At USAO, Mission is to Focus on Education
CHICKASHA — The giant oval that shields the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma from the coarseness of the world is large enough to preserve the past and make room for the future.
But it is not merely an inviting expanse of grass, waiting for a Frisbee and a gentle gust of wind.
When the college opened in 1909, the oval was designed as a welcoming stage for the morning sun. The sunlight accented the strong architectural character of the original cream-colored brick buildings that encircled the oval, intentionally facing east to welcome the promise of a new day.
At night, its iron gates closed to protect the young women recruited to campus with a bold motto for the times: “Not for livelihood but for life.”
In the 1960s, it became a bridge, symbolically linking the old — the concept of an all-women’s college — with a more hip and financially rewarding co-educational school.
Today the oval is an anchor in the storm-tossed sea of academia, where small public liberal arts colleges such as USAO must paddle furiously to stay afloat.
Somehow, college officials have managed to overcome declining enrollment, state budget cutbacks and talk radio’s condemnation of anything “liberal,” whether it is related to politics are not.
They have done so by sticking to their core mission.
“If you struggle with your pedigree, you won’t go anywhere,” President John Feaver said. “We were designed as a liberal arts college.”
Whether it’s due in part to its rural location, its mission, its penchant for changing names or its streak of independence, USAO has had difficulty being recognized as anything more than a well-kept-secret.
For one thing, the college has had trouble deciding what to call itself over the years. It’s easier to memorize all the state capitals than it is to list all the acronyms USAO has had.
First it was OIICG, for the Oklahoma Industrial Institute and College for Girls. Then it was simply OCW, for Oklahoma College for Women. In 1965, when men were admitted, the college became OCLA, Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts.
Finally, when Oklahoma’s four-year colleges were renamed as universities, it became USAO for University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma on the grounds of the Oklahoma College for Women National Historic District, or OCWNHD.
No matter what it’s called, the women’s college turned coed university has managed to set itself apart with a series of accomplishments that include:
• The distinction of being the only college campus in Oklahoma named to a national Historic District on the National
Register of Historic Places;.
• The construction of Lawson Court, a 300-unit, $13 million apartment complex funded without taxpayer dollars and
tailored to meet the needs of students, from those who want to watch a movie in cushiony leather seats to hot-tubbers.
• The adoption of an innovated energy performance contract, a series of energy savings investments on campus that has
more than paid for itself in less than three years.
Recently, the university gained acclaim in U.S. News & World Report’s annual college guide for its rigorous 52-hour core curriculum and its value.
“I feel good about the future,” said Sandy Huguenin, vice president for academic affairs. “We’ve done a lot with a little.”
The college always has flaunted its mission more than its wealth, which has been lacking since 1908 when the Oklahoma Legislature appropriated $100,000 to create the Oklahoma Industrial Institute and College for Girls.
It took considerable more generosity from the townspeople of Chickasha to bring Southern charm and influences to the western edge of Indian territory in a setting where students remained in their dormitory or cottage room every night during the school year unless they were in the company of a parent.
For a short time in 1912 the college had three presidents, one who guarded his office with a shotgun, one who was sent to replace him who set up his office in a tent in front of the administration building and one imported from Oklahoma City to clear up the situation.
“I’ve got to admit that by training, I’m a historian,” Feaver said. “For a long time, this college lost its connection to the past, some of which had to do with going from a women’s college to a coeducational college.”
The granite markers now rooted in front of the restored historic buildings — most of which were designed by some of Oklahoma’s early premier architects — speak to the importance of tradition.
“What choice do I have? Raze them? What then do I put in their place?” he asked, knowing that money will always be scarce.
Feaver also realizes that on the inside, the buildings and their occupants need to be in tune with today.
“I think there is a place in Oklahoma that appeals to scholastic sensibilities of students and parents that provides highquality education and opportunities on campus,” he said.
It’s a challenge each university in Oklahoma must address in its own way. Feaver is luckier than some. He doesn’t have a crystal ball, but he has the oval.