OU regents receive strategic plan in questionable executive session

Emma Keith / The Transcript

OU provost Kyle Harper and vice president for research and partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia prepare for a meeting Wednesday with the university's Board of Regents.

NORMAN, Okla. — The University of Oklahoma's interim president delivered the first draft of the university's strategic plan to the Board of Regents Wednesday in a closed-door executive session that created more questions than answers.

The regents, minus only one member, met with OU Interim President Joe Harroz, provost Kyle Harper, vice president for research and partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia and several Health Sciences Center representatives starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the Norman campus.

The board went into executive session almost immediately, and did not exit the session until 4:45 p.m., when the regents also adjourned their meeting.

The day was primarily devoted to Harroz' presentation of OU's strategic plan, a multi-year vision for the university that outlines community priorities and goals.

According to a statement from the university, the regents took no official action Wednesday, but will be reading over the plan and offering feedback "at a later date" through a board committee that will work with OU administrators. The regents will formally consider and vote on the plan "at an upcoming meeting." The board is next scheduled to meet May 7-8.

By the time the meeting adjourned for the day, Harroz and board chair Gary Pierson had both left the building unnoticed by reporters. Two other regents -- Natalie Shirley and Phil Albert -- declined to comment on the meeting.

Joey Senat, a communication law professor and Freedom of Information researcher at Oklahoma State University, said that the university's reasons for presenting the plan in executive session may not hold up if challenged.

OU spokesperson Kesha Keith said in a statement that the meeting was held in an executive session because Harroz' presentation of the strategic plan fell under "the overall evaluation of the Interim President's performance,"

Harroz shared the plan as part of the "routine, periodic review of employment of University President" that is listed on the meeting agenda as one of several reasons that the board might be able to meet in an executive session, Keith said. Keith said that Díaz de la Rubia and Harper were not in Wednesday's meetings to present the strategic plan with the interim president, but to offer insight on research and related issues.

The regents' agenda for their March 10-11 meetings did not clarify when the plan would be presented, and Wednesday, only noted that there would be a single special meeting held in executive session. While the Wednesday agenda does note that there may be multiple reasons that the regents would enter an executive session -- including a periodic review of the president -- it does not provide any other reasons that would have related to the strategic plan.

But Senat said that based on past court rulings in Oklahoma, Wednesday's agenda was not sufficiently clear about what would happen during the closed meeting.

"The Open Meeting Act requires that the agenda give the public actual notice of what will be discussed," Senat wrote in a message to The Transcript on Wednesday. "That includes the items of business to be discussed in executive session. The agenda didn't do that. A presentation on a strategic plan doesn't qualify as employment review."

Senat, who also serves on the advisory board at FOI Oklahoma, said that based on Oklahoma Supreme Court rulings, the state's Open Meeting Act "is to be construed liberally in favor of the public" because the act is for public benefit. The law should not be interpreted in a way that creates loopholes or opportunities to evade public interest, Senat said.

"If what the OU regents did today is permissible, the Open Meeting Act is pointless," Senat wrote. "OU's interpretation [of the Open Meeting Act] creates an absurd result bringing about the very evil that the legislature intended to avoid in the Open Meeting Act -- an uninformed citizenry who doesn't participate in government or understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken."

Emma Keith366-3537Follow me @emma_ckeithekeith@normantranscript.com