Learning to be president at OU was a trial by fire for James Gallogly
NORMAN — A stately desk covered in folders, memos and spreadsheets keeps University of Oklahoma President James Gallogly tied to his office most days.
The 66-year-old was announced OU's 14th president a year ago Tuesday and officially began his new job nearly nine months ago. But Gallogly said he’s still getting used to the many hats he must wear while leading the state’s flagship university.
Transitioning from life running huge corporations to managing more than 24,000 students was more difficult than he expected when it was announced a year ago that he would succeed David Boren as president following his retirement.
“I thought this would be an easy job, and I wouldn’t work long hours,” said Gallogly, during a recent interview with The Oklahoman.
“Boy, was I wrong.”
In his nine months occupying the big office in Evans Hall, Gallogly said he has had to rebalance the books of the university after discovering OU was in financial peril before he officially started as president.
Administration staff were let go and programs had to be cut, but the moves helped keep tuition rates flat and gave faculty a long-awaited raise, Gallogly said.
At the same time, a growing unrest on campus following several racist incidents showed put issues of diversity before Gallogly.
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Then there’s the beef with the old boss.
A public rift between Gallogly and Boren has made headlines as changes to the university have been seen by many as a rebuke of Boren’s 24-year tenure as president.
But Gallogly believes his trial by fire has only deepened his resolve to fix OU. He believes the university is bound to reach new heights.
“When you come in and make changes, that can be hard,” Gallogly said. “I’m here because I love the university. That love hasn’t changed.”
Financial woes and public disputes
Just like most of his students, Gallogly’s tenure at OU began in the dorms.
A resident of Headington Hall for the first few months after moving to Norman, Gallogly and his wife, Janet, lived among students, sharing hallways and elevators with all manner of OU undergraduates and often eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in campus facilities.
Janet Gallogly even had a real "welcome to college" moment when she came across an OU football player in the hall who was carrying a 2-foot-long iguana in his arms.
“I figured out how fast my wife could do a 40-yard sprint,” Jim Gallogly said.
But it was also in those early days before officially taking over as president that Gallogly began running the numbers on OU’s budget.
He saw new construction happening all over campus but didn’t see any new revenue streams to offset the cost. Combined with cuts in state appropriations to all of higher education and lower-than-expected cash reserves at OU, Gallogly started to believe the numbers were off.
He approached then-Chief Financial Officer Chris Kuwitzky and told him he couldn’t make the math work.
“Originally he said it’s break even or probably slightly positive,” Gallogly remembered. “Thirty days later, he was agreeing with me that we were having financial losses.
“We were spending a lot more than we were bringing in. The problem became very obvious.”
The losses were between $25 million and $30 million annually over the course of five years.
Many saw Gallogly’s warnings about the state of OU’s finances as a personal conflict with Boren.
But Gallogly said that was not the case then and is not the case now.
The two were friends, often attending sporting events together, and Gallogly contributed millions in donations to the university while Boren was president.
“I didn’t say, to my knowledge ever, that this happened because of this individual,” Gallogly said. “Sometimes you have to shine a bright light on things before you fix it. It’s very difficult to make a case for change with employees if you don’t tell them what the situation is.”
Gallogly denies reports that he threatened Boren and told him “I’ll end you” after the former president defended OU’s finances in a letter.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Gallogly said. “I think it’s inappropriate, and I also think it’s damaging to our institution.”
A need for more diversity
Since the beginning of January, OU has experienced a number of racist events that shook the campus, starting with two members of Tri-Delta sorority wearing blackface and using racial slurs on a video on social media.
The event sparked rallies and demonstrations on campus and hurried calls for sensitivity and diversity training among students, faculty and staff.
“I’m learning from that and how we respond to it as an organization in a meaningful way,” Gallogly said. “Not just an expression of outrage but also an expression of how do we advance our culture.”
Gallogly said the university is reinforcing its hiring committees to do robust searches across the country for the best candidates to work at OU.
The appointment of Eric Stevenson to the board of regents by Gov. Kevin Stitt was also seen as a step in the right direction by many.
Stevenson is only the fourth African-American to serve on the board and the first in nearly two decades.
Excited for what’s next
At OU’s last regents meeting, Gallogly announced the university had already begun to turn the corner financially. OU reported a more than $60 million improvement in its cash position.
Gallogly said he is excited by the fact that OU is doubling its research initiatives and that tuition rates will remain flat for the first time in years.
As Gallogly pondered over his first nine months on the job at OU during spring break last week, he shared his favorite way of dealing with the stress of the position.
The president often leaves the walls of his office inside Evans Hall to get out into the heart of the university.
He’ll sit on one of the hundreds of benches on campus to try and talk with students about their goals and desires, or get lunch in the student union with more students and ask why they chose OU.
“Just that quick interaction with a student or two makes you remember what this is all about,” Gallogly said. “Frankly, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Gallogly said he’s the first to tell people he’s still figuring out how to be president.
He often thinks back to a conversation he and his wife had on the day it was announced he would be Boren's successor.
After a celebration that featured the Pride Of Oklahoma marching band, photos with OU cheerleaders and personal congratulations from head football coach Lincoln Riley, Janet Gallogly asked her husband a simple question:
Who was president when he attended law school at OU?
Gallogly couldn’t remember.
“Her point was, 'Jim, do your job,'” he said. “You don’t remember who was president and if you do your job well, nobody will remember you.
“Do your job well and the university as an institution will be better.”