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Mike Holder nominated to OSU Board of Regents
Oklahoma State University athletic director emeritus Mike Holder was nominated for the board of regents governing the university on Monday, June 10, 2024. Gov. Kevin Stitt called a special session for two days later for the Senate to consider Holder's appointment. (NonDoc)

Underscoring his continued frustration with the upper chamber of the Oklahoma Legislature, Gov. Kevin Stitt filed an executive order this morning calling the State Senate into a special session Wednesday for the sole purpose of considering a new appointment to the Board of Regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical Colleges: Mike Holder, who retired after 16 years as Oklahoma State University’s athletic director in 2021.

Announced by press release, Stitt’s “extraordinary session” call continued an unusual series of events and raised a number of immediate questions, such as whether the regent position at hand requires its appointee to have agricultural financial interests and whether the governor can call a special session for only the Senate and not the House. (Such action is authorized under Article 6, Section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution.)

Stitt originally nominated prominent rancher Susan Bergen for an eight-year term to succeed regent Rick Davis, but the Senate voted to reject her nomination — twice — in the final 48 hours of the year’s regular session, which adjourned May 30.

“It’s too bad the Senate wouldn’t confirm Susan Bergen to the OSU Board of Regents,” Stitt said in his press release. “She’s a successful businesswoman, a philanthropist and a leader in the Oklahoma agricultural community. She would have been a great addition to the board.”

While the Senate’s reasoning for the rejection of Bergen was not immediately clear at the end of May, it appeared to be the culmination of a perfect political storm:

  • Bergen lives in Norman and had been a long-time supporter of the University of Oklahoma;
  • She irritated some Democrats by criticizing OU’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and withdrawing her annual financial support of the university;
  • She serves on the board of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which has clashed with legislative leaders in recent years;
  • She opposed the voter-rejected and so-called “right to farm” State Question 777 in 2016 and irritated some large agriculture interests by recording an advertisement against it;
  • Davis has a strong relationship with at least one Senate leader who requested that Stitt reappoint him.

Speaking Monday, both Sen. Bill Coleman (R-Ponca City) and Senate Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Chuck Hall (R-Perry) discussed the rejection of Bergen’s nomination, which culminated with Coleman moving to table a motion to reconsider her appointment one day after it had failed.

“The main thing was she was on the other side of the ‘right to farm’ state question. She was on the other side against ag people, and the ag people have not forgotten that,” Coleman said. “That’s my take on it. That was the first thing. In an ag school, you would think that you would support ag people.”

Coleman acknowledged that Bergen herself is an agriculture leader and that not all farmers and ranchers supported SQ 777, which proposed a blanket prohibition on additional state agriculture regulations and was defeated with about 60 percent opposition.

“Maybe the politics of her were too far right?” Coleman hypothesized. “I’m not sure. I’m certainly shocked to be going back Wednesday.”

Hall also expressed surprise about Stitt’s quick turnaround for special session, which was called for two days ahead of his deadline to act on the slate of budget bills and policy proposals sent to his desk to conclude regular session.

“Here’s the thing that concerns me: Why the rush? This has got to be unprecedented to call the Legislature into special session to do a nomination for a regent when you’ve got a quality person who would just continue to sit there and do it until next session when we could do the confirmation things all over again. What’s the rush? That’s my question,” Hall said. “If the rush is somehow associated with whether or not he is going to sign the budget bills or he is going to line-item (veto) the budget bills, then I’ve got real concerns over that since the governor made a public declaration that as long as the Senate and the House were amenable to his four suggestions that he would sign the budget bills.”

Hall acknowledged that he voted against Bergen’s nomination because he believed Davis — a Logan County rancher — should be reappointed to a third term on the body colloquially called the OSU Board of Regents. The board governs OSU, Langston University, Panhandle State University, Northeastern A&M College and Connors State College.

“I requested to the governor that he reappoint Mr. Davis to another term, and obviously the governor chose to go a different direction. I believe in Mr. Davis. I believe in his abilities. I believe in what he has brought to Oklahoma State University in the way of leadership. I believed him to be a quality regent then, and I believe him to be a quality regent now,” Hall said. “It’s my right to continue to support him, and so I voted against the governor’s nominee, if for no other reason than I wanted to keep the one we have who is my constituent. It’s just that simple.”

Hall emphasized that he had no problems with Bergen herself as a nominee.

“I don’t know anything about her. I’ve never met her. I was not on the Education Committee, so when she was making her rounds, I’m sure she met (with them) like every potential nominee does,” Hall said. “This is not a personal thing. I don’t know anything about her. But I do know my guy.”

Ironically, Hall now finds himself in the position of potentially carrying the nomination of Holder, who lives in the Karsten Creek neighborhood of Stillwater in Senate District 20.

“I’ve known Mike Holder for years, actually longer than I have Rick Davis, and I find him to be an exceptional man and exceptional leader,” Hall said. “I think he would make an outstanding regent.”

Saying that Holder “bleeds orange,” Hall revealed that he met the former OSU men’s golf coach and current athletic director emeritus “in his golf camp when I was 12 years old.”

But whether Holder’s appointment would square the unusual qualification equation required of the A&M Board of Regents’ membership under Article 6, Section 31a of the Oklahoma Constitution remains unclear. The governor appoints eight regents, “a majority of whom shall be farmers.”

“If he has farms, I am unaware of it. But I don’t know his personal life,” Hall said. “My guess is he knows quite a bit about turf management. I don’t know if that qualifies him.”

In his press release Monday, Stitt said Holder offers “a wealth of experience and wisdom” for the position.

“I’m thrilled that Mike Holder, a golf legend in Oklahoma and an integral part of OSU’s athletic legacy, is willing to serve his state and his alma mater on the board of regents,” Stitt said. “He was one of the driving forces behind the construction of Boone Pickens Stadium and has already left a lasting mark on the OSU campus. He will bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to this board. I look forward to the Senate promptly confirming him in special session.”

Wednesday’s playbook unclear for Senate special session

What will happen Wednesday when the Senate returns to the State Capitol remains to be seen. Typically, gubernatorial appointees take meetings with senators ahead of time as part of a vetting process.

“They meet with members of the policy committee. They meet with their sponsoring senator,” Hall said. “However, as of this phone call, the governor has yet to ask me to carry Holder’s nomination.”

Pressed as to whether he would carry Holder’s nomination if asked, Hall said, “I would.”

But he was less certain about what will happen Wednesday.

“That’s up to the pro tem and the floor leader,” Hall said. “I don’t make those decisions.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) had voted for Bergen’s nomination May 29, saying the next day that he didn’t have much sense as to why many members of the Senate GOP caucus opposed her.

Monday afternoon, Treat issued a statement saying there would be no vote on Holder’s nomination Wednesday.

“The Senate’s process will not allow us to put up a nominee for a vote on Wednesday,” Treat said. “The Senate has a deliberate procedure in place and the governor’s nominee will need to meet with members of the respective committee and be approved by the full committee before we move forward on any kind of vote on the Senate floor. This is another example of the governor not understanding the process or rules of the Senate. The Senate Republican Caucus will meet tomorrow to discuss our next steps and will release further details after that. While we will adhere to the Constitution, we are not on the governor’s timeline.”

Holder, 75, retired as OSU’s athletic director in 2021 after serving in that position for 16 years. He was succeeded by deputy OSU athletic director Chad Weiberg. Overall, Holder worked 48 years at OSU, 32 of which came as a championship-winning men’s golf coach.

Holder developed a strong relationship with the late oilman T. Boone Pickens, and during his time as athletic director significant upgrades were made to OSU’s football stadium bearing the petroleum baron’s name.

Holder was born in Odessa, Texas, and he graduated high school in Ardmore. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from OSU while also playing under Labron Harris on the men’s golf team. As a player, he won the individual Big Eight Conference championship in 1970 and led his squad to the team championship. He completed his master’s degree of business administration at OSU in 1973 and took over as OSU’s golf coach. His teams won 25 conference championships and eight national championships.

Holder was a key factor behind the construction of the Karsten Creek Golf Course, which was completed in 1994. It serves as the home of the OSU men’s and women’s golf teams. After that, he focused on developing and building an “athletic village” that now houses most of the athletic facilities in one area of campus. During his tenure, OSU opened a new athletic training center, a new tennis complex and a new baseball park.

When Holder retired, Davis, then chairman of the OSU Board of Regents, praised Holder.

“It is hard to describe the magnitude of the impact Mike Holder has had on Oklahoma State athletics during his 16-year tenure,” Davis said. “He has elevated our athletic program to a level once unimaginable in national prominence and prestige by developing and building athletic facilities on par with any in the nation.”

But Holder’s tenure also included rocky moments with OSU head football coach Mike Gundy, including inflamed contract negotiations and mildly critical remarks about recruiting that were walked back in 2018.

Unlike the press releases announcing Stitt’s nominations of Bergen and Chris Franklin — who was confirmed to an unexpired term on the OSU Board of Regents this session — the governor’s announcement of Holder’s nomination Monday did not include a statement from the nominee himself.