Mark Pennie


To the editor:

This much is settled. As much as Stillwater needs a strong and vibrant OSU to prosper, so does OSU need a strong and vibrant Stillwater to prosper.

Since retiring from OSU five years ago, I have become acquainted with the local entrepreneurial community and downtown Stillwater through membership in the WorkIT Coworking Center. There, I try to support startups with marketing consulting and assistance with branding.

In this transition period, I have been both surprised and greatly alarmed by the practical distance between some city leadership entities like the Chamber of Commerce and the services, programs and activities of the university.

There are, or at least were five years ago, successful auxiliary enterprises on and associated with OSU-Stillwater that business leadership was unaware of. The operations then include a veterinary pathology lab, a firefighter training material publisher and a technology testing facility. Other auxiliaries are providing specialized technical and social support such as a lab with two electron microscopes and a device that maps the surface of molecules, a supercomputer, an observatory, drone engineering and testing facility, engineering materials testing lab, a service that helps small governments across the state with training and assistance, a think-tank for delivering medical center services through technology and the Sovereign Nations Center.

Because of this situation, I have been (pre-pandemic) advocating for closer ties, especially in the area of economic development. Yet in looking at all of that, my conclusion is what is needed is a full-time dedicated community engagement official at OSU. Evidently, this is a real thing at many universities and there exists some scholarly research on its benefits.

Here is why I think this is needed.

The first is conflicting cultures. The university has always defaulted toward a multitude of silos. It can’t be helped. It is intrinsic to scholarly pursuits and organizational structure.

The other is communication and protocol barriers. Both city and university have established methods for engaging. But, neither knows reliably what the other’s are.

Likewise, both entities have wildly different objectives and measurements for success. It takes persistence and agility to identify the intersections of purpose, consequently, the disconnection persists.

I am also alarmed by persistent resistance by many in the community to public investment in the amenities needed to match the challenges of new economic realities. In post-industrial America, much work is done remotely so an attractive lifestyle and place to live fosters growth. A stronger local economy wins a tax base that enables the amenities that add to Stillwater’s livability and attraction.

I find it incredible that the region’s largest economic engine which exists for public advancement does not have an engagement office to provide a centralized interface between university and community. Economic development is one area of great need. But there are likely other unknown synergies to discover which have a lasting benefit to OSU and the community.

Call it a civic extension officer for Stillwater’s future. A community engagement office would be a new venture for OSU, but it fits squarely in its land-grant mission. Despite good intention, there is no obvious benefit for OSU to participate in the nuts and bolts of Stillwater economic and community development.

So my purpose here is to put a bug in the ear of city and university leadership. Stillwater is unique. It is the only municipality in the world that is the home of Oklahoma State University. Shouldn’t OSU be more purposely committed and active for a thriving Stillwater? Why not a better, stronger partnership by targeting budget resources to that end?

Please consider this possibility.

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