Reflecting on a Legacy

A Conversation with President Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar

By Adrienne Nobles

Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar made history as the University of Central Oklahoma’s first female president. Since beginning the position in July 2019, she’s led the university through historic events – namely the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented financial challenges. There were also great achievements, including advancements in online programs, keeping the UCO experience accessible for abroad range of students and addressing the university budget deficit. After 15 years at UCO – three and a half as president – Neuhold-Ravikumar announced her intent to leave the university, effective Jan. 31, 2023. We spoke with her about her time at UCO and her plans for the future.

At the time of this interview, we’re about two weeks out from the announcement of your plan to leave UCO. What have the days been like since then?
Over the course of my UCO career and presidency, people took their time to share ideas, hard work and encouragement with me. These past two weeks, I’ve been uplifted by those same people expressing sadness at my departure and wishing me well. Our external partners have been reaffirming the great work we’ve done with and for them. Alumni have stopped me out and about in the community to share their confidence in our direction and their renewed sense of pride. It’s been rewarding to connect with my colleagues and community friends.

You’re leaving to move to Kansas City to live in the same city as your wife, Ruki, after five years of the two of you living and working in different cities. Share the importance of that decision.
Ruki and I are committed to each other’s success, professionally and personally. For years, we accepted the fact that finding two jobs at this level, in these industries, in the same city would be nearly impossible. We also knew that Ruki’s jobs on the east coast were shorter term, so we made it work. Ruki has recently become the president of the Kansas City Art Institute, which means she’s there for a while and we can’t imagine several more years apart. One of us had to make the decision to let go of where we are to reach where we wanted to be.

Describe your hopes and plans for your tenure as president then and how they compare to what you’ve accomplished in the role.
I knew what I was signing up for, to some extent. Although no one predicted a global pandemic, the financial deficit at UCO was understood. I accepted this role knowing that there were tough decisions ahead to get the university on a path to financial sustainability. One of my goals for my time as president, at the time, was to work collaboratively across the university to identify our priorities and align our resources accordingly. We started this in October 2019, with the Alignment and Allocation Task Force, which led to their final report in spring 2020, and kick-started the work toward identifying relevant data that could feed informed decisions. Today, that work has harvested and provided more data to financial decision-makers at UCO than in our history. We now have the capacity to see our expenses down to the student level and analyze which institutional behaviors can lead to better financial outcomes. It’s up to us to make smart decisions with that data.

The pandemic created an unforeseen opportunity to rally as a community and channel our efforts toward a single goal. I had not envisioned transforming every classroom into a virtual learning space, but our campus built our online capacity from about 15% to 99% in a matter of two weeks. Universities across the nation tried but couldn’t achieve what we did. UCO now has the capability to teach hundreds of students synchronously, if we choose.

Much of our progress happened within the context of a crisis and UCO rose to meet and exceed the challenges presented.

Another goal was to build fully online programs. In July 2019, we had two unintentional online programs because they happened to have an online version of every required course for the degree. We hit the ground running in fall 2019, and thoughtfully designed programs and support services to meet today’s industry needs. Today, we have 16 online programs, with more on deck, and we’re ranked by Newsweek magazine as one of the top online colleges in America. This success was made possible by creative and focused staff and faculty in many areas of campus. I couldn’t have asked for better!

Two individuals standing and posting for a picture.
Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar and wife, Ruki.

You have the distinction of being the university’s first female president. How do you feel that impacted your presidency and the legacy you will leave?
Being selected as the best person for a job of this magnitude carries with it great responsibility for doing the job well and performing it in a way that clears the path for those that will come after me. Doing so has been at the core of my daily thoughts and actions. Young women have told me that they’re proud to see a woman leading the university and it opened their idea of what was possible for them. I’m happy to hear that they’re dreaming bigger now.

What are you most proud of from your time as president?
Ten years of technology and student service modernization in three years! An amazing Cabinet team, forged in the fire of COVID-19. We became micro-credential pioneers and leaders in the state. As I mentioned, three years ago, we didn’t have any fully online programs. Today, we have 16 and we’re nationally ranked as a top online college. Creating momentum around our contributions to society through the John A. Maisch Collective for the Greater Good, which will house and foster research and service that benefits the community. The way we handled the COVID-19 pandemic as a university community – we preserved life, made education accessible in new ways and were great stewards of our resources. Our collaborative work earned us national recognition for our crisis response. UCO has been innovative in the face of adversity.

What do you wish you could have accomplished?
I wish that we could’ve increased revenue to address UCO’s compensation gap. This university is filled with dedicated professionals who have earned, and deserve, an increase in pay. I also wish we could have directed more of our resources during COVID-19 toward addressing the significant gaps in technology and skill that we needed to grow enrollment rather than toward institutional survival. We entered the pandemic in a weakened operational state, due to years of misaligned spending, which forced us to channel our energy into catch-up strategies instead of growth strategies.

What are your hopes for the university as it moves forward under new leadership?
I believe that all the strengthening strategies we’ve put in motion over the past three years will begin to pay off starting fall 2023. Recruitment, enrollment and retention are factors impacted in cycles – the impact of what you implement during one year will not be experienced until the next year or even further. Additionally, the strategic plan has been fleshed out by the University Planning Council in a way that enables achievement and measurement like never before. UCO is finally able to effectively demonstrate its impact to the community and state. My goal was to leave this place better positioned to thrive in the future and we have taken necessary steps and enacted influential initiatives that will do that for the next president and the university.

Let’s look at some additional highlights – I’ll name it, and you say the first things that come to your mind.

  • UCO’s land acknowledgment: Momentous and essential for a school in a state so intimately connected to the land runs and the Trail of Tears.
  • UCO ranking in the top 10% nationally for social mobility: Incredibly proud of the life-changing impact this represents. As our tuition rate increases, we endanger our progress. Restorative state funding will be essential to keeping education affordable.
  • The evolution of the Inclusive Community at UCO: The university has provided a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds for decades. The new office, positions, budget allocation and collaborative efforts have formalized that commitment and embedded it as part of our identity.
  • 170% increase in fundraising over the past year: The spark become a flame. Increased alumni pride, heightened visibility, enhanced skill and energy of our Advancement team.
  • Athletics championships and the opening of Chad Richison Stadium: Our three-peat rowing national championship, our team and individual wrestling titles and our softball records are the results of the exemplary competitiveness and focus of our student-athletes. Their achievements are remarkable. The main campus in Edmond is now home to the best facilities in DII athletics today. The Chad Richison Sports Complex has been significantly expanded and in turn, has expanded our dreams. We’re poised for the win.

You’ve been at the university for 15 years, having served in a variety of roles here. What are some of your favorite memories?
All my roles at UCO were enhanced by the people I had the privilege to work with. Regardless of the job I held, I was surrounded by people who cared about what they did and who they served. Our mission runs deep in the hearts of our campus community members, and I couldn’t help but feel compelled to give my best every day. Fifteen years of projects, initiatives, budgets, policies, programs and partnerships all boils down to the people who make it possible. My memories are filled with smiles, high-fives, care and pride.

What do you think is special about UCO…so special you have spent a good portion of your career here?

Hands down – my colleagues across campus. My time at UCO has been filled with good people. I’ve had the opportunity in each of my jobs at the university to work with people from every division and dozens of departments, which gave me a unique perspective of who we are. It’s rare for someone to have as broad an organizational experience internally as I had, and it helped me appreciate everything that gets done for our students and each other. Beyond that, UCO is fulfilling a need in our state that should be valued and preserved. I woke up every day with a purpose – to help students learn and become the best versions of themselves. I love knowing that I contributed in some way.

What do you see as the biggest challenges on the horizon for public higher education, and how is UCO positioned for success?
Rising costs and no restorative funding in state appropriations to address them. I worry this is an insurmountable imbalance without our state’s commitment to cover rising costs. As I’ve spoken with many university presidents across the U.S., there are common threads among us. While there are schools rolling up their proverbial sleeves to face the future, the system of higher education appears to be lacking the will to transform sufficiently and timely. Higher ed continues to measure learning in antiquated and unproven ways. This is where I believe UCO has an edge with STLR that could add value to the transformational visions of how to holistically measure learning.

Feb. 1, 2023 – what does your day look like? How do you think you’ll feel?
Like any ending and new beginning, I’m savoring the past and excited about the future. I want to cherish every moment with the hundreds of people who have made UCO an incredible home for me. It’s hard to imagine not seeing the smiles of people I know and not filling my days with the same mission I’ve committed to for more than 15 years. I’m walking toward something, not away from something, so that tempers my departure with hope and fulfillment.