As Brad Carson becomes the 21st president of the University of Tulsa with a staggering string of credentials — scholar, lawyer, professor, military, politician, businessman and public servant on the national level — we might as well ask him, “With all due respect, sir, why in the world would you want this job?”
Not this particular job at TU, but with any college or university? Higher education across the country has hit a rough patch with issues including financial needs, curriculum, scholarships, student recruitment, remote learning during the pandemic, tenure and, always, athletics.
Those are opportunities, Carson answers, not challenges. Those are the kind of opportunities he likes. He faces them the way he faces an interviewer: ramrod straight, eyes and attention never wavering, thoroughly briefed, armed with deep-dive information, so effortlessly articulate that a trial lawyer would sit in quiet amazement, cool enough to stare down a military explosive or a Senate confirmation hearing, both of which he has done.
Right away the question changes to, “How did TU get so lucky to find this guy?”
One entire wall of the presidential office in Collins Hall is hung with political cartoons featuring Carson. A table is laden with medals and awards.
From his desk, he has an expansive view past the dramatic Genave King Rogers Fountain, over the tranquil green of Chapman Commons (just begging for white-clad teams of cricketers) and on across East 11th Street to an Arby’s restaurant. He’s rarely at his desk, which is positioned so his back is to the view. Meetings in his office are conducted at a small conference table.
He attacks every day as if he’s cramming for an exam or preparing for a trial, which, in a way he is. He is an early riser, up at about 5:30 a.m., and begins the workday with the blogosphere to read his emails, Twitter messages and online newspapers: New York Times, Washington Post, Tulsa World, The Oklahoman and Financial Times. These days he’s reading a lot about higher education and its changing nature, “but I do try to keep up with poetry and literature,” he says.
He is in the office by 7 or 7:30 for a day filled with meetings with faculty, staff and others until 7 or 8 at night. He takes meetings on weekends, too.
What do you do for fun?
“I work. For me, work is fun. This is what I enjoy the most.”
What can we expect from you and TU in the immediate future?
The newest change is the creation of the TU School of Cyber Studies for undergraduate and graduate programs in the interdisciplinary studies of computer science, social science, law, business and engineering.
Carson has a vision for TU’s future, and it is as clearly defined as a military campaign. “My goal for the university is to be the best school between the Rockies and the Mississippi. I believe TU has all the assets to be that kind of school.”
He has a plan to achieve that vision. “I have to build on the great tradition of excellence at the university and extend it into the 21st century, so that means new programs like cybersecurity, doubling down on the greatness of the past like our energy programs, but also strong emphases on liberal arts, fine arts, humanities and social sciences.”
Is it true that when you taught at TU you sat in on literature classes?
“I love the programs of arts and humanities. My heart is in philosophy and history. When I was a professor in the business school, at night I audited (TU) literature classes of Joseph Kestner (film and literature), James Watson (Faulkner), Lars Engle (Shakespeare) and Sean Latham (science fiction and pop culture).”
If you could snap your fingers for an instant change, what would it be?
“I would add 1,000 students on campus, grow to (a student body) of 5,000 and make sure we have the infrastructure to support that.”
With your background in law and tribal issues and with the McGirt Supreme Court ruling roiling the legal landscape, might we anticipate any changes at TU in these areas?
“Definitely. This was the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls (then Henry Kendall College and, finally, the University of Tulsa) formed in Muskogee more than a century ago, so we have a historic legacy with Native American affairs. I have spent most of my career working in and around Indian tribes of Oklahoma. My father was a career employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“I want to make sure that across curriculum, but especially in law, we have a strong Native American emphasis, that we recruit Native American students, work with tribal leadership to ensure we have programs that meet their needs and that our scholars are providing expertise to allow those tribes to thrive. We have the Native American Law Center in the College of Law and a great opportunity for the law school to expand.”
Which of your skills and background experiences are particularly helpful to you at TU right now?
“Any university has to excel in teaching and in scholarship, as well as the public impact. Having been a professor both here and at the University of Virginia, I understand what the faculty needs to be great teachers and great researchers.”
Carson is “deeply committed” to providing students with the experience they expect from a small private research university.
His work in politics and public service in the administration of public defense has given him a broader perspective beyond the campus. “I believe universities can be transformative not only in the lives of students but in the broader community around them.”
And then, Carson describes his own shining city on a hill — not a blue-sky dream, but a specific example. “Imagine a city based on an industry that most people think its best days are behind it. Trying to figure out the next big move. How to recruit new industry. How to keep young people. How to become bigger and more vibrant. And then imagine a university can transform that city and achieve the goals of economic development, cultural enrichment and keep young people. That’s what Carnegie Mellon has done in Pittsburgh — transformed the whole region and become a world-renowned school. We should put TU on that trajectory. We will transform young peoples’ lives, but we will also transform the community and the region around us. That’s what our ambition is.”
Are you worried about anything?
“I’m not worried. I’m excited. This is a great school. Higher education is changing, but we’ll be on top of that and we will exploit those changes to our benefit. We have incredible people on staff, a remarkable faculty, an extraordinary student body, a wonderful alumni group.
“Donors are attracted in many of the same ways students are. They want to see the university thriving. As president, it is important to make sure we are doing things that merit their generosity.
“In two centuries TU will still be here, and even greater than ever before.”
So, to repeat, why did you want this job?
“It’s a great challenge and in my very unusual career path, I have tried to accept interesting challenges and meet them. I love the University of Tulsa. I love the city of Tulsa and northeast Oklahoma. The chance to lead an institution into the future and mold young peoples’ lives — it is a remarkable opportunity.
“I’ve had a number of jobs — especially U.S. Congress and Department of Defense — where I did the work not because I was paid, but because I loved the work and thought it was important. That’s the same thing here at the University of Tulsa. It is a pleasure to do the work because I have the sense that this matters. It’s not easy to find this in life. I’m very lucky.”
Brad Carson: at a glance
Public service, law and education
Jenks High School, Baylor University, Rhodes Scholar to Trinity College,
Oxford (master’s degrees in politics, philosophy, economics), University of Oklahoma College of Law (juris doctor)
1996-2000: Attorney with Crowe and Dunlevy
1997-98: White House Fellow assigned to the Pentagon
2001-05: Member U.S. House of Representatives (Oklahoma’s 2nd district)
2005: Teaching fellowship in U.S. politics at Harvard University
2005-08: CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses (focus on corporate strategy and governance and increased revenues)
2008-10: Deployed to Iraq in active duty as intelligence officer in U.S. Navy embedded with U.S. Army’s 84th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Battalion
2010: Faculty of College of Business and College of Law at the University of
Tulsa and director of the National Energy Policy Institute
2011-14: General counsel of the U.S. Army (overseeing worldwide legal operations)
2014-15: Under secretary of U.S. Army (COO for Army’s global business enterprise of soldier and civilian personnel and budget of more than $150 billion)
2015-16: Acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at U.S. Department of Defense (overseeing nearly 5 million service members, civilian employees and their dependents and managing an internal organization of 30,000 employees)
Until recently, faculty of University of Virginia (teaching courses in national security and public sector innovation) and senior advisor at Boston Consulting Group, where he advised ministries of defense around the world, as well as Fortune 500 companies
Wife Julie Kruse Carson (attorney with U.S. Department of Defense), son Jack, 15