Interview: UCO President W. Roger Webb

First Posted: July 27th, 2011

UCO President W. Roger Webb took office in 1997, making him one of the longest-serving presidents of the university. He steps down on July 31. Photo by Trevor Hultner, The Vista

Vista: What is your favorite thing that you have brought to campus?

Roger Webb: I think I’m most proud of both the appearance of the campus, and the – maybe I should say this: the campus environment is so much more different today than it was back before the beginning of this decade. As the campus has grown more beautiful and more inviting, as it’s evolved into a better, fuller ecology for living and learning, it has also become a place where people – where there’s a greater sense of pride, a greater sense of place, that has caused, I believe, people – students and faculty – to reach higher and expect more.

I think this whole learning environment here at this location today is different, not because of what I’ve done, but because of what has happened collectively by so many people that have contributed to a more beautiful, more efficient, more appealing place. That’s why this campus has grown, UCO has grown more than all other universities in the state, more than OU and OSU combined.

What is here today that wasn’t here 10, 12 years ago is what I’m most proud of.

Vista: Essentially, everything that’s leading to the growth of the school.

RW: Yes. Growth not only in numbers, but in prestige and image and reputation.

Vista: Is there something that you wished would have maybe turned out differently?

RW: There’s something I’ve – there are things that are left undone that are left to other leaders who come next. I think we’ve – we set as a goal back some five years ago to take UCO from being a good university to a great university as in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” book. I’m confident that we’ve taken the first step toward greatness. It will be up to others to follow, to take it to the second and third step. In terms of specific projects, I had hoped that we would’ve gotten into Old North by now, and we just have not been able to get all the money needed to do that. That will come. What we were able to do, we had, following 2005 or 2006 – actually money coming in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – enough money, not to do the complete job, but to preserve the building with a new roof, windows, [unintelligible], new engineering, so we were able to encase the building, and then we built the annex that will open up in a few months. But the rest of the building, the inside of the building, will have to come later, and I wish we could have completed that.

Vista: Where do you see UCO in the next decade?

RW: I think higher education in this country, not just UCO, but all across the country, is rapidly reaching a crossroads. I think because of the impact that technology is having on our education systems, the availability of knowledge at your fingertips that wasn’t around 10 years ago, there will have to be some drastic changes in the way higher education operates. Its delivery system is going to have to be changed, we’re going to have to rethink and reconsider what constitutes a student credit hour, how many hours we believe is really necessary for a baccalaureate degree, whether other kinds of degrees, two-and-a-half and three-year degrees, maybe are important to you and valuable to you in terms of – you and other students, so this whole reconsideration of how we produce education and knowledge, how we deliver it, what’s necessary in order to validate and credential students, all of that’s going to have to be looked at. Universities that are unwilling to consider these things, unwilling to make changes, I think are in serious, serious trouble. I think there will be, in this state and other states, a movement towards consolidation of institutions, meaning grouping institutions together, and elimination of institutions. I think that’s on the horizon.

But UCO, I’m sorry, I didn’t answer your question. I think we have the kind of leadership here, and the kind of people who’ve been willing to adjust, adapt and to get out front. Because of that, I think our potential is unlimited. I am totally confident that UCO’s best days are ahead, and that this will in fact become a great urban university in America.

Vista: How does UCO maintain their level of low cost, even through the current state of the economy?

RW: Well, it takes a population of individuals, these are staff professionals and faculty, who have been willing to produce more – teach more hours, teach more classes, be innovative and creative, find efficiencies. No doubt, we’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through the years through various efficiencies that have happened here on the campus. Now, my concern is we’re about to run out of our bag of tricks. We’ve cut, we’ve asked people to do more, we’ve pushed the envelope so hard, that I think it’s going to be harder, going forward, to continue to operate at this level of productivity with the resources that we have. So that’s a real challenge, I think, going forward.

Vista: What is something else you wish you could have accomplished?

RW: One of the reasons why UCO has separated itself from the herd, the pack, of other institutions is because of our willingness to go for niches, and take risks to reach out and do some things that have been different. Examples of that: the Academy of Contemporary Music, the Forensic Science Institute, all the partnerships with the US Olympic Committee, which have led in kinestheology (SP) and education, and to new and different programs; a new international terrorism online program that is in place. So we’ve done some things in these areas. There are a number of other creative things that we just have not either had the guts to do, or the resources to do. I think in so many areas that we have – and within our College of Business, we’ve got many exciting possibilities to go there. Within the design area, which I think could be a major program in America, there are creative design people. Within music, theater, dance and jazz, some exciting things that could happen there. Teacher education programs, with our inner-city urban teacher preparation academy, some things that could evolve there. So there’s a whole array of areas that we just have not – although we’ve broken through on some exciting, creative things, there are still things that we’ve not yet been able to do.

Vista: Could you give a short list of things that could have happened during your time here?

RW: The major thing is that we’ve just not been able to politically change – force the change of equity funding. As a university we are not funded at the level of some of our sister institutions, meaning we’re not receiving from the state the same amount for you as a student and the student hours that you take. If you were taking them someplace else, that institution would be getting more dollars for them, so there is an inequity. Part of that, there’s a reason for that, in that we’ve grown as a university at a time when state dollars have not grown. In fact they’ve been cutting. So when you’re growing, and state dollars are going down, there’s a gap there. But nevertheless, there’s much to be done in the future to be able to close that gap and to get this university better funded. We need to be paid what we’re earning, meaning what we’re producing, and we’re not.

Vista: What kind of food do you like?

RW: I’m a country-fried chicken, mashed potato, green beans, salad kind of guy. If I could stay away from ice cream and deserts, I’d be much healthier.

Vista: What do you like to do on your free time?

RW: I’m an obsessive reader. If I can’t read and dream and imagine possibilities, I’m not being fulfilled or happy. I love to travel with my wife and daughter, and I’m a huge sports nut. Thunder basketball, I’m absolutely obsessed.

Vista: What genre of books are your preference, and what have you read recently from that genre?

RW: Oh, man. My library at home has got probably a thousand books of all kinds: classics, which I go to occasionally, and management/leadership books. I love the innovative thinker books, like Malcolm Gladwell, Don Tapscott, Jim Collins books, and I mean, believe it or not, last night I was reading Harry Potter with my daughter, so, there’s quite a span in there.

Vista: Are you guys going to go see Part Two?

RW: Twelve o’clock tonight. We’re going to be there.

Vista: What kind of music do you listen to?

RW: My iPod and my Pandora [channel] have all kinds of music on here, I mean, just, everything you can think of, whole genres there, from Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, then you get into a lot of jazz stuff, like Chick Corea and Chris Botti, Elton John… gosh, what all…. A lot of crazy, crazy stuff. Robert Plant, Allison Krauss, Rod Stern, Van Morrison. You know, I just enjoy various kinds of music, but jazz probably is where my real heart is.

Vista: What do you love about jazz?

RW: One of the things I’m most proud of is the creation of the UCO Jazz Lab and how successful it’s been. And the fact that, if you’re out there, if a student is out there today in high school and loves playing music, and is interested in jazz, this is where they want to go. This is the top school in the state and region, I think, and it’s wonderful to be able to have all of those great jazz artists that have come through here – Boss Skaggs, Chris Botti, Winston Marsalis – it’s as good as it gets.

Vista: What is your favorite memory as President?

RW: One of my favorite memories is the very first faculty convocation, and we talked about how this university was a diamond in the rough, and how it would become major university in this region of the United States so vividly, and there were people who were asleep, and doubting, and ha-ha, and that was big. Probably the other great memories, I think, are the nights walking through the campus and seeing how it’s become such a beautiful place, you know, it’s alive with people. That would be a second one, and then the third one are some great trips internationally that I’ve taken with students to England, and Scotland and to Ireland, and then seeing the globalization of the campus – UCO students are now on continents all over the world, and that’s probably the greatest memory.

Vista: What’s your favorite building on campus?

RW: Well, two of them would be the Y Chapel of Song, it’s a peaceful, restful respite monument on campus, and then the other one probably would be the Center for Transformative Learning. It’s the building of the future. It’s how higher education will be delivered in the future.

Vista: You think the integrated model of using all of the technology in the entire room is going to be what’s used in the future?

RW: Absolutely. I think other buildings on this campus will all be in that model.

Vista: How would your experience as a student be now?

RW: Well, I hope to take a class next year. I hope to be enrolled in a class at UCO for several years. This fall I will be taking a crime scene investigation class as a student. There’s a delicious menu of classes that I would love to take on this campus, and I hope to be able to do that. Some humanities classes, some photography classes. Obviously forensic sciences. I can’t wait.

Vista: Are the forensic sciences something you’re very interested in?

RW: Yes, I totally am. I’m very interested in that. I think the forensic science program at UCO has a very real probability of becoming the number one program of its type in the world, not just the US. It could happen here. It already is one of the best, but within another 10 years it could be the very best in the world.

Vista: How do you take your coffee?

RW: I don’t.

Vista: You don’t drink coffee?

RW: I just never got into drinking coffee, and consequently that’s why I drink water and too much Diet Dr. Pepper.

Vista: How do you keep your hair so immaculate?

RW: Well, I have a haircut at 12:00, so I need care today. Whoever said that, I love that person, that is such a nice compliment, because, you know, since being here, UCO has turned my hair from black to gray, and I’ve loved every moment of it, but I don’t know. I guess it’s got to be genetic, because I don’t spend much time with it.

Vista: Have you warned Don Betz about the grayness factor as well?

RW: I have, I have. And, you know, I noticed in President Obama, his hair is getting gray. And Don Betz, by the way, will be – I think he’s as talented as anyone I’ve ever known in higher education, and that’s why I’m so happy, I’m thrilled, that he will be our president. He will be great for this university, and you’ll love him.

Vista: What’s your opinion on Casey Anthony?

RW: I really don’t have any opinion about her. We got to know Kaylee, and that’s where my heart and sadness is. I think that the justice system worked in that situation, meaning that the jury – as a lawyer, I understand that the jury has to go with the evidence that they have based upon the charge, and they probably got the right verdict, but unfortunately it may have meant that a person who is guilty of a crime was not convicted of a crime.

Vista: So essentially, the justice system worked, it just didn’t give the result that was expected.

RW: That most people in their hearts wanted. But see, we didn’t sit on the jury.

Vista: Batman or Spiderman?

RW: I’m sort of old school. I’m sort of a Batman guy.

Vista: What is your favorite movie and why?

RW: I love True Grit. I think my new favorite movie is True Grit, the second one with Jeff Bridges. It is so realistic. It occurred in a part of eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas where I grew up, and I though it was so well-acted. And the courage of the young lady, the kind of courage that she showed, with women living in that part of the country at that time, really was, I think, a great lesson in perseverance. I just love that movie.

Vista: If you have a favorite cartoon, what is your favorite cartoon and why?

RW: You know, I don’t have a favorite cartoon.

Vista: Final question: What is the most rebellious thing that you have ever done in your life?

RW: I think in deference to my mother and dad, I think I’ll not answer that question. To my mother and dad and high school principal, I don’t think I want to mention that.

Vista: You don’t think the statute of limitations has quite run out yet.

RW: Not quite yet. I will say this: the day that Buddy Holly died, I skipped school with some of my buddies. I mean it was out of anguish that Buddy Holly has died, we can’t go to school, and that led to some other things.

President Webb leaves office on July 31, 2011.


  1. Posted by Trevor Hultner on July 28th, 2011, 09:19 [Reply]

    It was pretty awesome.

  2. Posted by Garett Fisbeck on July 28th, 2011, 01:13 [Reply]

    This is a great read.

  3. Posted by Garett Fisbeck on July 27th, 2011, 22:31 [Reply]

    You had questions, he had answers.


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