EDMOND — Two university annuals sit on a corner lamp stand outside the office of Don Betz, president of the University of Central Oklahoma. One is “The Bronze Book,” the 1937 annual of Central State Teachers College. The other is the 1987 annual of Central State University.
Between them are 50 years.
Another 25 years have passed since the latter.
Hanging on nearby walls are historic photos of “Old North.”
It is the cornerstone building of UCO, Oklahoma’s third largest university with more than 17,000 students.
The University of Central Oklahoma is the oldest institution of higher learning in Oklahoma, dating to Dec. 24, 1890, when the Territorial Legislature voted to establish the Territorial Normal School.
When Betz talks of vision, he speaks about the passion those before had.
“Look at people standing on rafters with a hammer and a saw and look at what we refer to as Old North,” Betz said. “You can say to yourself someone had an idea that if you were going to have a society that lasts here, education was fundamental and critical to its success.
“We inherited that vision and now we have to perpetuate it in this era with these tools. The tools are changing dramatically, but to me the vision hasn’t changed.”
Work started in the summer of 1892 on Old North Tower and it was occupied the following January.
The school initially operated as a normal school with two years of college work and a complete preparatory school. In 1897, the first graduating class — two men and three women — received their Normal School diplomas.
Although those numbers are small, Betz said, to this day it is important to think about small numbers when envisioning the vast potential of the university.
Focus on future
“I constantly think of this, there is a little girl or a little boy sitting in a class somewhere and they may be in pre-K or first grade,” Betz said. “Everything we’re doing now is for them. They’ll never know our name and they don’t need to know our name; the point is ‘Did we do it right?’”
Today, UCO boasts 450 full-time and 400 adjunct faculty and staff. The university offers 116 undergraduate majors and 58 graduate programs. Those programs include forensic science, music theater, mass communications, accounting, an accredited Professional Golf Management program, jazz studies, a funeral service program and the Academy of Contemporary Music at UCO, located in downtown Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district. There are many other successful programs as well.
UCO is the nation’s only university named an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site.
The university’s 210-acre campus is located in the ever-growing metro city of Edmond.
“We have very high expectations,” Betz said. “We are in the midst of a strategic planning process that goes out about seven to 10 years, but really the vision carries you much further.
“Our role is to be in and of this community — and, by that community, I mean Edmond, Oklahoma City, the metro and the state. We are here to offer educational opportunities and to help set horizons, to help individuals conceptualize what their goals and opportunities and dreams are, to realize those and then to give back.”
Expectations and encouragement
Betz, who served as Central’s provost and vice president of Academic Affairs from 1999 to 2005, became the university’s 20th president in August 2011.
In addition to the many academic positions he has held, Betz worked for and with the United Nations on Middle East issues from 1982 through 2003.
In all experiences, Betz said it’s important to combine high expectations with encouragement. He goes back to his teens and offers Maury Sheridan, his high school debate, public speaking and theater coach, as an example of this.
“He was a man who was very high energy and very demanding, but he always combined challenges with encouragement,” Betz said. “I was a very good student and got a very low grade once on an essay. I remember this vividly. We wrote by hand, you didn’t type it. He handed it back to me with a grade lower than I had ever received in my life and at the top it said, ‘The content of this essay is worthy of a college student. The penmanship of this essay is not worthy of a kindergartner.’”
Betz, who is left-handed, said he spent the next six to eight months practicing to write another way and his penmanship improved. The instructor wasn’t trying to thwart success, he was attempting to add to it, Betz said.
“I essentially had a flawless academic record until then,” Betz said, “but it was a very good message, and it was not just about the writing. He moved me to make a change that I needed to make and at the same time encouraged me by talking about the quality of what I had written.
“The power of encouragement continues to amaze me how you can help others and others can help you by the right word and the right act and the right gesture at the right time. I think ultimately it was the demonstration of qualities of character of others that have had the lasting impact on me in terms of the expectations I have of myself and then what we try to do together as a university community.”
Encouragement is not only beneficial in the present but in building vision, Betz said.
“The key here is encouraging people to give back so that you become the roots of the new community that grow up,” he said. “Twenty years from now, the key decision-makers in Oklahoma, in the metro and at this university likely will have changed, they will be different people. Still, learning is a lifelong opportunity and we’re creating that for someone else like those who started this university more than 100 years ago did for us.”