Geoffrey Orsak: A sudden and mysterious dismissal

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On Wednesday, September 12, 2012, the University of Tulsa suddenly fired President Geoffrey Orsak just 74 days after he took the post. The former SMU Dean of Engineering had been granted a leave of absence the day before to be with his father, reported to be in hospice care in Dallas. A story in the Huffington Post quotes Orsak:

My family and I made significant professional and personal sacrifices when we uprooted from Dallas so that I would have the special opportunity to lead the University of Tulsa. In my time here, I was truly excited to be doing the very hard work of transforming the university into a nationally recognized force that would bring pride to the TU community and city. I am very disappointed given the lengthy due diligence process for the position that within such a short period of time the board has decided to go in a different direction.

It's the second sudden and mysterious departure for a Tulsa educational leader this year. In March, John D. Marshall, the Head of School at my alma mater, Holland Hall, suddenly resigned in this middle of his first year in the role. In his resignation notice, Marshall wrote, "I have come to recognize that this has not been the best fit, and a change in head leadership at this time would be best for all concerned." Marshall's appointment had been announced in October 2010, and he began his service on July 1, 2011.

In both cases, there had been a lengthy, nationwide search process involving national consultants. In both cases, the new leaders had uprooted a professional spouse (Mrs. Marshall, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist; Mrs. Orsak, Chief of Mental Health for the Veterans Affairs North Texas Health Care System and Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas) and young children to move from other states (Marshall from Georgia, Orsak from Texas) to Tulsa.

Both Holland Hall and the University of Tulsa have boards filled with accomplished business and civic leaders who have undoubtedly had to deal with the executive search process and succession planning in their own businesses and non-profit involvements. There's even some overlap between the two boards. How could two prominent institutions manage to pick leaders that had to be dumped so quickly and so mysteriously? How could the executive search process have failed so spectacularly twice in the same year in the same city?

Some background on Orsak and his selection as TU president:

Steadman Upham announced on April 12, 2011, that he would retire as TU president at the end of June 2012, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees said that the board would hire an outside firm to conduct a nationwide search for a replacement. Upham was subsequently inducted into the Tulsa Historical Society and University of Tulsa Halls of Fame.

In September 2011, the university announced the leadership of the search committee and the consulting firm that would facilitate the search process:

The university's Board of Trustees has appointed L. Duane Wilson (BS '62) to head the search committee, which will be working with the national search firm of R. William Funk & Associates of Dallas, Texas, to identify top candidates who would help build upon the momentum developed during Upham's administration.

On May 2, 2012, the Board of Trustees named Orsak the 18th president of the University of Tulsa, and the press release heralded a match made in heaven:

"Geoffrey Orsak shares our vision for the next stage in the advancement of The University of Tulsa," said Duane Wilson (BS '62), chairman-elect of the TU Board of Trustees and chairman of the presidential search committee. "His strategic insight and proven leadership will be tremendous assets, helping to drive TU to new levels of national distinction."

Orsak has been called one of this nation's key leaders in engineering research and education, with a keen grasp of their impact on economic development and global competitiveness. In his role as dean, Orsak has led the Lyle School of Engineering to national prominence built on achievement at all levels, including growth in faculty and physical facilities, some of the nation's highest levels of research funding per faculty member, and the development of innovative engineering education outreach for children in grades K-12.

A visionary administrator and concise communicator, Orsak supports higher education's role in applying scholarship to social needs both locally and globally - goals that mesh perfectly with TU initiatives such as True Blue Neighbors and Make A Difference Engineering (MADE at TU)....

"Geoffrey Orsak has been a creative and energetic leader at every stage of his professional life. He is an accomplished engineer and respected academic executive," said Steadman Upham. "Peggy and I warmly welcome Geoffrey, Catherine, and their children to the City of Tulsa and The University of Tulsa family. We look forward to their leadership."

There were positive stories galore about Orsak as he was welcomed into the community. Just a week ago, Urban Tulsa Weekly ran a profile, featuring Orsak and his son on the cover, throwing out the first pitch at a Tulsa Drillers game:

Summer was over for Orsak and the students toting belongings into dorm rooms all over the TU campus. By late afternoon, when Orsak sat down to visit with a reporter inside his well-appointed office, he had already met with a visiting Gov. Mary Fallin and attended a luncheon for the football team downtown.

A busy day, to be sure, but also a continuation of a frenetic several weeks for Orsak since being announced as school president. He had travelled literally coast to coast to visit with alumni and others, attending events in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles area.

In the UTW story, Orsak spoke at length and in depth about his ambitions for TU to increase in national prominence and in impact on the problems that challenge Oklahoma.

So now, without even giving him a full year to live up to the high hopes that led the trustees to hire him, they've shown Geoffrey Orsak the door.

There's a ridiculous rumor circulating in the comment section on the mainstream media websites about the reason for Orsak's dismissal. It doesn't seem the least bit plausible that a leader with Orsak's resume and record would become so publicly drunk that he would relieve himself in the middle of Utica Square and would do so just two months after starting a new job in a new town.

I could imagine a politician who had been in office for many years becoming complacent and abandoning his morals for the pleasures of the flesh (e.g., King David, Bill Clinton), but I can't imagine an engineer -- an engineer, for Planck's sake -- climbing to a brand new level of opportunity and professional accomplishment and throwing it all away for want of a convenient port-a-potty. Asparagus or no asparagus, it doesn't pass the smell test.

And suppose it were true? If the Board of Trustees wanted to keep him, don't you suppose they would be able to squelch the story, discredit it, or at least tamp down any public outrage? An apology, an excuse (overwhelmed by my father's illness, I overindulged and made a serious error in judgment) would have been enough to smooth things over, don't you think? It's not as if he were alleged to have tweeted a picture of Anthony Weiner to the entire world.

I have absolutely no inside info about the TU/Orsak situation (or the HH/Marshall situation, for that matter), but it just seems very strange that a prominent, stable institution would invest months and hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in finding and hiring a new president, then cut him loose before he's had a chance to prove himself. Perhaps the search process was deeply flawed. Perhaps someone powerful was offended by the newcomer. Perhaps some sacred cows felt threatened.

Some will say that what happens at TU is none of our business. I will point out that TU has been the beneficiary of the City of Tulsa's power of eminent domain in expanding its campus over the last 20 years. Just 7 years ago, there were businesses along the northside of 11th Street, where now a "grand entrance" is surrounded by new but tacky apartment buildings. Property owners were given the choice of selling to TU or being condemned by the city in the name of "urban renewal." Whole chunks of the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood have disappeared. If you went to Roughnecks games in the late '70s and early '80s you'll remember the neighborhood of attractive Tudor Revival houses where the Reynolds Center now stands.

Like the Tulsa Metro Chamber, TU seems to have this dual nature: Virtually a public utility when it wants something out of city government, but strictly private when it comes to scrutiny of its internal affairs. That might have been a justifiable position when TU was the only higher ed game in town, but that hasn't been true for nearly a half century. I'd be happy to ignore TU's internal affairs if they never again ask for more land to be added to the urban renewal plan and otherwise get the university's fingers out of local government. I'm sure I'm not the only Tulsan somewhat nervous that the City of Tulsa's priceless Gilcrease collection of art and artifacts is now in the hands of an institution with no public accountability.

It's worth remembering that some of the same people who picked this now-ousted leader -- some of them deeply involved in promoting and running the spectacular disaster that was Great Plains Airlines -- will soon be urging us to pass Vision2.


G. W. Schulz's 2005 UTW story on Starship Records being forced by TU-driven urban renewal to relocate

Jamie Pierson's 2007 UTW column on TU as The Thing That Ate 11th Street, and how TU's expanding campus isolates students from the community.

From BatesLine, 2009: Comments and some historical perspective on a TU student's op-ed: "TU has lost a sense of belonging to Tulsa"

Statement by the chairman of the University of Tulsa Board of Trustees:

Dear TU Family and Friends,

The news of the university's decision to release Dr. Geoffrey Orsak from his duties as president has occasioned intense interest and many questions from members of the TU family and the general public. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to tell you as much as I am permitted and to assure you that The University of Tulsa has the governance and administration in place to ensure a smooth course forward.

As already announced, the board has authorized Executive Vice President Kevan Buck to handle the day-to-day administrative affairs of the university. Kevan has a wealth of experience overseeing the university's business functions and core operating units. We are moving forward with business as usual and foresee no problems with our interim arrangement.

The board is discussing next steps as we work toward identifying TU's 19th president. We will keep you informed as this process moves forward.

Discretion and university policy dictate that I not discuss the specific circumstances surrounding the decision, except to underscore my confidence in the collective wisdom of The University of Tulsa Board of Trustees. Our board comprises some of the most experienced leaders of our community, who have successfully managed through a wide range of challenges. I appreciate and applaud the serious and thoughtful insight that each trustee brought to these deliberations, and I am confident that the board reached the conclusion that best serves our students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and many partners.

Although unavoidable, the timing of this decision was particularly unfortunate, given the additional challenges that the Orsak family faces with the care of Dr. Orsak's ailing father. We wish all of them well during this difficult time and in their future endeavors.

We recognize the public's significant interest in this development, but in accordance with our personnel policies and status as a private institution, we will not discuss the details behind the board's decision.

Finally, on behalf of the board, I thank each of you for the part you play in the success of The University of Tulsa. Our shared dedication to the power of learning and the duty of service will continue to keep us moving forward.

Duane Wilson
Chairman, Board of Trustees


From the movie, High Anxiety:

DR. THORNDYKE (Mel Brooks): Yes, as I was saying, it came to my attention that... just before Dr. Ashley's untimely death...he was planning to make some very big changes here at the Institute. Do any of you know specifically what those changes might be?

DR. WENTWORTH (Dick Van Patten): Well, for one thing he wanted to change...

NURSE DIESEL (Cloris Leachman): The drapes.

PROF. THORNDYKE: The drapes?

NURSE DIESEL: The drapes. He wanted to change the drapes in the psychotic game room.

PROF. THORNDYKE: That was the extent of the big change? The drapes?

NURSE DIESEL: Yes, Dr. Ashley felt that color... has a lot to do with the well-being of the emotionally disturbed.

UPDATE 2012/10/05: Blogger Christopher B. King wonders (tongue in cheek?) if the Urban Tulsa Weekly cover the previous week was the trigger for the dismissal. The cover (follow the link to see it) was an oddly cropped photo of Orsak throwing out the first pitch at the Drillers game. I say oddly cropped because it showed another photographer standing behind the pitcher's mound and, off to the side, Orsak's young son, who is grabbing at something about waist-high under a too-big Drillers jersey. (I thought he might be holding up baggy shorts or just holding onto his shirt because it kept him from sticking his hands in his pockets.) The photo could have been cropped to show only Geoff Orsak. When the issue was published, a former UTW colleague complained that it was tacky for UTW to show a kid seeming to grope himself in public and to put his name right there. Just a day or two later Orsak was fired. Perhaps the "kid gropes himself in public" interpretation of the photo morphed into the "president exposes himself in public" rumor.

King also mentions TU's use/abuse of eminent domain for campus expansion. I'd only correct him in one point -- TU's eminent domain-fueled expansion pre-dates the Kelo v. New London case, and it should be unconstitutional under Oklahoma's stricter "public use" standard, notwithstanding the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Kelo.

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Bob said:

Orzak probably said NO 2 one of the Tulsa royal families, who wanted something they did not deserve.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 13, 2012 11:14 PM.

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