When a Leader Decides to Overachieve

Mike Whitaker
Sep 22, 2017 · 4 min read
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David Boren — A Giant Legacy

This is more than a tribute; it’s a personal challenge. When a man or woman announces their pending retirement, a sudden measurement occurs — and this one is big — a giant legacy. David Boren, President of the University of Oklahoma, announced this week he intends to become President Emeritus. If you don’t know this man, take a moment and measure up yourself — weigh his accomplishments and the impact he has had on our nation, a state, and a university. I have watched President Boren set an example that can challenge us for our lifetimes: You can contribute mightily at any age and if you love it enough, you can overachieve.

I was finishing my MBA at Oklahoma when David Boren became OU’s president more than 20 years ago. At the time, I thought Senator Boren was looking for something a little less stressful than the U.S. Senate. I was wrong. He was just getting started in his late 50s. A Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar with a masters degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford, David Boren became a four-term state representative, a Captain in the Oklahoma National Guard, and later earned his law degree. He served as Oklahoma’s 21st governor from 1975–79 and then as its senator from 1979–94. Senator Boren was the longest-serving chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He has always been a leader. Even Ross Perot sought David Boren as a vice-presidential running mate in 1992 — an invitation he declined. Senator Boren’s legacy was only half-written upon leaving Washington D.C. Who could know that he would accelerate? I think he fell in love with a school.

When Senator Boren became President Boren at Oklahoma, I had the privilege of working in a select committee with him in his first year, auditing the university’s athletic department vs. best practices at other schools. David’s instructions were to leave no stone unturned and he was emphatic there were no sacred cows. Within a short time, he began to retool the entire university. The search for new leadership in athletics began and President Boren found Joe Castiglione — who then hired Bob Stoops and a subsequent series of excellent coaches for men’s and women’s athletics. For 22 years, OU’s fans have been free of institutional scandal while enjoying the combined athletic programs’ success that should be a shining example of balanced excellence across all sports. The Sooners have won more consistently across men’s and women’s sports in the last decade than any other university. Athletics, however, was not his primary focus. Academics at the University of Oklahoma and the condition of the overall institution were the prime goals. President Boren knew that athletics can be the university’s calling card and a catalyst for an upward movement. This movement began with higher standards set for everyone around him and it was grounded in a love and pride for his state and a staunch belief in the value of higher education as a means to stay competitive.

On day one, President Boren began recruiting the best students and pushing the university to be worthy of recognition. The class rankings have steadily climbed every year for 20 years. It was just last year when I enrolled my son at OU and our family attended the freshman class convocation and as I listened, I marveled at how far this leader has brought this school:

· OU ranks №1 in the nation among all public institutions in the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled

· OU is the only public university in U.S. history to ever rank first among both public and private universities in the number of freshman National Merit Scholars.

· The 2016 freshman class is the largest and highest academically ranked incoming freshman class in the history of the university.

· OU has achieved an all-time record freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of 90 percent, ranking OU among the top universities in the nation. OU is one of only 34 public institutions in the nation currently reporting retention rates of 90 percent or higher.

Did I mention that David Boren also raised $3.1 billion for the university? Stunning.

A leader inevitably takes on tough subjects en route to achievement. In his career, David Boren was willing to stand with unpopular movements such as voting against the Iraq War and pushing for deregulation of energy prices during a supply crisis. He publicly apologized for initially supporting the senate confirmation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. He has railed against continuous cuts to state education funds as he has expressed the certain consequences of the dangerous annual decisions being made by the Oklahoma state legislature. He firmly defined what it means to be a “Sooner” in our hearts and minds in 2015 when racist behavior was revealed at a fraternity — and OU was no place for hate. This leader has no problem charting a course or correcting it.

Through all these thoughts I remember the final moments of President Boren’s speech in front of 5,000+ families of incoming freshman. His love and pride for what we are… and what we will improve tomorrow… moved me — and I had the panicked thought, “What will we do when David Boren is no longer president?” He has raised the bar for me. I am humbled by his example of overachievement and appreciative of all he has given us to follow.

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