President Kayla Hale’s vision for university combines long history with bold ideas for future

A headshot of President Kayla Hale with the grounds of the USAO campus in the background
Over the summer, Hale received a call from Chickasha Mayor and USAO Regent Chris Mosley offering her the presidency.

Although Dr. Kayla Hale is just beginning her tenure as the 13th president of the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma, her connections with the college extend throughout her entire life. Hale’s father grew up in Grady County, graduating from Chickasha High School, and she would find her way back to the area every Christmas and often during the summer. With her grandmother’s house just behind Nash Library, there was never a time she does not remember being familiar with the campus. This relationship would prove fortuitous in the coming years.

“When it came time to select a university, I didn’t really know anywhere else,” said Hale. “USAO felt familiar, like I’d already made a friend. I didn’t even look at other universities.”

From the start, Hale’s experience as a USAO student was very positive. Though she came from very humble means and was concerned about feeling out of place because of this circumstance, her advisor encouraged her to persevere, and she quickly found that many students at the school were not particularly affluent. Then as now, USAO’s affordability provided a crucial pathway for these students to pursue a bachelor’s degree no matter their socioeconomic status.

“From the very start I felt like I’d been a part of the school for a long time,” said Hale. “Dr. Feaver was actually my first interdisciplinary studies professor for one of the required history courses. His instruction and the whole IDS curriculum was deeply inspiring.”

In high school, Hale drew inspiration from women in broadcast news like Jane Pauley and Jessica Savitch, so she decided to major in communication. The interdisciplinary nature of the coursework appealed to her intellect as well as her extroverted personality, and the skills she developed easily translated to a variety of careers.

“Growing up in an Air Force environment meant that we moved often, and I had to develop skills to adapt quickly and make friends easily. This carried over into both my student and professional lives,” she said. “I had no fear of learning from anybody and always asked questions to find out what was needed to succeed. USAO helped me build tremendous confidence in terms of support, encouragement and the belief that there are no limits to what I can do.”

Initially embarking on a broadcasting career, Hale ultimately found that industry unsatisfying and in 1988 found a position at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, where she would also complete her master’s degree in business. Thus, began her long and distinguished career in higher education.

“I am so fortunate to work in higher education because the role it plays in our society is so important, and it is so satisfying to me,” said Hale. “Whether it was raising funds for student scholarships, endowed chairs, support programs or any other aspect of a university, I am inspired when I can advance all the best that a university can be. I am hoping to do that at USAO with the help of its incredible faculty, staff and other supporters.”

In 2022, Hale had been recruited to serve on the board of the USAO Foundation. During their December meeting, Feaver made the announcement that he would retire at the end of the following year. As she was leaving the meeting in the USAO Ballroom, she noticed the portraits of all the university presidents in the lobby and noticed something missing: a woman. Reflecting on the school’s history as the Oklahoma College for Women, at that moment Hale decided to throw her hat in the ring for the presidential search.

“The more I thought about the prospect, the more excited I got,” said Hale. “It was definitely the longest wait for a job I’ve ever had.”

The search process entailed many different meetings with the various constituencies that make up USAO: faculty, staff, students, alumni and more. The committee vetted more than 60 candidates throughout the months-long process, but this rigor ensured they found a leader dedicated to the university’s unduplicated mission in Oklahoma’s higher education system.

“I appreciated the inclusivity shown in the structure of the committee,” said Hale. “It was a bit intimidating at first—we initially had a brief, formal Zoom meeting that featured an appearance from my cat—but I am very glad there was a significant vetting process. On my second visit, I felt like I was coming home. Being able to walk the campus and tell my husband stories from my student days was like reliving those formative experiences.”

Over the summer, Hale received a call from Chickasha Mayor and USAO Regent Chris Mosley offering her the presidency.

“I was actually in a meeting and had to step out in the hallway to take his call,” she said. “It was a very emotional moment. I had been tempering my expectations because I wanted it so much, but when I was actually offered the position, it was intense. I had to stand there and just be still for a moment. Then I called my husband and started making plans.”

Now beginning her administration, Hale wants to forge a shared vision for USAO’s future. This work will entail sitting down with the university’s various constituencies and having deep conversations about the school’s recent history, as well as the hopes and dreams of the people who study and work here.

“I want to develop a framework so we are all walking together,” said Hale. “I’m not coming in with a hard and fast singular vision, I want to be open to what the community feels and wants, and then we can create it together.”

Fundamentally, the university’s record increases in enrollment need to be maintained, but these students also need housing options and other amenities crucial to the college experience. Hale sees it as a good problem that on-campus housing is nearing capacity, because it illustrates that students see the particular value in a USAO education, but it also underlines the need to get Willard Hall renovated and available to students as soon as possible. Having roomed in Willard during her time at USAO, Hale has a close personal connection to the building and is already working with the Board of Regents and private individuals to develop partnerships that will help fund that project, among many others on the historic campus.

No matter the final details of Hale’s vision for USAO, her overarching goal is to ensure that the school can achieve its mission of providing an exceptional interdisciplinary undergraduate education to all its students. Having spent her entire professional career in higher education, Hale knows first-hand how transformative it can be, both personally and for students today, and not just for them, but for the generations that follow.

“Education can open new doors and new pathways to discovery,” said Hale. “But there are so many students who are intimidated at the prospect because they are the first generation in their family to attend college or are from a lower socioeconomic background. Many are overwhelmed simply because it is not a part of their history. I can speak directly to that feeling and help take away that mystery. I want to emphasize that we ‘Do Different’ here, that we are a different place from any other institution in Oklahoma.”

One of the most obvious ways that USAO proves this difference is through its curriculum, and Hale wants to encourage the faculty to expound their ideas and let them guide its refinement. She sees many opportunities to transform existing programs to correspond with the incredible changes in our economy, while still providing students with all the fundamentals of a liberal arts education. There are many opportunities for expansion in the areas of computer science, data science and business, especially in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Hale is also getting a sense of the university’s structure and looking at ways the university can strengthen the abilities it already has.

“In order to make the best decision about anything, there has to be thoughtful input from everyone,” said Hale. “I cannot make decisions in a vacuum, nor do I want to. I am open to new ideas and have a fairly open-door policy, plus we have instant communications nowadays, and I encourage everyone to use them. This university does a remarkable job already considering the resources available we have, but I want to encourage our on-campus constituencies, our alumni, community and tribal partners to all invest in this institution more significantly in whatever ways they can.”

Hale is also realistic about the many challenges facing higher education generally in the near future. With demographic trends showing a 20 percent decrease in the college-age student population in the coming years, it is even more imperative that USAO work to retain its current students, as well as finding ways to better reach non-traditional learners. As a state institution, it is also a challenge to successfully engage the legislature in a way that encourages them to allocate more funding to the university.

“With such a focus on workforce development in the state, we have to be very thoughtful about preparing students for a career while not forgetting the foundational components of a well-rounded education,” said Hale. “We have seen a wonderful increase in enrollment, but I want to make sure that everyone on campus walks with these students from one year to the next, identifying challenges they face and getting them to commencement. We need to find what supports need to be improved, what communication strategies need to be adopted and what special needs our students have, especially this generation that has just lived through a pandemic.”

While these issues are significant for every institution of higher education, Hale sees USAO’s position in Oklahoma as quite strong thanks to its special role as the state’s only public liberal arts university. Successfully surmounting these obstacles will require the school to lean into its unique mission even more strongly, honing its approach across numerous metrics, and proving the distinctive value that it provides.

“We are very fortunate to have a statewide mission, which makes us very unique,” said Hale. “We are charged to do things statewide, and if we can lean into that charge with the appropriate resources and offerings, I think there is just so much more we can do. I want us to be able to celebrate what makes us different, but also show statistically that it is better for our state that we are here, serving talented students and maintaining our incredible faculty and staff.”

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