Sean Burrage is not entirely new to this little city. Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s 20th president is only a couple of weeks on the job here and already pronounces “Dew-rant” like the long-timers.
He was born in the same building where his youngest son, Carter, will begin fourth grade in the fall. (Those of us who’ve been around here a while might recall that the current Durant Intermediate School was a hospital.) The first three years of Burrage’s life were spent in Durant while his parents attended Southeastern.
His father went on to become a U.S. district judge, his mom a teacher and an elementary principal. She is one of the “10 to 15, maybe more” of his family members who are educators and Southeastern graduates. They and other prestigious alumni — from professional baseball players to a federal judge to business leaders, many of which are still in the area — contribute to part of what Burrage called the university’s “unique tradition and values.”
“Southeastern was established in 1909, which makes it only two years younger than the state,” Burrage said. “We have a rich tradition of producing educators. As you might know, this started as a teacher school.
“Southeastern also is only one of three schools that has an accredited school of business,” he said, regarding the John Massey School of Business and its AACSB stamp.
Location also is an advantageous feature, he said, being situated near the Texas border and also serving 10 surrounding counties in Oklahoma.
Burrage also noticed the atmosphere around here is quite nice too.
“After living in northeast Oklahoma for the last 18 years, southeast Oklahoma does have more of a ‘Southern’ feel to it that is different from the rest of Oklahoma,” he said.
But he noted there are similarities that make the transition smoother, especially since son Truman will be a senior at Durant High this fall.
“The communities of Claremore and Durant are similar in many good ways — they’re about the same size with both having 5A high schools, and they’re sophisticated cities but still have a small-town feel.
“Southeastern also has a very beautiful campus,” said Burrage, who’s been exploring the grounds and discovered a few old markers that some current staff hadn’t noticed. “If you live here, you most likely take the magnolia trees for granted.”
Although the trees with their big white blooms are common on campus and along city streets, they’re not actually native. They were transplanted years ago and have since been the source of flora-inspired nicknames for the campus and city.
Even the president’s on-campus residence is called the Magnolia House. As Burrage pointed out, it was built the same year the state capitol was erected. (Go ahead and try to take him on in a few rounds of government/political trivia. Fair-warning note: His sons share names with former Democratic U.S. presidents.) The Burrage family, including wife Carole, has moved in, along with their dogs, Sweetpea and Daisy.
The Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents was charged with replacing former Southeastern president Larry Minks. Board chair Richard C. Ogden stated in the release about the selection: “Burrage emerged as the candidate with the vision and the enthusiasm best suited to lead [Southeastern] into the future.”
What is the growth Burrage envisions for the university?
“We want to grow the programs that provide the most opportunity for the students,” he said. “We’re seeing growth in our occupational safety program right now. The evidence is the students who get those degrees are being hired at a very rapid pace and at very good salaries.
“Our customers are our students, and our products are our students. We also have to look at what the business community is saying and what their needs are there and respond well. In my opinion, higher education, long term, has got to be more nimble in responding to the needs of the business community.”
Burrage, who just came out of his second term as the District 2 state senator, said he wants to “provide opportunity to those who don’t even know it’s there.”
“I want everybody who has the ability and has the desire to go to college to have that opportunity. I grew up in southeast Oklahoma. I’m a product of the Antlers Public School System. And I’m not convinced in my work as an elected official that they are aware of that.
“We have some great programs,” he said, listing Oklahoma’s Promise (formerly Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program), a tuition waiver for students whose parents meet income requirements. “I want them to know about Pell Grants, I want them to know about student loans.
“I want to visit a lot of the high schools. I’m going to get to know the superintendents, the principals and the school counselors, so hopefully I can have personal relationships at that level to be able to reach out to those kids to let them know what we have to offer here at Southeastern.”
Burrage also intends to build a rapport with students.
“I am going to be very active on campus,” Burrage said Thursday, adding that he’d had lunch the previous two days in the student union cafeteria. “Of course, there aren’t a lot of them in the summer, but I plan to be there at lunch and sometimes in the evenings after fall semester starts to get to know the kids.
“I’m going to speak to any and all student groups that ask and my time allows. I’m going to treat this first year like an initiation period and try to get around and see as many people as I can and learn as much as I can. Everybody you talk to has a different perspective.”
Burrage has an interesting vantage point from his association and experience with law, politics, public service and education.
His father is now a practicing attorney, his mom a retired educator. His uncle Steve is a former state auditor/inspector. His uncle David, who was a banker in Atoka, is on the Oklahoma Transportation Commission. His brother David is on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, plus a local attorney and chief justice of the Oklahoma Choctaw Constitutional Court (who got to swear in new Choctaw Chief Gary Batton).
Burrage himself graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of business administration in accounting in 1990 and earned a juris doctorate degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Law in 1993. He has maintained a successful law practice. In November 2006, he was elected to serve Rogers and Mayes counties as a state senator. He was named Democratic floor leader in November 2011 after serving as assistant Democratic leader for the 52nd Oklahoma Legislature. In 2011, he also was a member of the Joint Committee on Indian Tribal-State Relations. And delegate to the American Council of Young Political Leaders also is on his long list of credentials.
Burrage spent a considerable amount of time associated with David Boren, who was a four-term Oklahoma state representative, governor, congressman and current OU president. (Boren also has a law degree. His wife is a former judge and English teacher.)
“I went out and worked for Boren after law school, and I was his last legislative director,” Burrage said. “He took three or four members of the U.S. Senate staff to OU, and I was one of those. I was the director of state and federal relations and special assistant to the president. I was also the university’s liaison to the state Capitol for two legislative sessions.”
Is that where Burrage got a taste for what he’s been doing the past eight years and to come?
“That’s a very good point,” he said. “During that time period, I was working higher education at OU but I was at the state Capitol a lot and learned how that worked. Then, I took 10 years when I was practicing law only. I always knew that if I had an opportunity, I would like to get back into public office or public service. So, when the Senate seat came open, I took a run at that in 2006. After two terms and after being minority leader for three years, I thought it was time for me to go do something different. Little did I know that this job would open up. I was perfectly happy to go back and practice law, but this opportunity was just something I couldn’t pass up.”
Boren, at OU, teaches a political science class every semester. Might Burrage try something like that?
“Long term, I would like to get in the classroom, although I’m not sure if I would get my own section. I’ve already been talking to people around campus about getting people from state government to come in and do some lectures for students, and I think my connections in state government would be helpful. That’s something that President (Glen Johnson) was able to do and we have some professors who would like to get it back.
“If I had the time, I would love to be able to teach a section of political science or Oklahoma government because it’s been my life’s work up to this point. I also think it would be a great way to get to know students in that capacity.”
Contact Regina Phillips at (580) 634-2163 or @NewspaperRegina on Twitter.