Who runs Oklahoma’s state universities? Remember that state university means state-funded, which really means taxpayer-funded. So how much input do taxpayers have on the direction of our institutions of higher education? Turns out, very little. At the national level, Congress derives much of its power from appropriations. Even though Congress would have a hard time passing enough laws to get every agency to do what it wants, they don’t have to. Instead, they leverage their power to dole out money to every federal agency. So, if an agency is acting contrary to the congressional will, Congress can cut, or in extreme cases withhold, that agency’s budget. Federal agencies are highly responsive to Congress, especially to members of appropriations committees.  

In Oklahoma, two obstacles hinder this arrangement: institutional practice, and the Oklahoma Constitution. And while the constitution is the highest law in the land, the legislature’s history of hands-off administration of agencies, including the Board of Regents, may be harder to overcome. 

In 1941 Oklahoma’s constitution was amended to include the provision that: 

The appropriations made by the Legislature for all such [higher-educational] institutions shall be made in consolidated form without reference to any particular institution and the Board of Regents herein created shall allocate to each institution according to its needs and functions.

What that means is that the legislature cannot play favorites with the various universities and community colleges. It can’t give OU a larger budget because they make the college football playoff or penalize OSU for underperforming during March Madness. What it does not mean is that the legislature is powerless to discipline one or more universities through the power of the purse. 

The full budget for higher education is delivered to the Board of Regents, and the regents dole out the money to the various schools. So, OU, despite its wokism, the alleged misdeeds of its past president (and continued obfuscation), its tunnel vision on choosing an athletic conference, and its toleration of coaches punishing athletes for political views, cannot be singled out to have its budget slashed. 

The legislature can, however, slash the entire Oklahoma higher education budget, and let the regents work out which schools to penalize. They can simultaneously freeze tuition and fees, which are already exorbitant, ensuring schools can’t make up the difference on the backs of students. Despite the availability of online instruction, education has vastly outpaced inflation over the last several decades. Perhaps a budget cut and tuition freeze are in order whether universities comply with legislative directives or not. Either way, the legislature is well within its rights to use appropriations to make schools fall in line. 

So, what would happen if the legislature slashed the higher education budget? First there would be a lot of belly aching. University administrators would scream that legislators don’t care about the children, despite the fact that almost all university students are, legally speaking, adults. The political pressure would mount, with leftist media outlets piling on. But if the legislature were to weather the storm, universities would learn to tighten their belts, cutting extraneous programs and expenses, eventually leading to a more affordable product. Eventually the universities would cave. 

It won’t be hard for university administrators to discover the source of the legislature’s displeasure. Once it becomes clear that the legislature means business, administrators of compliant colleges will press their colleagues to follow suit. The legislature’s current stance on using appropriations makes universities think they can do whatever they want. 

A classic episode of Happy Days involves nice guy Richie Cunningham trying to act tough like his biker friend Fonzie. Fonzie teaches Richie the walk, the talk, and the tough guy attitude. But bullies still don’t back down from Richie the way they do from Fonzie. Too late, Fonzie reveals there is one more trick to out-toughing the bullies: once in your life, you must have hit a guy. 

The lesson for the legislature is similar. The constitutional issues can be gotten around, and the legislature would not be violating the spirit of the law, much less its letter, to do so. But in order for the tactic to work, the members have to be willing to hit universities where it hurts, and then ride out the storm. If they can do that, even once, they will have a lot less trouble from appropriated agencies from then on. 

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.