8. Johnson’s final day is set for Nov. 7.

“I join the state regents in welcoming Chancellor-Elect Garrett back to Oklahoma, and I look forward to a smooth transition,” Johnson said in a statement distributed after Friday’s vote. “Her leadership and expertise as a university president and in the corporate sector will greatly benefit the work of the state regents and our public colleges and universities in serving students, increasing college degree completion and advocating for the vital importance of public higher education to Oklahoma’s economy.”

State regents met multiple times in recent months on weekends to consider candidates to be the state’s ninth chancellor.

“[I appreciate the] very deliberate, very careful and very thoughtful way we have approached this search process,” State Regents Chairman Jeff Hickman said prior to Friday’s vote. “Our process has resulted in a large pool of highly qualified candidates in Oklahoma and across the nation.”

Stitt: ‘You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting’

Allison Garrett
Chancellor-Elect Allison Garrett makes Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Regents for Higher Education Chairman Jeff Hickman laugh during a State Capitol press conference Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Tres Savage)

Roughly one hour after voting to hire Garrett, Hickman introduced her and Gov. Kevin Stitt at a State Capitol press conference. Hickman said Stitt — who has appointed four of the nine current state regents — provided one piece of advice about the selection process: “Do a national search and find the best person.”

“That is what we did,” Hickman said.

Stitt said higher education is important to workforce development “and everything we are trying to do to make Oklahoma a top-10 state.”

“I’m excited to welcome Allison Garrett as our new chancellor,” Stitt said. “You heard the chairman talk about her resume, and one of the things that impressed me was her corporate experience (at Walmart).”

Stitt relayed an axiom he said he preached at his private business before becoming governor: “You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

“You always have to be growing. That’s where Allison comes in,” Stitt said. “I’m confident she can help us grow in Oklahoma. Her background and experience are perfect to help lead a new era of higher education in Oklahoma.”

Garrett spoke following Stitt, emphasizing her appreciation of the opportunity and her love for Oklahoma.

“I made a career pivot years ago because education opens doors for people,” Garrett said. “I’m grateful in accepting the charge to advocate for Oklahoma’s higher ed institutions as we produce amazing future leaders, teachers, business people, artists, writers, health care workers, people with technology.”

‘Higher education is being disrupted’

Garrett has been president of Emporia State University since 2016. Originally a teachers college located halfway between Wichita and Topeka, Emporia State University has about 5,900 students and was recently listed as the top regional university in the state of Kansas by U.S. News and World Report.

In a 2019 campus-wide email reported on by the Emporia State Bulletin, Garrett said universities should be safe places to “share ideas” and speak openly. The email came after public outcry over a professor’s Facebook post that referenced “illegal aliens.” In her email, Garrett referenced furthering efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at ESU.

“Viewpoints and perspectives that differ from our own enrich all of our experiences,” Garrett wrote. “Learning from each other, however, can be messy. It is up to each of us to foster a culture that reflects Emporia State’s core values of excellence, respect, responsibility and service. A culture where it is safe to share ideas, ask questions, discuss issues and speak from the heart.”

Discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion have been ongoing at Oklahoma colleges and universities as well over the past decade.

As Oklahoma’s new chancellor of the state’s higher education system, Garrett will also inherit a landscape of regional colleges and universities that face declining enrollment, rising tuition and systemic changes to how higher education is accessed by the public.

Oklahoma has 25 public colleges and universities with 48 campuses, plus the University Center at Ponca City. The 25 individual entities are overseen by multitudinous governing boards that feature more than 150 total regent positions appointed by the governor. First elected in November 2018, Stitt has articulated a desire to reform and modernize operations within various sectors of state government.

“That’s the thing I challenge everybody: Let’s think about what’s best for the next generation, not the next election. Let’s focus on what Oklahoma needs to look like 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 40 years from now,” Stitt said after his Friday press conference. “Higher education is being disrupted. COVID is showing us that. Technology is showing us that. Declining enrollment is showing us that. So we have to be smart about this.”

During the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents meeting Sept. 20, Rogers State University President Larry Rice told OU regents that every regional university in the state is seeing declining enrollment, with the exception of the University of Science and Arts Oklahoma in Chickasha, which has fewer than 900 students and has seen its enrollment decline by nearly 50 percent over the past 15 years.

With the caveat that she is new and will need to learn the Oklahoma higher education landscape, Garrett said Friday that the conversation about the future of any single institution is a “weighty matter.”

“I know that there has been a lot of interest in looking at efficiencies. I’m eager to work with our institutions, to work with our regents, to work with our Legislature as we examine the best structure for the state of Oklahoma,” Garrett said. “I know that in every community where there is a higher education institution that institution is beloved. This is obviously something that is a weighty matter to consider.”

Background on Allison Garrett

Born in Neosho, Missouri, Garrett graduated from Oklahoma Christian University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1984. In 1987, she graduated from the University of Tulsa College of Law with her doctor of jurisprudence degree. In 1992, she earned a master of laws degree from Georgetown University.

In addition to a series of higher education positions, Garrett has also worked in the business world, serving in the legal department of Walmart from 1994 through 2002. (She left the company as a vice president in 2004.)

She worked as an associate professor of law at Faulkner University in Alabama from 2004 through 2007. She then worked as senior vice president for academic affairs at Oklahoma Christian University from 2007 through 2012. She then served more than three years as executive vice president for Abilene Christian University.

According to Garrett’s bio on Emporia State’s website, she and her husband, Chip, have three children, two of whom live in Edmond. Those children, Tori and Ethan Garrett, were profiled in a Christian Chronicle article regarding values and character in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. Tori Garrett has worked in Republican political campaigns for Mick Cornett and Glenn Mulready.

(Update: This article was updated at 2:58 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, to include comments from Gov. Kevin Stitt and Allison Garrett. It was updated again at 3:30 p.m. to include additional information.)