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Two area legislators received awards Monday [JAN. 9] in recognition of their continued support of higher education.

Dr. Glen D. Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, presented the 2011 Distinguished Service Award to state Rep. Todd Thomsen of Ada and ECU alumnus and state Rep. Wes Hilliard of Sulphur during a ceremony at East Central University.

“These individuals each year, frankly, have distinguished themselves through their courage and leadership (in support of higher education),” Johnson said.

“All of us know the future of our state rests on the ability to develop intellectual capital,” he said, “to provide a workforce for jobs in this state and in a global economy.”

Over the last three decades, he added, the state’s top two priorities have continued to be improving education at all levels and having a game plan for job development.

“Nobody can do that better than we can in higher education,” Johnson said.

The chancellor said 89 percent of the state’s graduates remain in Oklahoma and have jobs one year after graduation. A major reason is because higher education has linked its academic programs to what business says it needs, anywhere from medicine to wind turbines, he said.

Parents and students understand that to succeed, they need a college education, Johnson said, pointing to an increase of 16,000 college students in Oklahoma over just the last five semesters. Despite the growth, budget cuts meant less money to fund higher education.

For the Distinguished Service Award, Johnson cited Thomsen’s efforts last year to secure a one-time supplemental appropriation of $10 million to offset the decrease in state appropriations to higher education and called his efforts as the House author of a bill affecting the Oklahoma Promise free college tuition program “one more time he stood up for our students.”

And during attempts to place all state agencies’ information technology departments under one office, “he helped us make the case higher education should be exempt from the bill,” Johnson said.

He said higher education receives discounts of 25 to 30 percent and by remaining separate saved the state $40 million.

Thomsen, the chair of the Higher Education & Career Tech Committee, said although he doesn’t have a background in higher education, he is willing to listen and take the wisdom the chancellor and others offer.

Hilliard, the assistant minority floor leader, has developed into “a very efficient leader for his district and the state,” Johnson said. Hilliard was a key player in higher education’s effort to clean up a backlog and provide funding for the Endowed Chairs Program which matches donors’ gifts with state funding.

“He took an early stand against the proposed law that would allow carrying guns on college campuses,” Johnson said. “He’s always been there to pick up the torch and carry it.”

Hilliard also was an early supporter of the supplemental appropriation last year for higher education.

“With education, we should always do the right thing,” Hilliard said. “There’s a time for politics and a time for doing the right thing.”

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