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John Thompson: The Corporate Makeover of Tulsa University

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, writes here about the philanthrocaptalist makeover of Tulsa University. A tale of our times.

Surely we can agree with The Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbiel, who says that the faculty and administration “disagree bitterly … about whether that transformation will be good or bad for the university.

Krehbiel provides plenty of space for the case made by T.U. President Gerry Clancy and the city’s philanthropists. Its supporters cite economic challenges, as well an opportunity for new revenue from courses that include cyber and health sciences. They claim that the plan is “not etched in stone,” and that it can evolve as the faculty weighs in.

Even so, Kreibiel reports, “a large number of students and alumni are furious about not only the plan itself but the manner in which it was developed … The Arts and Sciences faculty voted 89-4 not to implement True Commitment.” He also cites the participation of EAB, an education consulting firm. EAB’s role is unknown, but such secrecy is likely to be one reason why Krehbiel closed with a faculty member’s words, “I don’t think anyone is really optimistic.”

To get really pessimistic, read Jacob Howland’ articles in the Nation and City Journal magazines. He acknowledges the role of local philanthropies, especially the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), in “early-childhood education, delivering health care to indigent families, and making Tulsa more vibrant and economically robust.”

Howland writes:

GKFF spent $350 million on Tulsa’s new Gathering Place, the largest private gift to a public park in US history. The foundation has invested more than $100 million in the Tulsa Arts District since 2009. It is the major funder of early-childhood education in the state, and has spent more than $20 million in Tulsa alone on Educare early-childhood education centers.

But Howland suggests that the GKFF has overreached:

It has also pursued a strategy of populating city boards and commissions. In 2017, GKFF staff members headed the Tulsa school board and the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust, and had seats on the Economic Development Commission, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, and the Tulsa City Council. For the past two years, a Bank of Oklahoma executive has chaired the board of directors of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Howland concludes, “the True Commitment restructuring were all part of Kaiser’s plan to gain control of the university.” And he argues that “TU’s administration has employed smashmouth tactics in dealing with faculty opposition to True Commitment.”

I’ve long admired the great job Tulsa edu-philanthropists have done in early education, “two generation” family supports, and criminal justice reform, and I’ve often asked GFKK leaders why they have also supported their opposite – the data-driven, competition-driven corporate school reforms that have failed so badly in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS). I’ve repeatedly urged an open and balanced, evidence-driven public discussion of the TPS, which is led by the notorious teacher- and union-basher, Deborah Gist.

I was then saddened when the GKFF even joined with the Bloomberg and Walton foundations in funding “portfolio management” directors to “absorb the duties of the director of partnership and charter schools,” and “in the future, implement ‘new school models resulting from incubation efforts of the district.’” I was later stunned to learn that Stacy Schusterman donated almost $200,000 to California union-busting, teacher-bashing campaigns.


I would now urge Tulsa philanthropists to follow the links cited by journalists and educators and see if the EAB consultants have evidence to support the policies they promote, and then ask whether the values EAB proclaims are worthy of universities in our democracy.

Nowhere on the EAB website, is there any evidence that it’s approach is beneficial to students or society. EAB’s sales pitch certainly doesn’t sound like it has an appropriate role to play in higher education. On the contrary, its claim to fame is being the “brand police.” But how would its “integrated brand strategy” be able to coexist with the founding principles of universities, and their commitment to the clash of ideas? How could a commitment to academic freedom coexist with EAB brand “that all departments, schools, and colleges were onboard with.”

Its blog proclaims:

At EAB we have an ongoing fascination with organizational charts. (Really, we do.) Org charts can tell a story about a university’s strategy, its priorities, and how it gets things done. And when positions start moving on an org chart, we take notice. The latest example: The rise of the strategic marketing and communications (marcom) leader.

The most advanced marcom departments are strategic marketing partners and get involved in everything from institutional branding to admissions to fundraising. And to make sure that there’s a single source of marketing and advertising truth, they function like an in-house ad agency—their clients are departments, colleges, and offices around campus.

But universities aren’t a corporation where everyone is supposed to be on the same page in the search for a single “marketing and advertising truth.” To take one example, tenure protects the clash of ideas. But, EAB’s approach to “‘what you measure matters’” is a “mentality” that “sparks some ambivalence in academia to put it lightly.” So, how do you reconcile the scholarly and the business advertising mentalities? EAB’s response to tenure is:

One solution is to adopt academic metrics that also capture research effort. These metrics can include:
• The number of proposals or papers submitted
• The dollar amount of proposals
• Proportion of funding from different sources
• Benchmarks for the success rates of proposals and papers

Finally, I have enjoyed many conversations with Tulsa philanthropy leaders at events where they assembled talented professors from the O.U. and O.S.U. medical schools. Even though we disagreed on corporate school reform, I’m sure we would share our respect for those medical professionals who are battling the opioid epidemic. We would likely agree that privatization was a major contributor to the deaths of thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the nation.

I hope that philanthropists, who I am confident will contribute to the battle against opioid addiction, will ask a basic question. How many Oklahomans would still be alive and well if it was university medical professors who educated doctors about painkillers, as opposed to the drug companies’ sales reps who would misrepresent medical science in the name of “so-called unbranded promotion?” In times like these, should we not rally behind the principles which drive our universities’ search for knowledge, as opposed to something called “brand equity,” “integrated brand strategy” or whatever profit-seeking consultants spin?

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