OKLAHOMA STATE REGENTS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION
On the eve of the country's entry into World War II, Oklahomans approved Article XIII-A on March 11, 1941. This constitutional amendment established the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education. The state regents were empowered to set standards of education, determine functions and courses of study, grant degrees, present higher education's budget needs to the legislature, set fees and tuition within legislative limits, and allocate funding to institutions from the lump-sum higher education appropriation. Independent institutions could become coordinated with the state system. Key statutory additions to the regents' powers include administration of statewide scholarship programs, the Oklahoma Guaranteed Student Loan Program, the state's telecommunications network (OneNet), and the Endowment Program and responsibility for higher education planning. With offices in Oklahoma City, the board comprises nine members appointed by the governor to nine-year terms and confirmed by the state senate. The chancellor is the chief executive officer.
Several events led to the creation of the state regents in 1941. As early as 1911, Gov. Lee Cruce noted in his legislative address that a half dozen different education boards currently existed, causing confusion. In 1929 Gov. William Holloway managed the creation of a central coordinating agency that loosely unified higher education. In 1934 Gov. Ernest W. Marland commissioned the Brookings Institution to study Oklahoma government. It recommended abolishing the weak coordinating agency and establishing a stable, powerful governing body. In 1941 Gov. Leon "Red" Phillips pushed for the constitutional creation of a unified system and a coordinating board of control in order to remove higher education from politics, reduce duplication, and improve quality. Support came from University of Oklahoma (OU) Pres. William B. Bizzell, OU board member John Rogers, Oklahoma State University Pres. Henry Bennett, and various legislators who noted the advantages of escaping the haphazard method of financing education and writing one check to a knowledgeable board. Opposing the plan were the state superintendent of public instruction, a portion of the Oklahoma Farmers' Union, and various legislators who objected to surrendering power to the new board.
Constitutional creation of the state regents and the unified state system has resulted in stability and improved quality of Oklahoma higher education. Before 1941 only three state institutions were accredited. There was little coordination among entities and no uniformity in accounting and financial practices. While a good share of higher education funding comes from the legislature and governor, as a result of their constitutional status, the state regents and the state system enjoy some insulation from fierce Oklahoma politics. At the turn of the twenty-first century Oklahoma's twenty-five colleges and universities and ten constituent agencies as well as independent institutions have regional accreditation.
Serving 20,190 students in 1941, the state system served 213,972 students in fiscal 2001. Using the documents Plan for the 70s and Planning for the 80s, the regents guided the state system through significant enrollment growth and creation of Oklahoma two-year colleges. The regents' Plan for Academic Excellence and Efficiency refocused efforts in the 1990s on strengthening the quality and competitiveness of Oklahoma higher education. Brain Gain 2010 guided efforts during the first decade of the new millennium to increase the number of Oklahoma college graduates to the national average in order to strengthen the state's competitiveness.
Five chancellors have provided leadership. Mell A. Nash, a former state superintendent and four-year-college president, served from 1943 to 1961, established the regents' office, set common budget practices, and commenced data collection. Elijah T. Dunlap, a former legislator and two-year-college president, served from 1961 to 1981 and introduced long-range planning and program budgeting, built the state's two-year-college system, and presided over unprecedented enrollment growth. Joe A. Leone, a former two-year-college president, presided from 1982 to 1987, introduced electronic learning to improve higher education access and secured external resources during a time of state budget cuts after the oil boom ended. Dan S. Hobbs served in an interim capacity for one year (1987-88). Hans Brisch served from 1987 through 2003. His philosophy and the belief that higher education opens doors of opportunity stemmed from his origin as an immigrant from Germany. Under Brisch, Oklahoma higher education addressed recommendations from Secret Crisis, an Oklahoma Higher Education Task Force report critical of higher education. He built confidence and accountability in the system, modernized it for the information and electronic era, changed the budget formula to a multiyear peer model, introduced incentive and performance funding, improved quality and efficiency, raised standards, and increased Oklahoma higher education's competitiveness.
Education experts have observed that the Oklahoma board is the strongest higher education coordinating board in the nation. The board is seen as powerful because of its constitutional status and its lump-sum funding allocation. In the nation, there are nine boards that coordinate all state higher education, and only five of those, including the Oklahoma State Regents, have budget and program authority.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Henry Garland Bennett, The Coordination of the State Institutions for Higher Education in Oklahoma (Durant, Okla.: Southeastern Teachers College, 1926). Brookings Institution, Report on a Survey of Organization and Administration of Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla: Harlow Publishing Co., 1935). Oklahoma Higher Education Task Force, Oklahoma's Secret Crisis, Report of the Oklahoma Higher Education Task Force to the Governor of the State of Oklahoma and Members of the Oklahoma Legislature (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Higher Education Task Force, 1987). Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, A System of Higher Education for Oklahoma: The Report of the State Coordinating Board, With a Supplemental Statement Concerning the Activities of the State Regents for Higher Education (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 1942).
Ruth Ann Dreyer
© Oklahoma Historical Society