Oklahoma Academy Board Member Spotlight
January 2017: Howard G. Barnett, Jr., President, OSU-Tulsa
You’ve been on the Oklahoma Academy Board for 27 years. Why did you originally become involved with the organization?
My then boss was a board member and I began attending our annual conferences starting in about 1986. I was then a classmate of Julie’s in Class II of Leadership Oklahoma and that led to my seeking a board seat. I have served on the Executive committee for the last 25 years, so the rest, as they say, is history.
What excites you the most about the Oklahoma Academy’s mission?
Citizen-made policy. I have always been a policy wonk and so I love the back and forth debates in the Town Halls. The Academy is unique is providing research to educate the grassroots and then letting them decide what is good policy. Unlike other “think tanks” which are top down, the Academy’s bottom up approach gives our policy positions immediate credibility and power.
What do you find most challenging about supporting the organization’s mission?
Developing the financial support to move our work forward to ensure implementation of our recommendations. The Bellmon Legacy Fund that we are working on to try to endow our work will be of great benefit when completed. Being a civic “good government charity” is a hard place from which to compete for donated dollars when the “heart string” agencies are in such need in our state. But our work is vital so we just need to continue to fight the good fight and push for the contributions we need to be successful.
What do you wish other people knew about the Oklahoma Academy?
The old saying that “failure is an orphan and success has many fathers” haunts what the Academy does. By that I mean that while we can rightly claim a number of our significant policies being successfully implemented, in most cases they have morphed from our original recommendation through the normal compromises of the legislative process and so the Academy’s fingerprints are often lost. We are OK with that as we are not out for recognition; we are for the adoption of good policy. It does make “selling” the Academy more difficult (see fundraising issue above!).
In your opinion, what Town Hall topic has been the most important or interesting?
Water! We did a Town Hall in 2003 on water and energy and I got to co-chair it so maybe I am a little prejudiced! But this was not long after the years’ long debates over water in Southeast Oklahoma and the possibility (championed by me in my role as Chief of Staff for Governor Keating) of selling water to Texas, so the timing was good. We then later held a separate Town Hall for the State to help them with their update of the State’s Water Plan. As I have the scars to prove, water is a very emotional issue for people – both for those that have it and for those who don’t – so the discussions were very lively, to say the least. As we read more and more about the issue of water needs around the world and see predictions that water will be the oil of the 21st Century (at least in terms of fighting over it), and with our recent settlement with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations with the State of Oklahoma on that same Southeast Oklahoma water, this topic remains timely and important.
You have been very involved with Oklahoma Academy events over the years, which is most memorable?
I have had the privilege of chairing several Town Halls and that has been a lot of fun, particularly the Wednesday morning “consensus” sessions! In my first time as chair, I developed what I called “Howard’s Rules of Order” to try to quell the chaos that had ensued the year before. I like to think that that helped us find a way to keep those sessions under control!
You have been a recipient of the Oklahoma Academy Key Contributor Award. What does that mean to you?
I was as proud of that award as any I have received. Considering the things I have noted about the good works of the Academy and its unique and critical position in Oklahoma, to be honored with this award recognizing my service to this cause was very meaningful to me.
As you look ahead to the next several years, what do you see for the Oklahoma Academy?
If we are to have a prosperous and successful Oklahoma (which, considering the budget hole we have, may take some serious doing), a nonpartisan group that takes serious looks at public policy options and recommends meaningful solutions is more critical than ever. We in leadership must continue to stand up for the Academy and its processes as the best way to give our legislators meaningful and unbiased advice.
What public policy issue do you think is most important for Oklahoma and/or would you like to see the Oklahoma Academy take on?
The budget and tax reform are so far above anything else that I don’t think we can underemphasize them. We had a Town Hall on this in 2015 and we got some good recommendations, particularly on revenue raising measures. We need to keep those in the forefront of our interaction with the legislature and don’t stop until we see positive movement on these issues.
What is your hope for the Oklahoma Academy in the future?
Financial security. If we are successful in raising the Bellmon Legacy Fund endowment, this can free us to take on the topics for which there would not be natural support to underwrite a Town Hall on the subject. This is always an issue – while we want our Town Hall subjects to be important and timely, Town Halls are expensive to put on and we seek support for them from corporations and foundations; it would be difficult to financially do certain Town Halls that might not garner such support, hence the value of having such an endowment.