Hail to the chief
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.