By NATALIE SACKET
One decade ago, when Northwestern Oklahoma State University needed a new leader, the right man for the job was a woman.
July 1, 2016, Dr. Janet Cunningham will reach her 10 year anniversary as president of Northwestern. She is the first woman to ever be named president of the university.
Her legacy as a Ranger began long before her presidency, however, as she first attended Northwestern as a student in 1973. A business education major, Cunningham was active in Phi Beta Lambda and in the business and financial aid offices as a student worker.
For Cunningham, one should take great pride in being a Ranger.
“I go back to the pioneering spirit of how the school started,” Cunningham said. “When people in this part of the state said ‘we want higher education, we deserve higher education, and we’re willing to go put money into it and fight for it.’ To me, that’s pretty amazing. I think we continue to represent that spirit.”
Cunningham has served many leadership roles at Northwestern. She was a professor from 1979 to 1985, after which she taught at the University of Oklahoma while her husband, Rick Cunningham, attended law school. She returned to Northwestern in 1988. She served as the vice president for fiscal affairs for twelve years, after which she became the executive vice president in 2002. Four years later, she would become the president of Northwestern.
Many people admire Cunningham for her exceptional leadership qualities. For Cunningham, a good leader should possess three main qualities: integrity, empathy and vision.
“I admire that in other leaders,” Cunningham said. “I hope to see that in myself as well.”
When Cunningham became president, her focus was on instilling a sense of pride in the university.
“I think people know we have a great institution, but sometimes that can be taken for granted,” Cunningham said.
In her first six months, she aided in bolstering the campaign, “ride with pride.”
In reflecting on her decade of service, Cunningham said she hopes to have achieved that goal. She said she feels confident that excellent accreditation visits, for the university as a whole as well as with specialty programs, have provided external, positive feedback.
The advancements of Northwestern under Cunningham’s leadership serve as proof of her positive influence. In her time as president, the university has shifted to NCAA, developed a new doctorate of nursing practice and added new programs.
Cunningham still has several goals for Northwestern, the first of which being conquering the current budget situation facing higher education. She said this might be the biggest challenge she’s faced in her service as president.
“Really, after almost forty years in higher education, this has been the most serious financial situation I’ve seen,” Cunningham said. “I’m confident we’ll make it through, but it takes an inordinate amount of time, and it takes some very serious decisions to make sure we’re minimizing the impact on students while still maintaining a high quality of education.”
Aside from the budget situation, Cunningham also hopes to achieve some goals regarding fundraising and capital projects, including renovations of the mall area and Herod Hall auditorium.
“I will do all that I can do, and then it will be passed on to the next to accomplish those projects if I’m not able to,” she said. “I think that’s what’s so great about being at a university. There are always things to do.”
For Cunningham, being a Ranger is a lifelong tradition, one she has exemplified.
“I have spent most of my life as a Ranger, definitely more years than not,” she said. “Being from Alva, the university has literally been a part of my life since I was born.”
She recognized as a student in high school that she belonged in higher education.
“I fell in love with being at a higher education institution,” Cunningham said. “Education was just so important to me. That’s an arena that I thought, ‘this is where I want to be.’”
Many people, including past students, faculty and staff, have said they look up to “Dr. C” as a role model. When asked who she considers to be a role model for herself, Cunningham referred to the three Northwestern presidents she has served under.
“I learned a lot from each of them,” Cunningham said. “Dr. Struckle was a long term president, and I learned from him that there are battles worth fighting for, but you have to choose those carefully. Dr. McDaniel was the most wonderful people person. He had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the room; some people just have that gift. Dr. Beran had the language and technology of higher education, and I learned that from him.”
Her compassion and consideration of others is easily apparent. When attending a Northwestern event, it is likely you will see Cunningham somewhere in the crowd. She attends a majority of Northwestern activities, whether it be an athletic event, choir or band concert, theater production or student government activity.
When asked what her favorite part of her job is, Cunningham quickly responded with one word: “students.”
“People often comment that I attend a lot of student events, often in a questioning way,” Cunningham said. “To me, that is the absolute best part of my job, and I don’t even look at that as part of the job. That’s the fun part. That’s where I can just enjoy what our students are accomplishing.”
Cunningham’s leadership has had an extremely positive impact on Northwestern in the past decade, but for her, the time has flown by.
“It’s amazing to me to think it’s been 10 years,” she said.