Bridging the gap between sustainable water management and economic development is the goal of the newly-established Oka’ Institute, housed in Fentem Hall, at East Central University.
With plans underway to expand degree options to include a master’s degree in water policy management, ECU provides a setting that has neutrality and objectivity while also being in the nucleus of multiple well-known water resources and environmental expertise.
“It seems everything just fell into place. The Sciences and Natural Resources Foundation sold some land to the Ada Industrial Development Authority, which donated the money to the East Central University Foundation to begin the water institute,” said ECU President John R. Hargrave. “The ECU Foundation also sold a piece of land that was originally donated by the SNRF to create water research opportunities.”
The Oka’ Institute is being financed totally through outside funding via the ECU Foundation, Inc. Oka’ means water in the Chickasaw and Choctaw languages.
Through a request from the Ada Jobs Foundation, the Ada City Council recently authorized a $1.25 million commitment to the institute, $250,000 per year over a five-year period beginning this fall.
Several factors make ECU a viable site for the institute with the university serving as a federal and state depository library for this area of the state and the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer is the most-studied water resource in the state. That along with the cutting-edge research development of the Chickasaw Nation and the U.S. EPA Robert S. Kerr Research Center, provide a powerhouse of expertise to ensure the success of the Oka’ Institute, according to Susan Paddack, acting director of the institute.
“All these factors lead to ECU being a perfect location for such an institute to create a strong new voice in water policy discussions,” said Paddack. “Ada is the birthplace of Senator Kerr and the Oka’ Institute would continue this proud legacy of being a leader in providing solutions to complex water issues.”
Dr. Guy Sewell, professor and Robert S. Kerr Endowed Chair and executive director of ECU’s Institute for Environmental Science Education and Research, will serve as the director of research for the Oka’ Institute.
Interdisciplinary teams, comprised of water experts, stakeholders, educators and students will work in the institute and develop new methods and practices; propose policy and legal solutions as well as supply educational outreach programs that are focused on addressing local, state, national and global water challenges.
The four strategic goals of the institute are: economic development, research and data collection, information/education and policy development.
With economic development, the Oka’ Institute will develop organizational and business leaders in water policy and management that are focused on entrepreneurial opportunities, which will be an economic driver for the area.
As far as research and data collection are concerned, plans are also to develop the institute’s capacity to engage in water policy and management research that is relevant to the issues facing the state and nation through acquired external funding and recruitment of highly-skilled professionals.
Another goal is to increase the recognition of the institute as a source of information and expertise in the water resources field and to become an identified contributor in the field of professional development, continuing education and public education for water-related issues.
The Oka’ Institute will provide leadership in the development and dissemination of water management and policy information through communication with a broad network of professional contacts around the state and beyond. The institute will use science and consensus building as the foundation for the proposal of policy and practices.
Although the Oka’ Institute is being financed totally though private funding, members of the institute will abide by the university rules and regulations with respect to Oklahoma law, RUSO (Regional University System of Oklahoma) and State Regents policy, as well as ECU policies.
“The institute will be embedded in and integrated with ECU and will be an integral and important part of the university,” Hargrave said.
According to Hargrave, academic programs will initially be separate from the institute.
“This academic program would best serve as a policy program and will be placed in the department of Political Science and Legal Studies,” said Hargrave. “We have applied for and should have final approval soon of the initial water degree at ECU which will result in a master’s degree in water policy and management.”
Hargrave credits Dr. Katricia Pierson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Christine Pappas, professor and coordinator for the Political Science and Legal Studies Department, with providing much of the legwork in helping to establish this academic discipline.