Teaching Idealism 101
David Boren retains a youthful zeal as he heads into retirement.
After a half-century in public life – baby-faced member of the state House of Representatives, leader of the Broom Brigade sweeping into the Governor’s Mansion, U.S. senator, president of the University of Oklahoma – David Boren unabashedly remains a youthful idealist.
Boren feeds off young people’s zeal and optimism (his own included), whether it’s been as a 25-year-old entering the Oklahoma House in 1967, a 33-year-old taking the governor’s oath in 1975 or a 76-year-old facing retirement in June as OU’s second-longest leader.
“In many ways, I have the same outlook as when I led the Broom Brigade,” he says. “I’m still a reformer. I’m impatient for change.”
Boren has transformed OU into the nation’s leader in attracting National Merit Scholarship winners. The number of endowed professorships has increased from 100 to 564 since he took the helm in November 1994. Boren raised the university’s academic profile to equal that of its storied athletic department; 31 major programs, including Boren’s beloved College of International Studies, and $2 billion in construction projects have been added during his tenure.
Boren will still teach his political science/government course. He wants to set up shop in the Student Union.
“It’s going to be a real opportunity to do the parts of the job that I love best,” he says. “I don’t want to give that up. I have the privilege of being in contact with young people. They inspire me.”
When Boren was in the U.S. Senate, where he chaired the intelligence committee, he had one of the youngest staffs on Capitol Hill. At OU, the president’s office is abuzz with students who bring him ideas and, in some cases, personal problems.
“At every freshman convocation, I tell students that I’m not off-limits, that I’m part of their family,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how many take me up on that offer. I had one young man come in to tell me that his mom was always on campus checking on him and wouldn’t leave him alone. I offered to call her and have a talk.
“You know, when Mollie [Shi Boren, his wife] and I began at OU, we saw ourselves as parents of these students. Now, we’re like their grandparents and they discuss stuff with me like a grandparent. Young people are frank and candid. I’m a great believer in inter-generational friendships because they’re authentic and not competitive.”
Boren certainly brags about young Sooners the way grandparents do. He cites two instances when their energy produced colossal results. One came when OU students drew national attention by rallying against bigotry and for inclusion after a racist video involving Sigma Alpha Epsilon surfaced in 2015. Boren disbanded the fraternity and expelled two students.
“In retrospect, speaking to our country about this racial incident, civil rights, equal rights and mutual respect was the single most gratifying experience I’ve had in public life,” Boren says. “It was a crisis and it was emotionally and physically draining, but to have the opportunity to speak out was really important.
“[The University of] Missouri lost enrollment because of their response to a racial incident. Our enrollment went up because we let everyone know that we’re inclusive. We’re a strong community and we have a strong sense of family. That’s something a university president can’t do by himself. It all involves care for each other. That’s the thing I take most pride in.”
Another time Boren cites as an example of OU’s student success came in 2012, when Sooners simultaneously held the prestigious Rhodes, Mitchell and Marshall scholarships.
“Can you imagine how good it felt to tell that to presidents of Harvard and Yale and Stanford?” says Boren, emphasizing that the faculty is also vital to OU’s academic leadership. “Measuring the legacy of a great university is not rocket science. It’s putting the greatest possible faculty teaching the greatest possible students. Elevating the student body and the faculty has been essential.”
Boren lauds OU’s professors because “presidents change, students change, but the faculty remain. It’s shared governance. You bring about decisions that the faculty and administration agree upon to the benefit of everybody.”
In addition to teaching and remaining in touch with students, Boren says his retirement will allow him to write a blog.
“It would be good to have a strong, progressive political voice out there on national and state issues,” he says.
He also wants to become a one-on-one mentor to an at-risk youth who doesn’t have a stable life, perhaps through Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
“Nothing’s more important than a mentor,” Boren says. “There’s a person depending on you to show up and encourage them.”
One person whom Boren has influenced is Tulsan Jenny Carmichael, an OU discus thrower who was one of nine finalists for the 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year award.
“President Boren invests directly into the lives around him,” she says. “As his student, I️ had the privilege of getting to know him and more importantly learn from his leadership and example. He never missed an opportunity to teach, whether that was in the classroom, in campus leadership or in the community. He taught me to strive for the impossible.”
It’s always about young people for Boren, who wasn’t much older than typical collegians when he represented Seminole in the Oklahoma House. He enjoys their enthusiasm; they remind him that such vitality elicits change.
“How did I get to be governor, U.S. senator and OU president? I got mad at the government and I wanted to straighten it out,” he says.
He relishes youthful aspirations and difficulties, passions and concerns. Doing so takes him back to his days as a student and his lofty goals.
“When I was at Oxford [as a Rhodes scholar in the early 1960s], I kept a diary for two years,” says the son of Lyle Boren, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1937-1947. “At one point, I wrote about three things that I hoped to do in my lifetime. One was to be U.S. senator from Oklahoma; the second was president of the University of Oklahoma. The third was an opportunity that never presented itself at the right time. You can take a logical guess and figure it out, but I’m not going to say.”
Boren credits his academic and political careers to the state and its people.
“That Oklahoma spirit is a great advantage in life,” he says. “The people of Oklahoma have given me everything, even the Rhodes scholarship. I was selected by Oklahomans for that.
“I truly love the people and the opportunity to represent them. I want them to understand how much they have enriched my life. They let me live out my dreams.” – Brian Wilson
Extended Web-Exclusive Interview
With his planned departure in June as president of the University of Oklahoma, Boren will end 51 years in the public eye as a state House member, governor, U.S. senator and second-longest leader (24 years) of the state’s educational flagship.
The ship is in good shape.
Under Boren’s watch at OU, the number of endowed teaching chairs nearly sextupled, billions of dollars built dozens of new academic programs and facilities, and “we’ve raised admissions standards three times and the minimum ACT for freshmen is six points higher,” he says.
Boren also takes pride in the esprit de corps permeating the campus, and that’s what he hopes to take with him into the next phase of his life as a political blogger, mentor, chairman of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence and part-time OU instructor of government.
“Rebuilding a sense of community is the most important thing for the whole country right now [because] we’re splintered,” he says. “We talk about economic and military strength, but we need to think about kindness and how we treat people in society. We often overlook that.”
Boren’s regard for teachers and education is lifelong, and he’s joyous that he gets to keep his hand in the profession.
“At the Foundation for Excellence, we pick academic All-Staters and outstanding teachers,” says Boren, whose retirement “will give me more time to work with them on … mentorship programs and get civic clubs to do outreach with at-risk students. I look back at the people who have mentored me [and] many of them were teachers.”
While the OU presidency has happily taken up nearly a third of his 76 years (“No reward tops that”), Boren reflects on his life as a politician with satisfaction.
“I didn’t quit because I was disillusioned,” he says. “I always had a special sense of excitement each time I climbed the steps of the Senate – and the state capitol, too. As a senator, I was interested in international affairs and being chairman of the intelligence committee allowed me to do that. In state government, I enjoyed the huge decisions, like how to educate our children and fund them and treat those with mental health issues. I enjoyed the executive role as governor by appointing people to committees or agencies, or crafting legislation.”
Of his three most prominent roles, the OU presidency has presented the most complications “because you have so many different constituencies – faculty, alumni, politicians, students. When you’re governor or senator, you know what the people of Oklahoma are thinking. There aren’t as many conflicting threads to pull on.”
Boren often wishes that he “could take 15 years off the clock” and regain the physical drive he had then “because I’m still impatient for change, still an idealist,” and that takes energy out of someone who had heart bypass surgery in March.
“I’m less personally ambitious [and] you reach a point in life where what you can do for yourself isn’t as important as what you can for others.”
Those goals for others come from his favorite playbook.
“There’s too much money having too much influence in politics and that makes people lose confidence that the government really is representing them,” Boren says. “I’m bewildered now when we are last in the nation in teacher pay, health-care outcomes and other critical areas about society on the state level. The pendulum will swing because most people in Oklahoma believe in opportunities for their children. If we don’t give them equal opportunity, we’re short-changing the state.
“I’ve always been proud to be an Oklahoman, even though we have difficult times in the state. I’m an optimist and that people will think of the good of everybody, not just what’s personally best for themselves.”
Web-Exclusive Q & A
Following is more of Oklahoma Magazine‘s interview with David Boren, scheduled to retire in June after 24 years as president of the University of Oklahoma.
OM: You’ve upped OU’s academic reputation, but you’ve also made great athletic hires in Patty Gasso (a four-time national champion softball coach), Joe Castiglione (named the nation’s best athletic director), Bob Stoops (the all-time leader in OU football victories), K.J. Kindler and Mark Williams (coaches of the national gymnastic champions). What has been your philosophy on the academic-athletic balance and showing that a university can have greatness in both?
DB: Stanford, Duke and Notre Dame universities are outstanding in their athletic programs and leaders in academics. I truly think that’s possible if you do it the right way. Let’s take athletics. We have the highest number of student-athletes in our history with 10 straight semesters of them making above a 3.0 composite grade-point average; 40 of them have perfect 4.0s. How does that happen? We mainstream our student athletes. You have to hire people who share those views and values. Under Castiglione, we’ve seen a turnaround in this. And you get coaches who want students to have success in life. These young people are not going to be athletes all their lives, even if they go onto the NFL. They’re going to have to make a living and provide leadership. Our goal is to produce people successful in life in all fields. We want them to learn the right lessons from athletics: teamwork, discipline, time management, setting priorities.
OM: Have your views on athletics evolved?
DB: I’ve always been a hug fan of OU athletics. As president, I’ve learned the role that athletics has on people. It’s not a coincidence that athletes turn out to be leaders in life. My heart surgeon is a former OU football player, John Randolph.
It’s not a coincidence that he was an outstanding surgeon. He was valedictorian and captain of the football team at Seminole High School. Through athletics,
many who come from low-income families or not-strong families see how the American dream can be realized. That climb up the ladder is really hard and athletics has helped people get up and out.
OM: Can you provide an example of this?
DB: My respect for student-athletes is immense, especially if they seize the opportunities in front of them. We had a football player who was living in an abandoned boxcar, yet he succeeded because he had a chance through athletics.
Take an AD like Castiglione who hires coaches like Stoops, Gasso, [Lincoln] Riley. You always ask, “Would I want a daughter or son to play under that coach and receive the values we instill here?” I don’t want to hire anyone that my children wouldn’t play under. Comprehensively, in all sports, we have the most talented coaches and they have the greatest strength of character. That’s important: shared values. The leadership of the athletic department and I look for the same type of people.
OM: Please discuss your move from politics to academia.
DB: When I was trying to decide to take the job at OU and resign two years before my Senate term ended, I called Terry Sanford, who was president of Duke and a former North Carolina senator. We’d also both been governors and I asked him what I should do. He said this was a two-minute question and answer, and he said: “My advice is to take it as soon as they offer it. If you really love a place, the most rewarding thing to do is to invest yourself in the life of the next generation in your home community. Don’t give it another thought.” And I haven’t.
OM: You talk a lot about Big Brothers Big Sisters. Why is this organization so important to you?
DB: We have one of the largest Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters in the state at OU. We had one young man, an African-American, who was a big brother to a young boy who was Caucasian. The older student tragically died and this young boy wrote a poem about his big brother. It said: “Until I met you, I never thought I could be anything. You encouraged me and believed in me. I realized that I could be something. I could achieve things and make a difference.” I thought that’s something to learn for any of us, no matter how old we are. If you could ever feel that you could have an impact on the life of another person, that would be something you could write on your tombstone. It’s a lesson of the genuine power of concern and love for another person and what genuine selflessness is.
OM: Many present and past OU students speak fondly of you. Why?
DB: I learn about values from them and how students love and respect each other. When you’re ever tempted to take a shortcut or compromise, the students’ sheer idealism is to say, “Do the right thing.” That’s the spirit of many young people. Do right and don’t worry about the consequences. It’s healthy to have that expectation. It makes you strive to work even harder to meet this expectation. Young people are less afraid of doing right than when we’re older.
OM: Any closing thoughts?
DB: When I announced my retirement, it was bittersweet. The clock caught up with me. It’s hard to adequately say thank you to the people of Oklahoma. Virtually everything I’ve done in my life has been thanks to the people of Oklahoma. I have deep gratitude for the people of Oklahoma. We can do anything we set our minds to. It’s the spirit that we have in this state. It’s the pioneering spirit.