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Firm Footing: President Martha Burger Leaves OCU with a Solid Financial Foundation and a Focus on Inclusion - Spring 2021

by David Klaassen

Woman in blue seated at bench
Photo by Josh Robinson

One of Martha Burger’s favorite places on the Oklahoma City University campus is the Meinders Simulation Center in the Kramer School of Nursing. There inside the hospital rooms, among the students, manikins, and medical equipment, is the embodiment of how she views her university. This intersection of science and service brightens her spirit. It’s a place where the cloth of academia is woven with the threads of caring and kindness.

As Burger nears the end of her presidency, it’s no coincidence that those who talk about her impact on the university describe her approach in much the same way. She is viewed as a rigorous and determined problem solver who leads with a matriarchal compassion for her university family. Throughout her career, people have consistently complimented her heart for serving others. She sees that attribute as the single most effective component of her leadership.

“It is my nature to get real with somebody and try to understand them and try to determine what it feels like to walk in their shoes,” she said.

This approach was especially critical when the pandemic hit in 2020. After spending the first two years of her presidency wielding her business acumen to unwind the university’s financial entanglements, she found herself facing a different type of challenge — one she didn’t have a playbook for. How could a university bring students back for in-person classes during a global health crisis?

She thought about something she quickly learned to appreciate when she switched roles from trustee to president in 2018: the multilayered complexity involved in leading a university. She compared it to operating a small city.

“Unlike a corporation, a university has people living here, eating here, living life here,” she said. “The number of constituencies this community has is enormous.”

This time, constituents needed a leader who could manage those complexities with a thoughtful, compassionate approach, one who could stay the course in one of the most challenging environments the university had ever faced. Just like the students in the Meinders Simulation Center, she was balancing science with courage and humanity as she led a team that created an intricate plan to address the situation.

“Throughout the pandemic, President Burger has given first priority to the health of students, faculty, and staff, while expecting us to continue giving OCU’s students the best opportunities for learning,” said George Sims, interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “From the beginning, she established patterns of regular collaboration to recognize emerging challenges, create solutions, and communicate plans in ways that have been consistently timely and effective. In this way, she created the working framework that has enabled us to meet each challenge.”

It was during this time, Burger said, that she fully appreciated more than ever the others-first attitude she had previously experienced on campus. Now she was seeing it come to life in ways greater than before.

“Our faculty and our staff went above and beyond to truly serve students,” she said. “I knew that happened here, but I didn’t know how much. I really saw it happen during the pandemic when people who had concerns about their own health and safety put those concerns aside in order to serve students. That is pretty amazing.”

Woman with microphone speaking to crowd and woman in blue holding cupcake
President Burger speaks to supporters at a gala and celebrates her first year as president. Photos by Josh Robinson

Financial Turnaround

While the pandemic may be the most-remembered part of her time as president, one of the most important accomplishments of Burger’s presidency has been her impact on the university’s financial health.

“She took the helm of OCU at a time when its finances were in disarray,” said David McConnell, who served as interim chief financial officer during most of Burger’s term. “I’ve worked in higher education for 50 years and for 20 different presidents, and I have not worked for a president who has accomplished such a turnaround in college finances as Martha did.”

Her first year, Burger discovered a funding shortfall in the budget and raised funds to pay off OCU’s revolving line of credit and balance the budget by year end. In fact, she raised more money that first year than OCU did in any of the previous nine years, making it one of the top-five fundraising years since the university began keeping records.

Under Burger’s leadership, OCU received an investment-grade rating from Standard & Poor’s. She established a team that worked with a financial advisor to go to market with a $90 million bond issue. Also, she recapitalized OCU’s debt and added valuable assets to the balance sheet. Creating a firm financial foundation and lasting stability is cited by many as the most significant accomplishment of her presidency.

“She has positioned OCU for long-term financial success and strategic program growth in spite of the challenges higher education has faced,” said Paul McLaughlin, chairman of the OCU board of trustees. “We owe her a great deal of gratitude for her service.”

Woman at podium and woman raises arms in celebration with singers
President Burger speaks at a 2019 graduation ceremony and celebrates as students perform a surprise rendition of "Let the Sun Shine In" at her 2018 inauguration. Photos by Josh Robinson

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Years from now, when people look back on her time as president, Burger hopes they’ll remember it as a time when diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts were more explicitly prioritized. Burger has placed importance on diversity in ways OCU had not previously seen, establishing a cabinet-level leadership role to strategically identify areas of meaningful change through policy, developing training opportunities, scaling programming, and building exciting community partnerships.

“I want to be able to look back and say that this was just the beginning of the journey to truly embracing diversity the way it should be,” she said. “I hope the efforts we’re starting now become part of everything we do and how we educate students.”

In just the past year, some of those efforts have included new workshops for employees and students, enhancing faculty and staff recruitment practices, partnering with the admissions department to create new opportunities to recruit students, and working closely with student government to create an opportunity for students to share their perspectives about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“During my time at OCU, I have seen how President Burger has prioritized ensuring that OCU is a diverse, inclusive, and equitable community,” said Reid Powell, Student Government Association president. “President Burger’s hiring of a vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and actively listening to student voices and concerns have aided in this effort. It has been a privilege to have been able to learn from President Burger firsthand and see the impact her leadership has had on the campus community. The compassion she has shown toward the OCU family has encouraged all of us to do our part to care for one another. President Burger’s leadership has helped us to become closer to where we need to be and has set us up for the continued work that needs to be done.”

As Burger prepares to leave the president’s office for a different type of role as a university volunteer and fundraiser, she said she will look back fondly on the accomplishments students, faculty, and staff have made. It’s those achievements that bring her the most joy. Burger described her favorite moments as those when she is just one in a crowd of observers at a theater performance or in the stands at an athletic competition, witnessing the products of a collaborative university family.

“That’s when it hits me — I have the privilege of working at this place,” she said. “Those are my most rewarding times.”

University Milestones during the Burger Administration

  • Recapitalization of university’s debt structure
  • Receipt of investment-grade rating from Standard & Poor’s
  • Creation of cabinet-level leadership in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Return of students to campus for in-person learning during pandemic
  • Record-setting unrestricted fundraising for university
  • Creation of OCU’s first Day of Giving
  • Implementation of Physical Therapy program
  • Creation of Esports program
  • Creation of Game Design & Animation program
  • Implementation of Doctorate of Psychology
  • Creation of College of Health Professions

Thoughts from Some of the President’s Supporters

Jane Jayroe Gamble
(BM ’69, HDHL ’11), Board of Trustees secretary
“President Burger has been a gift to OCU ‘for such a time as this.’ (Esther 4:14) She came to this leadership role with the needed skill set to put OCU on a stable financial foundation for the future. She also guided us through one of the most challenging times in our history — all accomplished with a kind and generous spirit. I’m forever grateful for her service to OCU.”

Shannon Rich
(BA ’97), president and CEO of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame
“As a friend and colleague of Martha’s for several years, I knew she possessed the talents and professionalism OCU needed to carry on its elite reputation. Those traits became even more necessary in light of the global challenges of the past year. With a caring heart and always mindful of the greater good, she’s truly done a remarkable job. I’m proud to call her my friend.”

Jenee Lister
“President Burger was the right person at the right time to launch this university into this decade. She has done an incredible job to stabilize and position OCU for the next 100 years.”

John Veal
(MBA ’96, MS ’18), district director in the Oklahoma District Office, U.S. Small Business Administration
“President Burger made it her mission to make OCU a family. Events held at OCU were well represented by all stakeholders: students, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members. After interacting with her, you felt like a member of her family. Her focus on inclusiveness has made a great impact on this university.”

David Holt
(JD ’09), Oklahoma City mayor
“OCU’s success is vital to our city, and President Burger has been a great steward for this institution and a fantastic partner for our community. I’m grateful for her willingness to serve, and it is worth noting she was a trailblazer at OCU. I’m sure it was a unique challenge to guide OCU through a pandemic, so I’m especially appreciative for that. I wish her all the best in her next chapter, and I suspect that like all her previous chapters, it will include service above self and service to our city.

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