NORMAN, Okla. — David Boren’s appointment as president of the University of Oklahoma two decades ago was the capstone of a storied career. Born into a prominent Oklahoma political family, he became a Rhodes scholar, then governor at age 33 and later a U.S. senator respected for his expertise in intelligence.
His arrival on campus marked a heady time for the school, which set out to achieve his vision for a flagship institution.
But now, less than a year after retiring, Boren’s reputation is at risk. The 77-year-old Democrat finds himself ensnared in allegations that he sexually harassed male subordinates, and he’s on the defensive in a red state now solidly controlled by political adversaries.
The university has hired a law firm to investigate the accusations, and state authorities confirmed this week they have opened a similar probe.
Bob Burke, one of Boren’s attorneys, has characterized the inquiry as a “fishing expedition based on vicious rumours.” But at least one former student has come forward and said Boren touched him and kissed him on multiple occasions in 2010 and 2011 after he began working as Boren’s teaching aide.
The allegations by Jess Eddy, now 29, which he detailed in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, contradict previous statements Eddy gave to investigators denying inappropriate behaviour by Boren. Eddy’s new allegations were first reported on Tuesday by the online news site NonDoc.
Another Boren attorney, Clark Brewster, has dismissed Eddy’s new account, saying Eddy “was carefully examined, asked about anything that he had ever witnessed or had seen or had experienced and not only said that didn’t occur, but he gave specific factual detail as to why it couldn’t have been true.”
Eddy said he was untruthful earlier to protect Boren, but then “started to realize the implications of what I was doing by concealing my truth.”
Boren has denied any inappropriate behaviour but declined a request for an interview, citing poor health, Burke said. Boren, who underwent heart surgery two years ago, suffered a minor stroke last year before stepping down.
He has two children from his first marriage and has been married to his second wife, Molly Shi Boren, for more than 40 years.
The sex abuse investigation adds to a tumultuous transition from Boren’s time at the university, during which he won widespread regard as one of the 129-year-old institution’s greatest presidents. During his 24 years at the helm, the university added dozens of new buildings, raised more than $3 billion from private donors and added an honours college and additional degree programs.
But after a new administration took over, he was suddenly accused of making the university financially unstable. His successor, James Gallogly, a retired energy industry executive chosen by a conservative-dominated board of regents, declared that he found the university was $1 billion in debt, and he quickly fired six senior administrators, including the chief financial officer.
He later forced out more after it was revealed that OU tweaked alumni donations data to improve its U.S. News & World Report college ranking.
Gallogly also scaled back several signature Boren initiatives, including tuition waivers and stipends for National Merit scholars and the university’s international studies program named in Boren’s honour.
Since then, the open rancour between the two presidents has reverberated across the state and the university’s large alumni network.
“We don’t know what to think, really,” said Alan Livingston, an OU alum and retired energy industry executive from Houston. “It bothers me very much, because I don’t like to see people that probably have the same goals for the university be on different roads.”
Boren’s political clout declined over the years as Oklahoma’s politics shifted rightward and the GOP came to hold 116 of the Legislature’s 149 seats. In 2016, he infuriated lawmakers by spearheading an unsuccessful 1-cent sales tax initiative for education funding as the Legislature cut higher education appropriations by 16 per cent.
“Behind closed doors, it was a total joke in a lot of ways how inefficient higher education had become, but they still had this huge pull on the Legislature,” said former state Rep. Jason Murphey, a Republican critical of how the university’s lobbyists worked to influence his colleagues.
Burke, Boren’s attorney and longtime friend, said he believes much of the ill will stems from an ideological clash.
Boren’s “theories of government and education are … certainly more liberal than that of conservative leaders,” he said.
Disclosure of the sexual abuse allegation provided a reminder of a bizarre episode from Boren’s earlier political career. During his campaign for Senate in 1978, an obscure fringe candidate named Anthony Points publicly accused Boren of being gay. Boren responded with a news conference at the state capitol where he swore on a family Bible that he was not gay or bisexual.
“I further swear that I have never engaged in any homosexual or bisexual activities, nor do I approve of or condone them,” Boren said at the time.
Boren went on to win the Senate seat. His son, Dan Boren, also served three terms in the U.S. House and was the last Democratic congressman from Oklahoma until Kendra Horn’s upset win last year.
At the university, many now wonder about Boren’s legacy.
Boren “was very much loved by the community,” sophomore Taylor Putman said, “especially by the students,” who appreciated his ambition for the university and flocked to the political science classes he taught.
However, amid the waves of layoffs, “I’d say there’s kind of a demoralized, uncertain, nervous atmosphere on campus,” said Rick Tepker, a longtime professor at OU’s College of Law. “I think there’s a growing awareness that Boren left us in a financial mess, and that makes people nervous.”
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