Hail to the chief

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - BY PAULA BURKES Busi­ness Writer pburkes@oklahoman.com

On July 1, Martha Burger will be­come the first woman pres­i­dent of Ok­la­homa City Univer­sity.

Martha Burger de­liv­ered the com­mence­ment ad­dress at Ok­la­homa City Univer­sity last week­end, upon the in­vi­ta­tion of OCU Pres­i­dent Robert Henry.

Her mes­sage to grad­u­ates?

“Try some­thing that doesn’t seem easy and you’re a lit­tle bit ner­vous about. You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen if you‘re just open to things.”

Burger, as OCU pres­i­dent des­ig­nate, didn’t have to look far for her in­spi­ra­tion.

A re­tired ex­ec­u­tive of the en­ergy in­dus­try, she ini­tially balked at the higher ed­u­ca­tion job and even agreed to serve on the search com­mit­tee, but peo­ple kept nom­i­nat­ing her, she said.

“I re­al­ized I could re­tire again later, and un­til then I want to do all I can to help this place I love so much,” Burger said. Her de­ci­sion to ac­cept the po­si­tion "was al­most spir­i­tual.”

As pres­i­dent, Burger, 65, will over­see 200 full­time fac­ulty mem­bers, 125 ad­junct pro­fes­sors, and 350 staff mem­bers who serve some 1,800 un­der­grad­u­ate and 600 grad­u­ate stu­dents.

From the ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing on the OCU cam­pus, she re­cently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her life and ca­reer. This is an edited tran­script: Q: Tell us about your roots.

A: I grew up in Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware, which is 15 min­utes from Philadel­phia and a train ride away from Bal­ti­more. My fa­ther was a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer and my mom was a house­wife and full-time mom to me and my sis­ter, who’s five years older. In school, I was all about my friends and cheer­lead­ing. The Univer­sity of Delaware was ex­pen­sive and hard to get into, so it was cus­tom­ary for Delaware res­i­dents to go away to col­lege. I chose the Univer­sity of Mis­souri, be­cause I thought I wanted to go into jour­nal­ism be­fore I re­al­ized I didn’t write so well. Af­ter two years at Miz­zou, an old boyfriend and I trans­ferred to Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity, where he pur­sued a ho­tel and restau­rant de­gree and I pur­sued med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy. I was com­plet­ing my in­tern­ship at a lab at Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal in Ok­la­homa City when I be­gan sec­ond-guess­ing my ca­reer choice. That’s when I took night classes in ac­count­ing at UCO, loved them, and de­cided ac­count­ing was a more prac­ti­cal and lu­cra­tive ca­reer choice. Through cam­pus in­ter­views, I was hired by Arthur An­der­sen & Co., where I worked the first two years af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Q: You worked some 30 years with oil and gas firms, in­clud­ing nearly 20 with Ch­e­sa­peake En­ergy Corp. What led you into the en­ergy in­dus­try?

A: Arthur An­der­sen as­signed me to the sec­tor and, as is com­mon, one of our clients hired me away. I worked for Phoenix Re­source Cos. Inc. from 1985 to 1989 and then Had­son Corp., from 1989 to 1994. Had­son re­lo­cated to Dal­las. I com­muted for a time, but then started do­ing con­tract work for Ch­e­sa­peake En­ergy, which I joined in 1994. Then, Ch­e­sa­peake had fewer than 100 em­ploy­ees. It was a great op­por­tu­nity to be a part of the com­pany’s growth and see how the late Aubrey McClen­don, Ch­e­sa­peake’s founder and vi­sion­ary, worked up close. I ad­vanced to trea­surer and, for my last 13 years, served as se­nior vice pres­i­dent of hu­man and cor­po­rate re­sources. That was a fab­u­lous op­por­tu­nity to be in­volved in com­mu­nity re­la­tions and build the Ch­e­sa­peake cul­ture, with its on-site restau­rants, fit­ness cen­ter and day care. Ch­e­sa­peake’s new lead­er­ship ter­mi­nated me and much of the se­nior lead­er­ship in 2013. Though I was 60, I never thought I’d end my ca­reer that way. Aubrey’s sub­se­quent ac­ci­den­tal death in 2016 left a hole in my heart and in the hearts of so many across our city and state. Aubrey would’ve been among the first peo­ple to en­cour­age me to ac­cept this new op­por­tu­nity as OCU pres­i­dent. I can hear his voice in my ear now, cheer­ing me on.

Q: What’s been your af­fil­i­a­tion with OCU thus far?

A: I earned my MBA from OCU in 1992. That’s when the col­lege of­fered night classes at the Sher­a­ton down­town, and I worked for a com­pany that of­fered tu­ition re­im­burse­ment. I fig­ured I couldn’t miss the op­por­tu­nity. I've been in­volved with the an­nual OCU women's lead­er­ship con­fer­ence since its in­cep­tion nine years ago. And for the past 10 years, I’ve served as an OCU trus­tee, in­clud­ing chair­ing the au­dit and fi­nance com­mit­tee. Among other things, I had the plea­sure of trav­el­ing as a trus­tee to Sin­ga­pore, where OCU has a mar­ket­ing pro­gram.

Q: On July 1, you’ll be­come the first woman pres­i­dent of OCU since the school was es­tab­lished in 1904, suc­ceed­ing Robert Henry, who will have served eight years. What do you think about that?

A: Hav­ing worked 30 years as a fe­male in the male-dom­i­nated en­ergy in­dus­try, I didn’t think much about it ini­tially. But sit­ting in this con­fer­ence room with por­traits of my male pre­de­ces­sors, I get how im­por­tant it is. Sim­i­larly, girls sports to­day is noth­ing like when I grew up. I re­cently at­tended an OCU women’s soft­ball game and was thrilled to re­al­ize how far women have come. Men would’ve been hard put to re­turn some of those pitches.

Q: What do you think OCU’s fo­cus will be dur­ing your pres­i­dency?

A: I think we’ll con­tinue to iden­tify op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­spond to busi­ness and in­dus­try. We now have a pro­gram for physi­cian as­sis­tants and are work­ing on an ac­cred­ited process for oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists. An­other area that’s grow­ing and ripe with op­por­tu­nity is the aero­space in­dus­try and de­fense con­tract­ing.

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