East Central University withdraw leaves UCSO students in the lurch

Tiffany Ditto /
Above: The facade of the University Center of Southern Oklahoma shows the initials of East Central University and other participating universities.

Margaret Gilbert never pondered the idea of getting her masters degree anywhere other than East Central University. Getting her education while working two jobs proved hard enough, but the ease of taking classes at the University Center of Southern Oklahoma made starting her degree at 45 seem possible.

Until she got an email from ECU that altered her plans entirely.

ECU will be phasing out programs at the University Center of Southern Oklahoma starting in the upcoming fall semester. Enrolled students like Gilbert will be able to finish their degrees with ECU, but new students will no longer be accepted at the UCSO campus.

“I’m not able to just take off and drive to Ada,” Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t be able to go to these classes if they weren’t in Ardmore. I chose ECU because I could get my bachelor’s and master’s here in Ardmore.”

Gilbert will graduate with her bachelor’s degree this coming May in human psychology before the program is completely phased out. ECU released a statement on Wednesday detailing what the transition will look like and their reasons for leaving the UCSO venue.

ECU insures that program termination is not immediate and any current ECU student, including those

already enrolled in fall courses, will be able to finish their degrees via classroom instruction, online, or through the use of their web conference program, Web Ex. The so called Teach-Out plan is expected to take place over the next two years.

The university’s statement also said, “for the last two years, the ECU programs at the University Center of Southern Oklahoma have operated in the red, losing approximately $200,000.

“Over the past couple of years, the state legislature has asked us to be more efficient. So we have looked at our bottom line and in Ardmore it shows we have been in the red,” ECU President Katricia Pierson said in the statement. “By pulling out (of UCSO), we will be able to fully commit to our programs in Ada.”

On June 19, UCSO President Steve Mills, Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore), UCSO board members and other community leaders met with Pierson in an effort to keep the ECU programs in Ardmore. Mills said every effort was made to convince Pierson to stay and was unsuccessful.  

“Their decision to separate as a partner in the University Center of Southern Oklahoma was not totally based on a financial decision,” said UCSO Board Member Gary Farabough, who was a part of the Ardmore delegation. “I have the belief that those funds would have been made available.”

The decision to pull away from the Ardmore area came just five months after UCSO’s construction of a new $17 million building, which primarily houses ECU’s nursing program,and recently opened its doors to students. And, just a few years after ECU was awarded $1 million in grants from local agencies to start up the nursing program. Questions around what will become of the building remain, but Mills is confident that UCSO will find another partner to fill the space.

However, board members and Ownbey remain frustrated because they feel ECU didn’t give the program enough time to grow.

“We wanted to make the nursing program more viable and here we are closing it a few weeks later,” Ownbey said. “I feel like there was no sincere effort on ECU’s part to visit with people in Ardmore so we could see what we can do to grow the program and make things work. The people really losing here are the ones who can’t take those courses here any longer and can’t drive 60 miles away to go to school.”

Ownbey, like Farabough, suggested that ECU’s problem with the program wasn’t a financial one.

Tensions are high as ECU leaves Ardmore, not only because of the new health, science, and math center, but because Ownbey, along with Sen. Frank Simpson (R), fought so hard several years ago to have UCSO’s main partner be Southeastern State University, not ECU.

“The greatest day of my legislative career was when the (Southeastern) branch campus passed through the legislature,” Ownbey said. “The worst day was two weeks later when pressure from ECU put on Gov. Mary Fallin stopped the passage of the bill. And now, a couple of years later, they just pull out of the program.”

The cuts may not just be to the University Center. ECU also said it will be evaluating its services in McAlester on the Eastern Oklahoma State College campus — though they have not announced a decision to withdraw yet.

Mills said the outlook for the University Center isn’t bleak. He and the board members are looking to Murray State and Southeastern to offer some of the classes that ECU currently offers. However, neither school offers a bachelor’s of nursing program so board members are looking to Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma and others in hopes that they may be willing to partner with the Center.

For students like Gilbert, having other universities replace ECU at the Center could be a blessing in disguise and allow her to follow through with her goal of getting her master’s degree right here in Ardmore.

“We’re not going to sit back and let nothing happen,” Mills said. “We’re going to look for other partners and make lemonade out of this lemon. We will get new programs and be even better than we were before.”