During the House District 39 debate Wednesday, candidates Erick Harris, Regan Raff and Richard Prawdzienski were asked about several topics related to the Oklahoma Legislature and Edmond, but a question on the University of Central Oklahoma’s funding and future provoked a longer discussion between candidates.
NonDoc education reporter Bennett Brinkman asked the trio of legislative candidates whether UCO had constricted to a reasonable level of appropriations after undergoing a number of budget cuts, tuition increases and enrollment declines over the last few years. Candidates were also asked what offerings, if any, should grow.
UCO had 10,535 undergraduate students and 1,618 graduate students enrolled in fall 2023, according to the most recent enrollment data. This marks a 24 percent decrease since fall 2017, when the university had 14,343 undergraduate students and 1,637 graduate students enrolled.
Between Fiscal Year 2017 and Fiscal Year 2024, the Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents approved six UCO tuition increases, raising the average cost per credit hour from $205.35 to $242.80. After major decreases in FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations, state funding for higher education has climbed more than $225 million in recent years, topping $1 billion for FY 2024. At the same time, higher energy and insurance costs — plus overall inflation — have driven expenses even higher on campuses all around the country.
Harris, the Republican nominee who previously worked as an adjunct professor at UCO, paused before saying, “I was just thinking how long it’s going to take me to answer that question.”
“I’m not involved in the budgeting process, but what I can say with UCO, like any organization, there’s always a way that you can trim the fat. You can look into your program and see exactly what you’re doing and make sure that what you’re trying to do — the budget that you’ve line-itemed for a particular program — actually realizes or reaches the intended goal,” Harris said. “Do we have the adequate number of staff? Do we have too many staff in a certain department? Those are the types of things that I would hope UCO would continue to focus on, as far as rightsizing its budget on a regular basis.”
Harris was pressed to answer the specific question: Whether he is comfortable with UCO’s downsizing over recent years, or if the university should be trying to expand any specific program offerings.
“One area that I think UCO hopefully will put some more emphasis on is in ROTC programs and encouraging students to go into military service,” Harris said. “That’s one area that a lot of universities are able to generate more financial support for [their] programs, while encouraging the next generation of leaders to go into public service through the armed forces. That’s one area that I would identify. However, I just think that UCO should be able to provide the services necessary to educate students. That should be the main focus.”
Harris then said he disagrees with universities encouraging students to “take political stances.”
“Now there are some universities that are doing things that I think go beyond the bounds of a university’s calling — the area that a university should be focused on. Those types of programs, I don’t think that the university should be spending its dollars on,” Harris said. “I don’t think that a university should be taking political stances and encouraging students to take a political stance one way or another. You’ve actually seen that down the road at the University of Oklahoma on several different occasions where maybe a particular area professor, a department, are encouraging students on state dollars to take a political stance.”
Raff, the Democratic nominee, responded by saying college students should be encouraged to develop their own political beliefs, whatever they may be.
“I disagree with the filtering of having an opinion. I mean, college-level classes are adults. They’re anywhere from 18 until retirement, if you will,” Raff said. “I mean, at any age, adults (being told) that they cannot have an opinion and that they’re being filtered and told that they can’t take a stance on something — I’m not quite sure I understand that.”
Raff then said she believes higher education institutions are places for students to expose themselves to new people and experiences.
“I think college is a wonderful opportunity for students to find their footing and to explore different ideas that maybe otherwise they have not been able to learn and be exposed to in some way,” Raff said. “I believe college is a work-life balance, and I believe opening ourselves to the possibility of new experiences, new social groups and new political views should be welcomed and encouraged in a college.”
Asked what her vision would be for UCO’s future if elected, Raff said she was unfamiliar with its recent financial struggles.
“Admittedly, I do not know that much about where they currently stand, and I would be very interested in learning more about that. So, I don’t want to speak on something that I’m not very familiar with. I do know that the last numbers that I viewed (showed) UCO was one of the three largest employers in Edmond. Last I saw they were 1,450, I believe, 1,450 employees,” she said. “So, I certainly understand that universities right now may have challenges and that there may be some changes that might be needed to the budgetary process (…) I do not know, though, so I don’t want to say something out of turn that I don’t know that much about.”
Prawdzienski, the Libertarian nominee, responded to the question about UCO’s future with one of his own: “Why grow?”
“Is there other ways to get the business people, people they want? Back when I was in school, all you had to do was go to high school, they’ll hire you. They’ll train you. They had their unique ways, and they trained us their way, not somebody else’s way. If I’m an engineer, they want me to be an engineer their way, not the other company’s way. Or they want to hire you because you know what all these other companies are doing — I’ll rob you away. So why should I, the government, go out there and have somebody go to school so a company could go out there and say, ‘Rob this guy?'” Prawdzienski said. “What is the purpose of going to college? Is it just to make a robot for some business to provide and enslave them to be an employee, or when they don’t like them, just kick them out? Back in the day, you got a job, and it was your life. Now, you’re five years (in) and you’re looking for a new job. So, why are we pushing the same process over and over and over again?”
Harris clarified his earlier point to Raff, explaining that he does not want professors forcing opinions on students.
“I’m not advocating for filtering students. The role of a professor, a role that I’ve had for years, is to encourage a student to formulate their own opinion,” Harris said. “What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t have any individuals on the state dime — on the taxpayers’ dime — telling students, ‘This is what you should believe, this is what you should do, these are the types of political views you should have.’ Students should formulate their own opinions.”
Raff stated that she does not know if professors are trying to push political ideologies on students.
“I think grown adults can make their own opinions, and I don’t know that any professor is trying to push a certain ideology or political stance,” Raff said. “I think, if anything, they’re encouraging students to be presented with facts and to form their own opinions.”
Reached for comment on the debate discussion, Adrienne Nobles, UCO vice president for communications and public affairs, said President Todd Lamb did not have a statement about the discussion of UCO’s future.
Lamb, who previously served as floor leader of the State Senate while representing an Edmond district, did reference a “top priority” in a November press release about UCO’s online degree programs.
“Our top priority is educating students to be workforce ready and become the next generation of leaders in our community,” Lamb said Nov. 13. “Our faculty and staff understand the transformative power of education and work tirelessly to create an excellent educational experience that fulfills our mission.”
Background on UCO’s future, financial position
Enrollment decreases over several years presented UCO with a $15 million financial shortfall during the 2021-2022 school year, which led to some faculty members losing confidence in then-President Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar.
In May 2022, Neuhold-Ravikumar announced that 30 vacant faculty positions would be eliminated for the 2022-2023 academic year in an attempt to address the deficit.
Two months prior to that announcement, Neuhold-Ravikumar told staff members and students during a budget forum that more than 40 faculty positions would be cut, vacant faculty positions would be eliminated, and that the student-to-teacher ratio would be increased from 15-to-1 to 17-to-1. She also proposed an academic service fee that could generate about $2 million in revenue to offset faculty cuts.
A few weeks after that budget meeting, protesters marched on the Edmond campus to the Old North Tower’s administrative offices to denounce the university’s initial plan to cut full-time faculty members.
In October 2022, Neuhold-Ravikumar announced she would be leaving the university Jan. 31, 2023. The RUSO Board of Regents selected Andrew Benton to replace her on an interim basis. In May 2023, the board named former Lamb as president, with a start date of July 1.
During a May 2023 phone interview with Lamb after his hiring was announced, he said he believed the university needed to grow.
“One question that we need to address at UCO is, ‘What is the right size for UCO?’ Right now, we’re at just about 10,000. I don’t think that’s the right size,” Lamb said. “We do need to grow, but as I visit with the regents and some other stakeholders, we do need to determine what that right size is and then invest accordingly, as we recruit students to UCO.”
Lamb also said he wants to use his connections at the Oklahoma State Capitol to strengthen the university’s fundraising arm.
“I have strong relationships in both the Senate and the House. Obviously, the governor and I spent about 18 months together as we were both running for the same office,” Lamb said. “But the relationships that I have, I’m going to use for the betterment of UCO, and particularly as it relates to appropriations for our financial house, but also fundraising.”
Lamb said he wants to continue UCO’s reputation as a college for teachers.
“I want to make sure that we continue to invest in education on our campus because that’s so important. It’s impacted my life very directly,” Lamb said.
In the fall of 2023, UCO received $2.45 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding dedicated for “teacher acceleration programs.” However, UCO did not receive ARPA funding for nursing program expansions that the Oklahoma Legislature approved for other higher education institutions.