History of the State System
The Beginnings – 1890
The first Oklahoma territorial legislature passed legislation creating three institutions of higher education in 1890 in order to fulfill a requirement of the Organic Act of Congress establishing the territory. Congress required the territory to establish three types of public higher education: liberal arts and professional education, agriculture and mechanical arts education to fulfill the land grant college provisions of the Morrill Act of 1862, and teacher training.
Territorial Gov. George Washington Steele signed the bill creating the University of Oklahoma, the institution designated to provide the liberal arts and professional education, on December 19, 1890.
Six days later, on Christmas Day, 1890, Gov. Steele signed the bills creating the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College at Stillwater, the land grant institution, and the Oklahoma Normal School for Teachers at Edmond to provide training for public school teachers in the new territory. These two institutions are known today as Oklahoma State University and University of Central Oklahoma, respectively.
The first of these three institutions to open for classes was the Normal School for Teachers, which held its first classes on November 1, 1891. Later that same year, on December 14, the first classes were held at the A&M College in Stillwater, with 45 students attending.The University of Oklahoma opened in a rented building on Main Street in Norman in 1892 with 119 students and four faculty members, including the university’s first president, Dr. David Ross Boyd.
More Territorial Institutions
Later the territorial government established four other institutions: the Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston (now Langston University) and the Normal School for Teachers at Alva (now Northwestern Oklahoma State University) both in 1897; the Normal School for Teachers at Weatherford (now Southwestern Oklahoma State University) and the Oklahoma University Preparatory School at Tonkawa (now Northern Oklahoma College), both in 1901.
The Move Toward Statehood
When it became apparent that the U.S. government would not allow the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory to enter the union as separate states, negotiations began among the political leaders of both territories for the unification of the two into a single entity.
One of the key issues in these negotiations was the provision of public higher education. The leaders of the Indian Territory cited the fact that the Oklahoma Territory already had seven established institutions of higher education, while there were no public colleges or universities in the Indian Territory.
Leaders agreed that immediately upon the granting of statehood to the united territories, the institutions of higher education in Oklahoma Territory would be duplicated in the Indian Territory, thus spreading geographical access to public higher education throughout the new state.
The first Oklahoma Legislature, meeting shortly after statehood, created two collegiate-level schools: the Industrial Institute and College for Girls at Chickasha (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) and the School of Mines and Metallurgy at Wilburton (now Eastern Oklahoma State College). The school at Wilburton was intended to become the eastern duplicate of the university at Norman.
The same legislature also created six secondary agricultural schools, in each of the five Supreme Court judicial districts and the sixth in the Panhandle. These were the Connors State School of Agriculture at Warner (now Connors State College), Murray State School of Agriculture at Tishomingo (now Murray State College), Cameron State School of Agriculture at Lawton (now Cameron University), Haskell State School of Agriculture at Broken Arrow, Connell State School of Agriculture at Helena and Panhandle State School of Agriculture at Goodwell (now Oklahoma Panhandle State University).
The 1909 Legislature created three normal schools in eastern Oklahoma, to balance those operated in the west, and a preparatory school in the east, to offset the one at Tonkawa. These new institutions were Northeastern Normal School at Tahlequah (now Northeastern State University), East Central Normal School at Ada (now East Central University), Southeastern Normal School at Durant (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University) and the Eastern Oklahoma University Preparatory School at Claremore (now Rogers State University).
Institutions Closed in 1917
In 1917, several institutions were closed, two of them permanently. The Legislature, by separate action, closed the agricultural schools at Broken Arrow and Helena. Gov. Robert L. Williams, by veto of the institutions’ biennial appropriations, shut down the schools at Claremore, Wilburton and Tonkawa.
When the Legislature reconvened in 1919 with a new governor in office, the vetoed institutions were given appropriations and reopened. The Legislature then created another institution, the Miami School of Mines (now Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College).
Although no more state institutions were created for nearly 50 years, hardly a biennium went by without changes in the names, functions or governing structures of the public colleges and universities.
The Public District Junior Colleges
The 1920s and 1930s saw the development of a new type of public institution of higher education in Oklahoma, the public district junior college. In 1921 there was only one such institution, Muskogee Junior College, operated by the local school board, with an enrollment of 10 students.
By 1939 there were 20 such institutions with a total enrollment of less than 1,600. These were located at Altus, Bartlesville, Bristow, Capitol Hill (Oklahoma City), Duncan, El Reno, Kiowa County (Hobart), Muskogee, Okmulgee, Poteau, Sapulpa, Seminole, Sayre, Tillman County (Frederick), Wetumka and Woodward – all two-year colleges – and Carnegie, Holdenville, Okemah and Shidler – all one-year colleges.
Early Efforts at Coordination
The proliferation of institutions and the corresponding competition each biennium for legislative appropriations, coupled with a considerable amount of political activity concerning institutional operations, led to calls for a coordinated state system of public higher education.
As early as 1913 Gov. Lee Cruce was pleading with the Legislature for consolidation of institutional functions and the abolition of some of the smaller schools. Gov. Williams’ single-handed approach to the latter problem and its ultimate outcome have already been noted.
The first published study of the problem of coordination of higher education in Oklahoma was the doctoral dissertation of Henry G. Bennett in 1926. He recommended that a central coordinating agency be established and a state system formed under the aegis of the State Board of Education.
In 1929 Gov. William J. Holloway recommended to the Legislature a reduction in the number of governing boards and the creation of a central coordinating agency. The legislature passed a bill providing for a board to consist of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, two members to be appointed by the governor, and the presidents of five state institutions. The two gubernatorial appointees were never named and the ex-officio members never met.
Early in 1933 Gov. William H. Murray, by executive order, created a committee of nine to coordinate public higher education. In reaction, in the legislative session of that year, a bill was introduced to create a statutory coordinating board. This bill was passed, and the coordinating board was established, with 15 members to be appointed by the governor.
Although the law passed and the members of the board were appointed, the legislative appropriation for the operation of the board was killed on the final day of the session. Nevertheless, the board met and adopted a set of guiding principles for the coordinating work of the board and its internal operations.
When Gov. Murray left office, the terms of all the board members, as provided in the law creating the board, lapsed. Gov. Marland, his successor, failed to make any new appointments during his term of office.
State System Formed in 1941, Article XIII-A
In 1939 Gov. Leon C. Phillips named new members and the coordinating board began operation again. The rejuvenated board recommended that a constitutional board be established, and the 1941 Oklahoma Legislature proposed Article XIII-A of the Oklahoma Constitution.
Following legislative approval of the proposed amendment, the Legislature adjourned and a special election was held on March 11, 1941, at which the amendment was adopted, creating the State System and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The Legislature then reconvened and passed the necessary vitalizing legislation, thus creating the present structure of higher education in the state.
With the establishment of the State System, the 1942 Report of the State Coordinating Board noted, "Oklahoma now has the greatest opportunity in its history to chart an intelligent course for higher education on a statewide basis, and to assume a greater leadership throughout the nation than has ever before been possible."
More Recent Developments
No new state colleges were created from 1919 until 1968, when Tulsa Junior College (now Tulsa Community College) was established. In the years from 1939 until 1967 most of the public district junior colleges ceased to exist as a result of lack of students and financial support. One of these institutions, Altus Junior College, was converted into a state college by act of the Legislature in 1969 and became Western Oklahoma State College.
Subsequently, two new community junior colleges were formed – first, Oscar Rose Junior College at Midwest City (now Rose State College) and later, South Oklahoma City Junior College (now Oklahoma City Community College). These two new colleges, along with three of the four surviving district junior colleges, became full-fledged members of the State System by act of the Legislature in 1973. The 1987 Oklahoma Legislature merged the last remaining community junior college, Sayre Junior College, with Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
Another state institution, the Oklahoma College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery (now Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences), was authorized in 1972 by the Oklahoma Legislature and began its first classes in the fall of 1974. In 1988 that institution was merged as a constituent agency under the operation of Oklahoma State University. In 2000, Rogers State College became a four-year university, Rogers State University. In 2021, the Oklahoma Legislature transferred ownership of the University Center of Southern Oklahoma in Ardmore to Murray State College, and the branch campus was named Murray State College Ardmore.In the school year 1939-40, just prior to the creation of the State System, Oklahoma had a total of 38 public institutions of higher education, including 18 state-supported institutions and 20 public district junior colleges, with a total enrollment of less than 27,000 students. For the academic year 2021-22, the number of public institutions was 25, with an enrollment of over 196,000.
*Last updated August 2023.