Corporate Wolves in Academic Sheepskins, or, a Billionaire’s Raid on the University of Tulsa

Corporate Wolves in Academic Sheepskins, or, a Billionaire’s Raid on the University of Tulsa

Corporate Wolves in Academic Sheepskins, or, a Billionaire’s Raid on the University of Tulsa

This sordid tale of crony capitalism under the guise of public philanthropy is another chapter in the corporatization of higher ed.


On April 17, I published an article in City Journal detailing the academic destruction of the University of Tulsa. Less than a week earlier, TU’s administrators had rolled out a radical restructuring of the university called “True Commitment.” The plan gutted the liberal arts, raised default teaching loads across the university from five courses per year to eight, eliminated all academic departments, created new divisions to house surviving programs (including one called “Humanities and Social Justice”), and established a “Professional Super College” consisting of the formerly independent colleges of law, health sciences, and business.

My City Journal article concluded that we had witnessed a hostile takeover that appears to have made TU “a subsidiary of Tulsa’s biggest charitable foundation and an agent of the city’s corporate interests.” It’s now clear that I didn’t know the half of it. What follows is a sordid little tale of crony capitalism under the guise of public philanthropy. It is part of a much bigger story that has yet to be told, the Pottersville-like takeover of the city of Tulsa by an extremely wealthy and influential businessman.

Tulsa native George Kaiser made enough money in oil to purchase the Bank of Oklahoma out of FDIC receivership in 1990. Kaiser now owns 54 percent of shares in BOK Financial, the bank’s parent company. In 1998, Kaiser established the Tulsa Community Foundation (TCF); he started the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), in which he has invested more than $4 billion to date (and to which he plans eventually to gift his BOK shares), as a supporting organization of TCF in 2000. Kaiser then set to work using the charity to advance his personal financial interests. A 2013 analysis of GKFF’s 2011 tax return by Bloomberg disclosed that “at least $1.25 billion of the charity’s $3.4 billion in assets is invested in ways that benefit Kaiser’s for-profit endeavors.”

GKFF and the Bank of Oklahoma play major roles in Tulsa’s daily life and economy. 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. 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.

The Bank of Oklahoma also happens to be the corporate trustee of the University of Tulsa’s $1.1 billion endowment, which is contained in separate pools of funds collectively known as the Chapman Trusts. The bank obtained sole and complete control of the Chapman Trusts when it pushed out individual trustee Sharon Bell in 2016. This fact is of crucial importance in understanding Kaiser’s takeover of the University of Tulsa, for which he paved the way with donations totaling more than $70 million. (He’s also given $120 million to the University of Oklahoma, whose president resigned on May 12—prompting speculation that TU president Gerry Clancy or GKFF executive director Ken Levit might take the job.)

Kaiser effectively took control of TU a year ago. Clancy, who’s been TU’s president since 2016, was appointed in 2018 to the board of directors of BOK Financial Corporation and BOKF National Association. (Bloomberg calculates his total compensation to date for his service on these boards as $37,808.) In May of 2018, Janet Levit—Ken Levit’s wife—became TU’s provost. That same month, Frederic Dorwart was named the chair of TU’s board of trustees. Dorwart is secretary and general counsel for BOK Financial and the president of GKFF. Other BOK board members among TU’s trustees are Steven Bradshaw and Chester Cadieux III; Bradshaw is president and chief executive officer of BOK Financial, and Cadieux is director. TU’s board itself has recently experienced high turnover: Ten of the 29 current trustees were appointed in 2016. (Additional corporate connections are spelled out in a 2018 article in TU’s student newspaper.)

Clancy’s connections with Kaiser and his agents go way back. From 2007 to 2015, Clancy served as president of the University of Oklahoma–Tulsa. His immediate predecessor in that office was Ken Levit. (Like his wife, Janet—one of a small handful of chief academic officers of the top-100 research universities who lack PhDs—Ken had no special qualifications for university leadership. Prior to becoming president of OU-Tulsa, he worked as special counsel to CIA director George Tenet; before that, he practiced corporate law at a Tulsa firm.) In 2008, Clancy secured a $50 million grant from the Kaiser Foundation to establish the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine at OU-Tulsa. In 2016, GKFF helped TU purchase the Bob Dylan archive, and it is currently building a museum to house the acquisition.

My City Journal article noted that the priorities Clancy articulated in his Strategic Plan for 2017-2022 dovetail with GKFF’s areas of focus—early-childhood education, delivering health care to indigent families, and making Tulsa more vibrant and economically robust—all, to be sure, positive goals for a charitable foundation. (Like Bradshaw, Clancy is a past chair of the Tulsa Chamber.) At the time, I assumed that Clancy had engineered the appointments of Levit and Dorwart to leadership positions at TU as part of a strategy to secure financial support from GKFF. Now I see that I had it backward. The takeover of TU’s leadership and the True Commitment restructuring were all part of Kaiser’s plan to gain control of the university.

The mission statement of the University of Tulsa describes our school as “a private, independent, doctoral-degree-granting institution whose mission reflects these core values: excellence in scholarship, dedication to free inquiry, integrity of character, and commitment to humanity.” But in the True Commitment rollout, Janet Levit described TU as “a high-touch undergraduate institution…that is STEM-heavy with a professional, practical focus.” (This “high-touch” will henceforth be supplied not by professors but by a host of new administrators offering “wraparound” student services, including financial, career, and success coaching.) While the university has cut programs in philosophy, religion, languages, chemistry, physics, mathematics, music, theater, art, and many other liberal-arts subjects, programs in nursing, exercise science, accounting, computing, engineering, and cyber security are rapidly being expanded. All of this serves the interests of Tulsa’s corporations and business leaders, and the specific priorities of GKFF.

On April 24 I had lunch with a professor of computer science at TU and a leader in the field of cyber-security research. He told me that he’d recently met with Kaiser, Clancy, and Levit for more than two hours, and that Kaiser was planning to pour millions into a new TU program that would link cyber security with business and the Professional Super College. The professor described this as “investment-capital seed-money,” to be followed by more substantial infusions of cash down the road. He explained that this is all part of Kaiser’s vision to turn Tulsa into a “cyber hot spot.” Not coincidentally, Clancy told the Tulsa World in January 2019 about plans for a “Tulsa Enterprise for Cyber Innovation, Talent and Entrepreneurship, which will allow industry, federal agencies and TU to work together to defend information systems.” The plan would involve the construction of “four cyber centers of excellence: an engineering research center, a multifederal agency cybersecurity center for excellence, a cybersecurity insurance institute and a consortium of business sectors.”

It was only after speaking with the computer-science professor that I was able to reply to a question I’ve been asked repeatedly in the past months: If TU isn’t going to use its endowment to support academic programs, what does it plan to do with it? The answer is simple. Once the university has been refashioned to serve Kaiser’s interests, the Bank of Oklahoma will pour endowment money into the technical and professional programs he supports. Kaiser has effectively gotten his hands on a billion dollars that does not belong to him—money that the Chapman family donated specifically to support liberal education at the premiere private university in Oklahoma and the wider region—and figured out a way to spend it on the things he wants. No one who has followed his behavior in the past should be surprised by any of this, or by the blatant conflicts of interest between Levit, Clancy, Dorwart, and the TU board, on the one hand, and BOK and GKFF on the other.

The large amounts of money at stake also help to explain the extreme secrecy with which TU’s administrators pushed through the restructuring. In June of 2018, Levit established a Provost’s Program Review Committee, which is charged with reviewing all academic programs. The committee, on whose recommendation True Commitment was adopted, was hand-selected by the provost. It included no one from the humanities or the natural sciences and was chaired by an accounting professor (who was just appointed to the newly created position of senior vice provost for academic initiatives). All committee members were furthermore required to sign blanket non-disclosure agreements, in violation of AAUP guidelines. By obtaining board approval without first consulting the faculty senate, the administration violated Article VI of the senate’s constitution. (Section C of that article reads: “Except in emergencies, major decisions and plans of the administration that significantly affect the academic affairs of the University should be discussed with the Faculty Senate for an expression of views prior to implementation or submission to the Board of Trustees”). Ironically, Article VI was overwhelmingly ratified by the senate and the full faculty last year, after a report of the Higher Learning Commission, our accrediting agency, noted the “fragility” of shared governance at TU. I heard this from two members of the faculty senate who had actually read the HLC report, which is not currently available. Faculty were able to access it for only a brief period last year, long before the administration began to trot out the dubious (and now unverifiable) excuse that HLC actually required it to make the sorts of changes implemented in the True Commitment plan.

As I’ve detailed elsewhere, TU’s administration has employed smashmouth tactics in dealing with faculty opposition to True Commitment. Compliant deans have implicitly warned faculty not to attend opposition meetings and are busily attempting to divide and conquer recalcitrant professors. True Commitment eliminated undergraduate majors in both philosophy and religion, leaving us with only a combined minor. The possibility of a combined major was recently dangled before my department chair—the price being that I cease from publicly criticizing our administrative overlords.

Opposition to the restructuring has been strong, well-organized, and widespread. But it has as yet had no effect on Levit, Clancy, Dorwart, or the board of trustees, which at its May 8 meeting reaffirmed its “commitment” to True Commitment.

There is another dimension of TU’s story that deserves mention, especially because it encapsulates the larger problem of the insidious corporatization of higher education.

As the example of TU illustrates, the corporatization of education involves sellers as well as buyers. On April 18, I received an e-mail from a professor at Maryland’s McDaniel College, where the liberal arts were also recently gutted. “Much of the language [of TU’s True Commitment plan] is familiar enough that it seems plagiarized,” he wrote, “starting with the name of our new program: the McDaniel Commitment.” This e-mail led to the discovery that TU administrators employed the services of an education consulting firm called EAB, which markets reorganization strategies to university boards, presidents, and provosts.

But EAB is only superficially concerned with actual teaching and learning. Its real business (besides profiting from institutional panic about the deflation of the higher-education bubble) is industrial organization. EAB’s approach is top-down, and its language is strictly managerial. The company offers advice on how “university leaders can spotlight opportunities to free up capacity and redirect resources”—particularly including the human resource of faculty labor—“to the priorities they care about most.” EAB promotes the replacement of departments by divisions, and notes as an advantage of this truly radical suggestion that the “divisional and institutional mission” will replace “evidence of disciplinary excellence” as a basic criterion in evaluating promotion and tenure. EAB even furnishes a pamphlet called “Divisional Reorganization Talking Points” to help university administrators sell their managerial vision to reluctant faculty and staff. It was from EAB that our provost learned to parrot the language of “data-driven decisions” and “breaking down academic silos.”

The restructuring has broken down silos, but not in the way Levit anticipated. It has allowed professors, students, and alumni to take stock of who we are, what we do, and why it matters, and to unite in the clear resolve to defend our precious academic community. These developments themselves prove that the managerial standards of EAB are not appropriate to a university, a venerable institution dedicated to the preservation, development, and transmission of knowledge. This essential work involves the slow and careful cultivation of organic communities of teaching and learning (successful academic programs take years to build), and it requires a considerable degree of autonomy on the part of professors and students alike. But Dorwart, Clancy, and Levit are neither teachers nor learners. They are industrial managers, and as such are not interested in employees who think for themselves and teach others to do so. They propose to do the essential thinking for us, and they want faculty merely to execute their “vision”—one that amounts to little more than smoke and mirrors, like the empty boxes Theranos marketed as revolutionary medical devices.

Observing the language and behavior of Clancy (a psychiatrist) and Levit over the past year, I’ve been reminded of the psychologically manipulative methods used by Frederick Taylor, the founding father of “scientific management,” to increase the productivity of pig-iron handlers at the Bethlehem Steel Company. Taylor did so by controlling every aspect of the labor process, thereby destroying the autonomy of individual employees and dissolving the unity of conception and execution that Harry Braverman (in Labor and Monopoly Capital) sees as the distinctive feature of human work. Unsurprisingly, our programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology are slated for expansion under the True Commitment plan.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy