Q&A - July 5, 2015

I have always considered problems to be opportunities in disguise. As a college president, I frequently look for “win-win” solutions to challenges that present themselves. But never in my 30-year higher education career had I seriously entertained the idea of students living so far from campus in university-owned facilities or the possibility of renovating historic buildings to create trendy loft space for students. That was until I met the downtown consultant, Ron Drake, when he first visited Okmulgee about a year ago. I listened intently when he told community leaders “if you want to bring life to your downtown, you need to bring lives downtown.”

Let me tell you about a true opportunity in disguise as I respond to this next question.

Q: Why would OSUIT have an interest in housing students downtown?

OSUIT can accommodate only a small portion of its student population in on-campus housing. Out of an enrollment of roughly 3,000 students, only 800 can live in the residence halls on-campus. This means most of our students live off-campus. Truth be told, the majority of our students commute to Okmulgee from surrounding communities every day—some by choice, but many would prefer to live in Okmulgee if they could find suitable accommodations.

One of the most persistent complaints that we hear from our students is “there is nothing to do in Okmulgee.” Whether it is true or not, this is an unfortunate perception of many OSUIT students. Consequently, they travel to Tulsa or other surrounding communities in search of something to occupy their free time. They look for recreational and social activities elsewhere. They take part time jobs elsewhere. They spend their leisure time and their money elsewhere. What a wasted opportunity for Okmulgee. While I’m sure that other towns are grateful for the additional commerce and labor force that OSUIT students bring, none of them openly recognize our students as a key constituent group within their community. Other towns benefit from our students, but are not dedicated to our students.

Think about it for a minute: Of the approximately 230 towns in Oklahoma, how many of them are home to a full-service campus of one of the state’s major university systems? Put another way, how many of them have a concentration of OSU or OU students? By my count, it’s a pretty short list: Stillwater, Norman, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Okmulgee. And how many towns in Oklahoma, do you suppose, would want very much to be on that short list?

The student body of OSUIT is a largely untapped resource for Okmulgee. These university students require convenient and affordable housing, and many want to reside in Okmulgee during their education. If properly accommodated, they could provide much of the vitality and energy that this community needs to survive. I consider this as two problems with one obvious solution. OSUIT students need downtown Okmulgee and downtown Okmulgee needs OSUIT students. By creating a downtown urban environment that is both inviting and appealing to young professionals, the community of Okmulgee and OSUIT students will mutually benefit.

Thank you for giving me this chance to publically address your concerns and describe how Okmulgee can take full advantage of being a “university town.” Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated. Please continue to forward them to me at osuit-president@okstate.edu.