A long-overdue, heartfelt thank you to TU alumni and students

What follows is an inexcusably belated expression of gratitude to TU students and alumni for their actions during a relatively recent, deeply regrettable episode in the history of this institution. Recent and momentous though the event may have been, some context is required for anyone who arrived on campus after 2020.

In April 2019, TU administrators unveiled an academic strategy, known as True Commitment, that “reimagined the academic structure” of the university by promoting a skills-based curriculum with “a professional, practical focus.” In adopting this reorganization plan, which was supposed to enable the university to meet the “headwinds” of demographic change, administrators closed roughly 40% of TU’s degree programs, primarily in the arts, humanities and natural sciences.

They also planned to abandon the traditional academic disciplines that comprise the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences in favor of four multidisciplinary divisions: viz., fine arts and media; human biology and behavior; ecology, environment and sustainability; and the incoherent catch-all (but supposedly trendy sounding) division of “humanities and social justice.”

Given that, shortly before unveiling True Commitment, the then-president of this institution observed that TU was “among the best small universities in the world” and “the highest ranked university in Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Kansas,” he should not have been surprised by the profound, widespread skepticism that greeted the announcement of the reorganization effort.

TU’s national and regional reputations, it should be emphasized, were built over decades through a combination of well-known graduate programs, undergraduate excellence across the university, and a strong commitment to liberal education — to high-quality, writing-intensive instruction in small classes taught by faculty who are active researchers and members of academic departments with robust professional cultures. Any decision to abandon a thriving liberal arts college that was integral to the culture of a small private university located in a region dominated by large public universities should not have been undertaken lightly.

As my colleague, Matt Hindman, noted in an article that he published with the American Association of University Professors, while TU “ultimately abandoned its plans to reorganize from a departmental to a divisional structure, this decision occurred only after extensive investigative efforts on the part of our faculty.” The College of Arts and Sciences Task Force on Academic Structure, which critically examined the divisions-over-departments proposal, was one part of a multifaceted, university-wide effort among faculty to push back against the numerous, deeply flawed aspects of the reorganization effort. Those flaws included the problematic metrics used to justify program cancellations, a breathtakingly disingenuous conception of shared governance between administration and faculty, a process for disciplining faculty that violated established university procedures, and the administrative leadership itself, which bore responsibility for the True Commitment debacle. I greatly admired and will always remember the intelligence and persistence of my colleagues — especially the untenured junior and contract faculty members — who resisted True Commitment in the re-energized faculty senate, the newly established TU chapter of the AAUP, the existing committee structure, the aforementioned and other task forces, and the informal group, Concerned Faculty of TU.

But I would like to emphasize the university’s indebtedness to those alumni and students whose resistance to True Commitment was essential to the preservation of TU’s structure, programs and reputation. Even as we were losing excellent faculty to other institutions (to say nothing of the damage done to the morale of the university community), TU’s board of trustees ignored petitions, letters, social media posts, interviews, articles and even a faculty vote of no confidence in the provost and president (who would soon resign from his position). Indeed, at a faculty senate meeting, the board’s leadership defended the university’s top two administrators and informed the assembled faculty that True Commitment was “a done deal.” If not for the efforts of civic-minded alums and students, the extensive damage that resulted from the administration’s attempt to force its controversial program upon unwilling constituents would have been much worse.

Any summary of the contributions of TU alumni must begin with the efforts of Nick Carnes (Class of 2006), who is Professor of Public Policy and Sociology at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Carnes created the website, TUPlan.org, which functioned as a clearinghouse for all information that was critical of True Commitment. In addition to providing an explanation of the substantive shortcomings of the reorganization effort and the procedural irregularities that led to those flaws, the website contained an extraordinary variety and number of sources that were critical of the direction in which the university was headed. The continually increasing volume of critical commentary undercut efforts to characterize the opposition to True Commitment as the mere product of self-serving, turf-conscious faculty who failed to acknowledge the necessity of major curricular change.

Carnes also created TU Alumni for Responsible Reform, whose members vowed not to recruit prospective students or to contribute financially to the university until administrators adopted a reorganization strategy that employed a meaningful conception of shared governance and sought data for the purpose of guidance rather than to support a predetermined conclusion. With over 300 alumni joining TUARR during the reorganization battle, administrators were forced to acknowledge that the failure to take their critics’ views seriously had significant financial consequences. Special mention should be made of the individuals who served on the TUARR advisory board: Erin Fuller (1993), Alexandra Prosser (2011), Anna Rouw (2018), Brennen VanderVeen (2017), Julianne Romanello (2003), Andrew Noland (2019), Amanda Sigler (2004), Christopher Shrock (2004), and Jenna Harris Elser (2008). The impressive professional biographies of each of these individuals demonstrated not only the quality of the opposition to True Commitment but also the value of the TU education that the reorganization effort threatened to undermine.

Students on campus who witnessed firsthand the divisiveness that True Commitment inspired had the strongest incentives to consider carefully the negative impact that the reorganization effort would have on the quality of their degrees. The Collegian reporters Lindsey Prather, Chris Lierly and Ethan Veenker performed the invaluable service of keeping the campus informed about the activities of students, faculty and very unforthcoming administrators. The leadership of Students for Responsible Change — especially Haley Ashworth, Elise Ramsey and Baylor Brandon — deserve accolades for the creativity and determination that they exhibited in organizing opposition to the reorganization. Other students who became active opponents of True Commitment included Nicole Mathews, Lexi Rutkowski, Robert Steere, Cheyenne Greene, Winchell Gallardo and Michael Orcutt. The resistance to True Commitment that these and many other students exhibited took a variety of forms, including letter writing, public protests, interviews with local news organizations, sidewalk chalking, questioning of administrators at open forums, an online petition with over 8,200 signatures, and, ultimately, an overwhelming 802 to 264 student vote of no confidence in the former provost who by that point was serving as interim president. The fact that the vote took place in spite of numerous efforts to block it and that the response rate for the referendum marked the highest turnout percentage for any student election on record revealed the hollowness of claims that student opposition to the reorganization was confined to a small group of malcontents whom faculty had weaponized.

It should be emphasized that the qualities students and alumni exhibited during the True Commitment debacle — independence, ingenuity, resilience, thoroughness, perseverance, acumen and prudence — are among the attributes that TU seeks to cultivate in its graduates. Those students and alums who drew upon those qualities to prevent the university from fully implementing a plan that would have fundamentally altered the character of the institution to ruinous effect are deserving of the gratitude of all those who feel a sense of devotion to The University of Tulsa.

Ideally, the passage of time will make it politically feasible for TU to give formal recognition to those students and alums who did the university an enormous favor by helping to preserve its character and quality. But, until that time, those individuals who participated in those efforts should understand that the sense of gratitude and admiration expressed above, insufficient and tardy though it may be, is very much heartfelt and extends well beyond the author of this piece.

Post Author: Jeffrey Hockett