Imagine, 10 years from now, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center announces it has discovered a cure for diabetes. A few years later, Oklahoma State University has discovered a switchgrass fuel that is a marketable, renewable and more cost-effective than ethanol and abundant throughout the world.
How do we get there? Focus, commitment and some imagination, plus some leadership from our elected officials.
Oklahoma has many fine universities and institutions of higher learning spread out over the state. The question needs to be asked, would Oklahoma rather have a few world-class institutions or many universities that cannibalize our finite resources? Use Texas as an example: The University of Texas System has nine universities and six health institutions, such as the MD Anderson Cancer Center. If we can steal the wishbone in football in the ’70s, we could also use their higher education system and make it better for Oklahoma.
Can you guess how many different public colleges and universities Oklahoma has? Would you be shocked if the number was more than five? Try more than 25. In the University of Texas System, there are affiliated locations in Austin (the main campus), Arlington, Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, Pan American, Permian Basin, San Antonio, Tyler, plus the medical facilities. What is the difference? Each facility has a focus and a specialty. UT put this system together with some reason and logic to raise capital, reduce overhead by capitalizing on the economies of scale. Other Texas universities, like Texas A&M and Texas Tech, use similar systems.
However, in Oklahoma universities, an administrator or employee at Panhandle State University does the same job and has the challenges as an employee in Stillwater or Norman. By setting a focus for the entire system of higher education, great things can be accomplished. In each town and city, from Lawton (home of Cameron University) to Poteau (home of Carl Albert State College), the university is considered an economic engine for that community, which is a good thing. But is this a good plan for the entire state?
As a graduate of Georgetown University (but, more importantly, a lifelong Oklahoman), I think the future of Oklahoma is in our education system and in how we prepare for the global marketplace. I want my 8-month-old daughter to go to the best university she can get into. I want OU or OSU to be a top-tier school where she can pursue her dreams to be a doctor, lawyer, petroleum engineer, agriculture physicist or whatever she wants to be. However, if she goes out of state to attend school, more than likely she will stay there when she graduates.
We need to change that, and we can do that by creating two world-class systems. Put all of the publicly funded schools into systems at either OU or OSU, which will make them reduce overhead by removing redundancy. You can use the savings to keep the cost of tuition down so that the average Oklahoma high school student can afford to go.
Regional and geographical bickering and fighting over resources will stop, and the university system will work together instead of against each other. A unified focus will allow world-changing research and breakthroughs to happen; otherwise, we are doomed to the status quo of mediocre schools while surrounding states thrive and become more educated. The sacrifices and hard work of the past need not be squandered, but rather, the silver bullet is within our reach.
Loveless is a former state Senate candidate.