NORMAN — It was Tuesday morning in a crowded ballroom when David Boren posed a question.
“How do you measure the success of a university?” Boren asked.
Boren was speaking at Oklahoma’s scholar-athlete breakfast for the final time as the university’s president. So on his way to the Oklahoma Memorial Union on Tuesday morning, Boren said the occasion made him look back.
Twenty or so years ago, Boren said, this breakfast was much smaller. Student-athletes in general weren’t achieving quite as much academically or even athletically.
Tuesday, Boren spoke to a filled room. OU honored student-athletes for a wide range of achievements.
Meanwhile in Oklahoma, state funding to higher education has faced large cuts. State teachers in public schools continue to march on the Capitol.
And meanwhile in college sports, the list of problems and complications seems to grow every year.
But as Boren pointed out, so many of the redeeming qualities of the educational experience were represented at OU on Tuesday morning.
So in encompassing all that was going on, Boren delivered an important and telling answer.
How do you measure the success of a university?
“You measure it by the growth and development of the potential of every single student,” Boren said.
For the 12th consecutive semester, OU athletes posted a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. OU placed 325 athletes on the Big 12 commissioner’s honor roll, and 144 had a 4.0 GPA. There are plenty of numbers to support the fact OU’s student-athletes continue to raise the bar in the classroom and community, not to mention the playing field.
In honoring all this, Boren said student-athletes come to represent so much about what is good about the college experience. They represent the university to the outside world. They face maddening schedules and constant challenges. To summarize Boren, they represent growth and potential.
In this room, there were students from a wide range of states and countries. Some grew up rich, some grew up poor. There were student-athletes of different races and religions, all together in pursuing becoming the best they can be at their chosen ventures.
“If you only stay with people just like yourself, who have the same experiences you’ve had, the same background you’ve had, the same advantages you’ve had, we don’t tend to grow,” Boren said. “We just tend to stay the same. We grow when we tend to understand other people have needs, other people have goals. Where do those goals come from? What are their life experiences? We gain and we grow for that.”
To honor Boren, OU established two annual study-abroad scholarships that will be presented to student-athletes. Studying abroad is one way OU has pushed the status quo of the student-athlete experience, and this year, football players such as Marquise Brown, Trey Sermon and Amani Bledsoe were listed on a program guide as winners of OU’s Study Abroad Travel Award.
“Should you come here to grow just in terms of your bodily strength and performance?” Boren asked. “Your mental strength and performance? What about the growth of the potential of your spirit?”
As Boren spoke about all of this, a room full of athletes stayed silent and attentive. Somewhere in his words, many of them were drawn into thought.
“Being a student-athlete is one of the greatest things that you could ever do in this world,” men’s gymnast Hunter Justus said. “It provides you with so many opportunities. When he sits there and lists them off, you really think to yourself, not a lot of people get to do what we do here, and all the opportunities it’s given us in this world. … It’s something nobody could ever pay for. It’s priceless.”
Justus is a men’s gymnast who has a 3.36 GPA as an energy management major in addition to being one of two senior gymnasts who are 87-0 in team events over four years. Justus was awarded OU’s conference medal, given to seniors who exemplify excellence as both students and athletes.
The other recipient of that award was softball pitcher Paige Parker, who has a 3.85 GPA in addition to being a three-time All-American, currently with a 18-1 record and 0.35 ERA.
“That definitely stuck with me,” Parker said, “thinking about how much I’ve changed as a person since I’ve come here for the better and all the wonderful experiences I’ve had.”
As Boren prepares to end his tenure as OU’s president (his final day before retirement is June 30) growth in athletics will be a firm part of his legacy.
And as he began to wrap his speech to the students in attendance Tuesday, he reached this conclusion.
“If I were to sum up what I’ve seen our student-athletes do in the past 20 years we’ve been having this breakfast,” Boren said, “I would tell you you’ve changed the culture of this whole university.”