At the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Professor Jacob Howland writes in City Journal, “a new administration has turned a once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda.” Speaking with Seth Barron, Howland describes how, in early April, TU’s new administration announced a wholesale reorganization of academic departments, including the elimination of traditional liberal arts majors. Students and faculty have responded by organizing protests and launching a petition to “save the heart and soul of the University of Tulsa.”

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today Seth Barron, associate editor for City Journal. Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy and past chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Tulsa. His recent piece for City Journal, "Storm Clouds over Tulsa," addresses turmoil at the University where he has taught for many years. My conversation with Jacob Howland begins after the music.

Seth Barron: Thanks for joining us, Jacob.

Jacob Howland: Thank you.

Seth Barron: So tell us about the University of Tulsa, its reputation and its mission, historically.

Jacob Howland: Well I've been here since 1988 and when I came the previous provost who actually left just before I arrived in the fall of '88, had hired some serious scholars, particularly in the Humanities. So my colleague Paul Ray, the eminent ancient historian, arrived I think in '83, something like this. The English department was outstanding. We had a superb department or sort of collection of scholars who did Political Theory. It was a vibrant place. We audited each other's courses. We read books together, like the "Gulag Archipelago" and you know, "The Spirit of the Laws" by Montesquieu and so forth. And we had a very reasonable teaching load. It was three-two, and that allowed for a very nice combination of teaching and research and for the last 30 years, I have really had outstanding students. In particular in an excellent, great books program called the Honors Program. I think it's really one of the best in the country. And you know, our students have gone on to do wonderful things. Actually one named, her name is, excuse me, her name is Jennifer Croft, and she won the Man Booker Prize. She entered TU at 15, in the late 90s, and went to the Honors Program and studied Russian. Won the Man Booker Prize last year for translating a Polish novel into English. So, you know, it's, we've just had wonderful philosophy students, wonderful religion students and it's been a great place for me to work. My teaching feeds my research and vice versa. So I've been very happy up to this point.

Seth Barron: So what has happened recently at the school that provoked you to come forward and write the article that you wrote for us? And, you know, what's the controversy?

Jacob Howland: Well, the controversy is that we got a new administration, a new president, oh, probably three years ago and a new provost last year and they have radically transformed the school. The president is a kind of "touchy feely" therapist. He's an MD in psychiatry. The provost is a law professor. She was Dean of the Law School and she describes herself as "a leader in implicit thought bias" among other things on her LinkedIn page. And so they have a kind of social justice agenda and, but what's happened is that they also, have combined that agenda with a kind of neo-liberal corporatism. And I need to give you a little background here.

Seth Barron: Sure.

Jacob Howland: What's been happening as the, as the higher education bubble begins to deflate, and by the bubble, I mean, for many years, colleges and universities have been offering an inferior academic product at highly inflated prices. What's been happening is that schools have been scrambling to try to figure out, how to face an uncertain future. And there are educational consultants who have been making a lot of money going around and advising schools essentially to gut the liberal arts and focus on programs, vocational and technical, that will produce graduates who will immediately be able to take jobs. And what we have at the University of Tulsa is a really unholy mixture of this social justice agenda with this corporatism. And so they've come in and, basically, treated us like you know, dispensable and exchangeable employees. When the provost arrived around this time last year, she set up a Provost Program Review Committee. Basically handpicked the members of the committee, no one was from the Humanities or the Natural Sciences. Frankly, nobody from the liberal arts was on the committee. And that committee they all sign nondisclosure agreements, they all worked with financial data primarily. Several departments, including the Department of languages, most of the languages were cut entirely including French. I mean, French and German, you can only take introductory courses now. Chinese, Russian, Greek, Latin, they're gone. Philosophy and Religion majors had been eliminated, we're now just a combined minor and the list goes on and many, many graduate programs have been eliminated. They sprung all this stuff on us. And they also, by the way, besides eliminating programs, eliminated departments and have dumped us all into divisions. For example, our Philosophy and Religion programs will now be in a division of Humanities and Social Justice. So yeah, so what they've done is they fundamentally re-organized the school. But they've done it according to a plan that they seem to have bought off the shelf from consultants. And one of the reasons I know this is that I got an email from a fellow at McDaniel College and he wrote me and he said, hey, we just read your "True Commitment" plan, that's the name of this reorganization. And you guys plagiarize from us because it's word for word what has been imposed on McDaniel College. And I can tell you that the members of the Provost Program Review Committee had to read a book by a guy named W.F. Massy called "Reeengineering the University." Short book, President Clancy made everybody read it and includes a statement like this, "the root problem at universities is a deeply held commitment to traditional concepts and values." Now this is really insane because what they have done is they've eliminated theater, art, music, dance, vocal performance, you know, geosciences. They've eliminated PhDs and Masters programs in chemistry, physics, mathematics. The list goes on. They eliminated 80 programs, 40% of the programs of the university, but our tuition is $41,698. So what they have done is followed this plan to gut the liberal arts, focus on vocational and technical training, in particular exercise science, nursing, we have a new college of Health Sciences, business, accounting, finance, these kinds of subjects and applied science, mechanical engineering and so forth. But they're charging this extremely high price. And they've done it to a university that had a $1.1 billion endowment and was previously ranked in the top 100 of national major research universities in the United States. The list that begins with Harvard and Yale and so forth. And you know, so what they've done is they've produced this plan, which is essentially incoherent because the question that one raises is why would students pay this kind of money when, for example, if you're an Oklahoma student, you can pay in-state tuition and go to Oklahoma University or Oklahoma State University, which is our large schools, which have all the programs that we've just cut.

Seth Barron: So, and what is the comparable tuition to say, attend Oklahoma State in-state, within state tuition?

Jacob Howland: It's a fraction of the cost. I mean, I can't give you exact figures, but especially with in-state discounts, you know, you're looking at something maybe a third of what you might pay, maybe less. And that also doesn't include, by the way, sort of smaller, institutions within the state system, like Northeastern State University, which has nursing programs, et cetera.

Seth Barron: Sure. Well, it sounds like they're turning an elite liberal arts university into some kind of vocational community college type school. I mean that, is that more or less correct?

Jacob Howland: I think that's fair. The goals they've set for themselves are the sort that a sort of local college of modest aspirations might pursue. And the oddest thing is that this, you know, this process was billed as being transparent and inclusive and data-driven and it wasn't any of those things, okay? And I can go into details if you like. I've talked about it in my City Journal article. But in addition, the rationale for the cuts has also been incoherent because when these, when this radical restructuring was rolled out on April 11th, both the president and the provost told the faculty two contradictory things. One was the provost said, "This is a lifeline for us, okay? We're running deficits. This is a lifeline for us and so we need to make these cuts." On the other hand, the president and the provost both assured us that "Guys, don't you worry about the future of TU. We are strong financially. We have a $1.1 billion endowment." And you know, the editors at City Journal, when I sent my piece in, wrote me and said "We're having a little problem here, Professor Howland, we don't understand why a university with a one $1.1 billion endowment has to cut these small programs." Well my brother is an economist. He teaches at Wabash college and his best buddy teaches at DePaul College in Indiana. And both of them have been looking at the finances of the University of Tulsa, which by the way are extremely opaque. That's a whole other thing. But they looked, they were able to look at the net assets, they were able to look at the operating deficits and my brother said, "Your school is actually in very good shape financially. Your net assets are enormous. Sure you're running these operating deficits but you are not imperiled financially."

Seth Barron: So is this informed by an ideological approach? I mean, is there a sense on the part of the administration that they want the school to be just more relevant?

Jacob Howland: I think that that's part of it. Earlier I described it as an unholy alliance of sort of therapeutic, social justice attitudes and the school uses, by the way the phrase, we're going to be a high touch university. Okay. So one of the things they're doing, by the way is expanding the administration. They are hiring consultants to surround the students with, let's see, special counselors, health and financial wellbeing advisors, success coaches, peer and alumni mentors and career professional development coaches. And they're bringing these people in. They're also, by the way, at this time, hiring a brand new Vice President of Research, purely administrative position. The idea is to help to coordinate research. Incidentally, very little of which will be accomplished because one of the other features of the restructuring is that three-two teaching load, will go to four-four.

Seth Barron: Oh.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, but that's part of it. But the other thing is, and this is the sort of the part of my article, "Storm Clouds over Tulsa" that I am in a way proudest of, but I've only gotten to a certain level. I've kinda drilled down and what I discovered is a very close nexus of corporate connections. President Gerry Clancy was the chair of the Tulsa Metro Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2011 and at that time he, he said, you know, publicly that "we need to focus on providing jobs for the corporations that are going to move to Tulsa." His board is composed of some very powerful and influential business people. So, for example, three people on the Board of Trustees of the University of Tulsa are also employed by the Bank of Oklahoma. Clancy works, he's on the board of the Bank of Oklahoma. Te Bank of Oklahoma is the trustee for the major part of the University of Tulsa's endowment and there's also connections with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Now, George Kaiser Family Foundation has done some wonderful things for Tulsa. Kaiser spent $400 million to produce a facility called "Gathering Place for Tulsa," which is a very beautiful park. He poured $100 million into the Tulsa Arts district, which is a vibrant and flourishing part of Tulsa that attracts many young people. So, you know, these are all good things, but the George Kaiser Family Foundation focuses on education of K-12 students, focuses on bringing a low cost health care to indigent populations, focuses on making the Tulsa economy vibrant. And in the strategic plan that President Gerry Clancy produced when he got here, for 2017-2022, those three focus areas of the Kaiser Foundation were listed as top priorities of the University of Tulsa. Now why is this important? Because the provost, Janet Levit is the wife of the Chief Executive Officer of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, an $8 billion foundation and the new Chairman of the Board who came in at the same time as Levit last year, his name is Frederic Dorwart. He is the general counsel to the Bank of Oklahoma and he is the President of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Now, why is this relevant? Because not only do the priorities of the new president align with those of the Kaiser Foundation, but the president of University of Tulsa was previously President of OU Tulsa. Which is, you know, a kind of vocational training school, 30% of the courses are online and so forth. But he received $50 million from the George Kaiser Family Foundation to start a College of Community Medicine at OU Tulsa. So I put these pieces together and I realized it can't be a coincidence that Bank of Oklahoma, which is owned 60% by George Kaiser and Kaiser Foundation are so closely intertwined. And what I realized is that some kind of deal was made at the highest levels of the wealthy and powerful individuals in Tulsa and that deal is what is driving the transformations at the University. But you know, it's kinda like, it's kinda like drilling into the earth, you know, you want to get to the center of the earth, let's say and all I've gotten into is beyond the crust because I don't, I'm not, I wasn't in those back rooms.

Seth Barron: Right

Jacob Howland: I can't quite figure out what the deal is, but I am very confident as are my colleagues that some deal was made and the whole review process, Provost Program Review and everything, this was a done deal. And it was just shoved down our throat that took everybody by total surprise except me, because I mean, I should, maybe there were a few others who saw the writing on the wall, but you know, I was preparing my article for months so that it was ready to go when these things were announced.

Seth Barron: Well you know Jacob, you can only drill so deep before your drill-bit melts. So, you know, be careful

Jacob Howland: That's right. That's right.

Seth Barron: So I mean, in your article you talked about how, you know, there is a perspective and there are predictions that the bubble's going to burst

Jacob Howland: Right.

Seth Barron: And then as many as half of all American colleges may have to fold.

Jacob Howland: Sure.

Seth Barron: So, I mean, this being the case, you know, just to play the devil's advocate. Isn't University of Tulsa just playing a smart long game by trying to you know, adapt itself to the marketplace and make itself relevant to students who, you know, in the future will have, you know, a lot of options and may want to, you know, get a job, get a, college education that's going to help them get a job?

Jacob Howland: That's a good question. And first of all, I do think that the university has got to adapt itself to the marketplace. I do think that some changes perhaps have to be made. One thing by the way we haven't mentioned is athletics. And athletics, last year the expenses for athletics exceeded revenues by 1$14.7 million. They're not touching, athletics, but they are destroying, you know, vocal performance, musical theater, instrumental music and things like this. Oh, you know, actually on that subject, by the way, who's going to fill, you know, who, who is going to, who are going to be the performers and artists who are going to go to the Tulsa Arts district that has been built up? But let me set that aside for a minute. So I agree in general with adapting. Now a sensible process would be for the recommendations of the Provost Review Committee to have been submitted to the campus community for discussion and comment. They weren't. Among other things, the review committee generated data that was, you know, erroneous, prejudicially-constructed, incorrect, and didn't even look at academic data whatsoever for a number of the programs that they eliminated. But let me say something else, okay? Yes, we need schools that provide workers who are job ready, who can take their place in the economy. But why does it have to be a major research university with $1.1 billion endowment? One of the things that we've been able to do here, and I mentioned our Honors Program okay? And it really is one of the best programs of its sort in the country is that we are the kind of institution that actually continues to educate people in the liberal arts to maintain the precious cultural tradition, which after all, it has been the mission of a university for 800 years, right? Since the universities were founded to preserve, cultivates and transmit, right, this tradition of knowledge. So I have a couple of names for you, right? These are some of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, you know, he's a poor boy. He grows up on the island of Nevis. He's super smart, takes over as trading business at 13 or 14. The kid has basically two books. One is Livy and "The History of Roman Republicanism" and the other is "Plutarch's Lives." Or Jefferson, now Jefferson, I mean, at our university, now the president has said we are a STEM university: science, technology, education, and mathematics. Heck, Jefferson shone in that area. I mean, you go to Monticello, look at the inventions, look at the cool clocks and the dumbwaiters and all these things that he invented. But the other thing that he had is a massive library, 6,500 books were donated that became the Library of Congress. Or take somebody like Lincoln. You know, this guy didn't go to a university. He studied Shakespeare. He studied the Bible. He studied the Greeks. He learned how to speak. He learned how to think. And what I tell people who today say, "why do we need the liberal arts?" Right? My response is, well, you know, we're in very difficult times in our country politically. Wouldn't you think it might be useful to have a Hamilton, the best Secretary of the Treasury, we've, we've ever had. A Lincoln. A Jefferson. Who's going to produce those kinds of thinkers if a major university like ours isn't?

Seth Barron: Listen, I appreciate your stirring defense of the liberal arts, trust me. So what kind of pushback have you gotten since your article? And another thing, aren't there students currently engaged in a course of study who are maybe a little perturbed that all of a sudden their major has gone away?

Jacob Howland: Absolutely. So, you know, it was very interesting. I initially published or wrote, this article as a longer version. City Journal published maybe 60% of what I had initially written. And on Thursday afternoon, April 11th, these cuts were announced and I decided I got to do something about this. So I took the article and I wrote an email and I said, guys, read this and come to a meeting tomorrow at the Languages Department. Okay, the Languages Department you know was going to have this little meeting. I sent it to about 50 faculty. I sent it to about 500 students, to the honors program. Next day I show up, 400 people are there. We moved next door to the theater and we organize. I lead this meeting of, I mean it's, it's absolutely grassroots, no one knows what's going on, but we decide there we need a central place to organize. So what happened is that the students began demonstrations, the students assembly, undergraduate assembly voted no confidence in restructuring. The graduate student assembly voted no confidence in the restructuring. The law school voted not to implement certain elements of the restructuring, such as the four-four courses next year. The College of Arts and Sciences voted that we simply would not implement any of the changes in the coming year pending the creation of a task force selected by our faculty and composed by the college faculty. The administration has pushed back. One of the things they did last week is they cut off my email for about three hours.

Seth Barron: Oh, wow.

Jacob Howland: I was cold, cold done, it was gone. Okay. And they did the same thing to the Chair of Theater last week. And in both cases they said, they gave contradictory explanations. In my case, for example, and I was really freaked out. So I contacted a number of people to contact IT and the IT guy said, "it was a server problem." And then another IT guy said, "well, you were sending so many emails, we thought it was spam." Now, you know, these may be correct explanations, but it seems a little convenient that, you know, a sort of leader in the Department of Philosophy and Religion who's been pressing against the administration and the Chair of Theater who's also been very active that we lost our emails. Another thing they did, another thing they did is that I was asked by a KWGS, which is our college station, to come and give an interview presenting, you know, the faculty's opposition and the student opposition to the restructuring plan. The administration said, "that's fine, but we have to be able to have a counter statement. Okay." So my interview was recorded. Their interview was recorded and they insisted that both these be played, both sides and just before it was to air, they informed the relevant person at KWGS that they were withdrawing their interview, thereby silencing me.

Seth Barron: Ah

Jacob Howland: I could not speak to the audience and by the way this was an NPR affiliate. This is, you know, we're doing this national presser. I mean, George Peterson tweeted out my article, you know, it's in national review, link to it, Real Clear Politics, Instapundit, it's been great. But our most important audience are people in Tulsa. And these people can be told important things like, hey, the university says it's committed to diversity, but here is a black female student in the PHD program in anthropology, which has been cut, who stands up and says, my specialty is the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 I guess the university doesn't care about it. Or Native American students who are in the Masters in Jurisprudence in Indigenous Law and they stand up and they say, I guess the university which was founded as a school for Indian girls in 1882 and which stands on land taken from Native Americans, I guess you don't care about Native Americans. So these guys are hypocrites, you know, they talk about diversity and so forth. But what they are doing is simply imposing this ideological agenda and worse, this corporatism on us. AndI think one of the reasons that my article has gotten so much play is that the same things are happening across the country and people are very, very worried. And I have to tell you, I've been very proud that we have survived, that traditional education has survived at this university, not widespread through the college, but in our Honors Program, and our Philosophy Program, in our Religion Program, and then a couple of other programs like Languages and now they're just getting rid of them. They're just clear cutting the place.

Seth Barron: Well, you know what you call the unholy alliance of the corporatist model plus the social justice diversity agenda, they seem to align in a lot of aspects of American life. Jacob, I so appreciate you coming on the show, and telling us what's going on at the University of Tulsa. I'd really like to say thank you on behalf of everyone at City Journal and all our listeners.

Jacob Howland: Well I very much appreciate the opportunity for you to give me a voice and to give you more information about this. Thank you Seth. I appreciate it.

Seth Barron: Thanks a lot for coming on. We would love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10Blocks. Lastly, if you liked our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks podcast featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal Editors, contributors, and special guests.

Photo: JBDPhotography/iStock

More from 10 Blocks