Oklahoma and Oklahoma City have been enjoying several years of prosperity. Some of the credit goes to former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick for his visionary leadership on MAPS. Norick convinced voters that taxing themselves would give the city new life. Few politicians ever have been willing to promote a tax increase ” and lived to talk about it. Norick was correct, and the city and state are better for it.
Some of the credit for our prosperity also is pure economics. Oil and gas prices have risen dramatically over the last several years, creating a new group of corporate and civic community leaders along with a fortune in tax revenues. J. Larry Nichols (Devon Energy Corp.), Aubrey McClendon (Chesapeake Energy Corp.), Tom Ward (SandRidge Energy) and many others such as Cliff Hudson (Sonic Corp.) have assumed roles as city fathers, lending their support to numerous civic, charitable and educational causes.
But, Oklahoma has a rich history of great and course-changing leaders. David Boren distinguished himself in the U.S. Senate and returned home to transform the University of Oklahoma. Tom McDaniel (my boss) retired from Kerr-McGee Corp. to orchestrate a similar renaissance for Oklahoma City University. Former Gov. George Nigh moved the University of Central Oklahoma forward; Henry Bellmon brought respect to Oklahoma as both a member of the Senate and second-term governor committed to making our public school systems better.
Several of the state’s American Indian tribes have shown real leadership. Funds from casino gambling are being reinvested in other businesses and higher education scholarships for tribal members. Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith and Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory Pyle have exerted their leadership across Oklahoma, and in some cases nationally and internationally. Meanwhile, local leaders have created amazing growth in south Oklahoma City, Moore, Edmond and Norman, putting the metro on the map for companies looking for expansion and relocation opportunities.
Still, Oklahoma could use more leadership for progress in education. Providing better schools will require more than money. Progressive leaders need to recruit members of their communities to take a more active, forward-thinking role in public education. Parents attending parent-teacher association meetings, helping their kids with homework, and making sure the kids get a good night’s sleep and breakfast to enhance their ability to learn are part of the process.
Given the number of households with both parents working and the competition our kids will face from their peers in China and India, it’s time to lengthen the school day, and add more math, science and foreign languages to the curriculum. Sadly, we’re still at the bottom of the barrel on teachers’ salaries and need a real initiative to improve high school and college graduation rates. Some of this won’t be popular, so we’ll need more leaders showing the kind of brave, visionary leadership that Norick provided on MAPS.
One of the threads that ties the leaders mentioned here together is their commitment to education and improving the lives of others. The level of success these individuals have achieved is a consequence of hard work and education. Oklahoma has the capability to achieve real greatness if its residents can mobilize more leaders to focus their efforts on education and then lead the charge.
Orza is dean of the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University.