Interview with Natalie Shirley

October 28, 2013
By Natalie Shirley, President

Natalie Shirley, president of Oklahoma State University - Oklahoma City, talks about the challenges facing universities and students in this Community Connections interview.  

What is the job market for new graduates in Oklahoma?

The job market for new graduates in Oklahoma is robust, provided the student’s training and degree is what state employers are currently seeking. For example, degrees in engineering, health care, or information technologies typically should not have a difficult time finding work. However, certain types of degrees, such as a degree in humanities, may have more of an issue if the graduate is not flexible or does not have a plan for further education.

What is the biggest challenge facing a state university?

While funding is always a challenge for universities, in my view, the single biggest problem is more fundamental. Many of the students that come to university campuses are not prepared for college-level work. Math is the most frequent stumbling block, but being able to write is a close second. When students come to college needing remediation, it adds both time and expense to getting a degree, increasing the likelihood that such students will not graduate.

How do you see the roles of state universities changing?

At one time, it was enough for colleges and universities to define for themselves what and how to educate students. In today’s environment, there must be collaboration between the universities and the end-user (that is, employers) to develop the most meaningful education possible. Another area where I see the role of universities changing is the delivery method. When I went to school, courses were delivered in a traditional sense, where the student sat in a seat and the professor lectured (sage on a stage). This can no longer be the sole model for teaching. Universities, in order to stay relevant, must seek ways to deliver the content wherever and whenever the student seeks it (through mobile devices, in the work place environment, or outside of normal operating days and hours).

How do higher costs impact low- and moderate-income students?

Many low- and moderate-income students are unable to access a university or community college education because of cost, but it’s not just tuition that is going up. Fees, books and other costs, which can be nearly double the tuition bill, also are increasing. Often we find that low- and moderate-income students come from families where there is no collegiate experience, thus they aren’t prepared for the additional costs. Moreover, low-and moderate income students can more easily be diverted from their educational path by something as basic as the lack of reliable transportation or child care. As a state, we can only achieve growth and a better living standard for our communities if we educate all students to their highest potential.

About Natalie Shirley

Natalie Shirley became OSU-Oklahoma City’s president in May 2011, the first female president in the OSU system. From 2007-2011 she served in Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry’s Cabinet as secretary of Commerce and Tourism. She was the liaison between the governor, five major state agencies and more than 30 smaller agencies, authorities and institutions.

Ms. Shirley also served as the executive director of the Department of Commerce, the state’s leading economic development agency. Prior to that, she was president of ICI Mutual in Washington, D.C. ICI Mutual is the captive insurance company of the mutual fund industry.

An Oklahoma native, Ms. Shirley graduated from Oklahoma State University and earned a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. She serves on several philanthropic and community boards.

Ms. Shirley is a member of the Community Development Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Community Connections periodically features CDAC members and regional leaders committed to community and economic development. An edited interview with Ms. Shirley follows.