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Red dirt retirement: Hargis’ historic presidency comes to an end after 13 years

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President Hargis

After 13 years, Burns Hargis announced his retirement, effective July 1, and is current wrapping up his time at OSU.

After serving four presidents, Deb Lane’s experience told her that Burns Hargis would not be a good fit for the job in 2007. 

“So I knew of him, and I said, I don't think it'll work. He's not from academia, he doesn't understand the system. He’s just a businessman.

“And I very, very quickly realized how wrong I was.”

In October, 2020, the 18th president of OSU announced his retirement, effective July 1. While he may be moving on, the impact Hargis has had on OSU will last more than a lifetime, and the shoes he is leaving behind will be hard to fill.

Lane, who is also retiring this summer, considers Hargis the best of all the presidents she has worked for, and has found him to be a great source of stability throughout the course of their work together.

“I don't think we could have had a better president,” Lane said. “His calmness and thoroughness and thoughtfulness, I think, has helped not only me personally, but the university as a whole, the campus community.”

Over a decade of commitment leaves mixed emotions as Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis waves goodbye to the people he has spent the last 13 years getting to know, cherish and love.

“It's bittersweet,” Hargis said. “It's, you know, when you go to college, you don't know exactly what to expect. I mean, you sort of know, and that's why retirement is.”

Burns and his wife, Ann, have poured their hearts into serving the cowboy community since 2008, and most would say they never failed to bring on an atmosphere of positivity and progress to the school’s campus.

Ann rode shotgun anywhere that Burns went. Their time here was a team effort, and she sees him as a perfect fit for the university.

“Burns is a visionary with the ability to attract the people to execute his vision,” Ann said. “Not only does he attract the right people but he also creates the enthusiasm to accomplish the task. P.S., he is very, very funny!”

Over the past 13 years, OSU has seen exponential growth in fundraising, campus development and revamping of the college grounds. From his wife, Ann, advocating for a healthier campus, and Burns spurring appreciation for the arts, OSU has grown significantly during this run. 

Throughout his tenure,  Hargis raised over $2.2 billion in private support and recruited more than 80,000 new donors. His $1 billion branding success campaign reached its goal almost two years earlier than expected. 

The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts and the Spears School of Business fall among the impressive buildings that have been added to campus during his tenure.

With so much time poured into the university, the opportunities for Hargis to meet and work with influential people were endless.

One of those: former member of the Oklahoma State University Board of Regents, Lou Watkins. She served on the board with Burns before he decided to run for the school’s presidency, and even had a hand in encouraging him to apply.

“I have known for many, many years of the kind of person he is,” Watkins said. “He has such strong, wonderful leadership skills. And he's smart. He cares about people. He's a problem solver. And I've known that since he ran for governor in 1990.”

Watkins described the process and circumstances Hargis faced in light of being a current board member at the time the position became available.

“He had resigned from the board in order to apply for the presidency,” Watkins said. “It actually was against the rules for anybody serving on the board of regents to be selected. And so he had to actually wait a little while before he, before we could put the blades in motion for him to go through the process because he was a member of the board of regents.”

So from the beginning Hargis had great support from those close to him as he chased the presidential position. 

OSU conducted a national search, but few were found worthy to to even be compared to the qualifications and zeal for the school that Burns brought to the table. 

“I think that he was so right for the position that even though we had tremendous respect for others who applied, there just wasn't much question that he loved OSU and it was apparent then,” Watkins said. 

Hargis jumped straight into the position, ready to meet all of the new people and give OSU the name-recognition it deserved. 

Rick Davis, current chairman of the board of regents, recalled the work Hargis has done for the educational and agricultural quality of the campus.

“In the library lawn, for example, there was no sprinkler system, it was dirt,” Davis said. “There was nothing there but dirt. Because it was the time of the year where it was needing water.

“One of the first things he says is, ‘We're gonna make this place look great.’”

The lawn is now green, lush and decorated with thriving gardens, topped with seasonal installments of shrubs trimmed into cowboy boots and hats. 

Davis said he’s found Hargis to be a strong leader and level-headed administrator. His calm yet inspirational demeanor brings an important dynamic to the regular functions of college administration, and his humility made progress and forward movement so easily attainable.  

While Hargis is sure to miss the people he works with, there’s one group he’ll miss the most. 

“He told me that he was going to retire, he said, ‘Rick, it's going to be difficult.’ I won't say he got terribly emotional, but it's tough,” Davis said. “He said, ‘The thing I'm gonna miss the most is the students.’

“He says, ‘If you get down or you get tired.’ He said, ‘Walk out this door during class change. It's like putting battery charger, it charges you back up.’” 

Hargis said the students of OSU hold a special place in his heart. 

“I actually had a president tell me, he said, 'If you get frustrated and down, and you just need to get reawakened, wait til class time changes and go out and walk around campus,'” Hargis said.

“And I've done that a few times. And really, it works. It really works.”

Students, and their feedback, have always been important to Hargis.

“I'm very proud of this,” Hargis said, “In 13 years I've never turned down a meeting with a student.”

A season of change faces students and faculty alike, including a transition to OSU’s newly appointed president, Kayse Shrum. Still, hope for the future remains high, in part due to Hargis’ work in leading the university ahead.

“You know, people used to say, ‘(He ranks) second to Henry G. Bennett.’ I'm not sure he’s second to Henry G. Bennett,” Watkins said.

“I'm not sure Burns isn’t the greatest leader that we've had at Oklahoma State University.”