Portrait of OJ Oleka

Q&A

OJ Oleka ’16 MBA/'20 Ph.D., AIKCU President

Spring 2020

 

OJ Oleka ’16 MBA, who completed a Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education at Bellarmine this spring, became the new president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU) on Dec. 1, 2019, succeeding longtime president Gary Cox. Bellarmine is one of the 18 members of AIKCU, the statewide voice for Kentucky’s private, nonprofit, four-year colleges and universities. Until his AIKCU appointment, Oleka was chief of staff for Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball. He is also an appointed member of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. A Frankfort, Ky. native, Oleka earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Louisville, where he was student body president and chair of the Kentucky Board of Student Body Presidents, before coming to Bellarmine for his MBA.

“It was always my desire to run a large enterprise or institution for the betterment of society. I knew pretty early on in my undergraduate career that an MBA would provide me the academic background—not to mention the credibility and tangible credential—to make that goal a reality,” he said. “Bellarmine was attractive to me because of the university-wide focus on using knowledge and skills to uplift communities that have been historically left out of the positive aspects of the American experience."

By Carla Carlton

What led you to higher education?

One insight that I have gained is that is important to have a “big goal” or a “just cause” in life. This will help steer your career in a direction that can bring you joy, rather than only a paycheck. Certainly, getting your full value in salary and compensation is important, but I really wanted to make sure I could live a life that fulfilled what I believed to be my God-given purpose, which is to end generational poverty in the United States. My father came to the United States from Nigeria, where he grew up in extreme poverty. It was his higher education experience here in the United States that changed the trajectory for my family. I came to believe that education, particularly a postsecondary credential, could do that for any person or family in poverty. I also saw, during my time with Teach for America [Oleka taught in an under-resourced public school and later served as a regional recruiter for the nonprofit organization], that in low-income communities, providing a quality education for kids and good careers for adults can really change poverty within a generation. Higher education, and particularly the policies and systems surrounding higher education, is uniquely capable of making those things happen, so I wanted to get involved in a serious way.

What skills did you bring to AIKCU that other candidates might not have had?

In this role, it is extremely important to have great relationships with policymakers at both the state and federal levels, while also having the background of an executive and decision-maker. Due to my experience as chief of staff in Treasurer Allison Ball’s office, I have had years to cultivate those relationships while building my executive management skills. It is equally important to build relationships with our college presidents in order to cast a vision that is commensurate with the needs of our 18 institutions. Given my days in recruitment for Teach for America, I know the profile of a lot of these schools. It is a natural fit for me to work with their leaders to craft a vision for AIKCU in a way that will benefit them, and that is what I’ve begun to do. I’ve hit the ground running.

What are the most pressing issues facing college students in Kentucky?

The two core issues facing Kentucky college students revolve around affordability and access. Many college students and aspiring students see college, especially private college, as unaffordable. In most cases, this is actually a myth. While sticker prices are high, more than 60 percent of students who apply to a private college receive institutional aid (grants, scholarships, etc.) before taking out any loans. Those students, once they graduate, also make, on average, a higher salary than those of us who graduated from a public undergraduate institution. Over a lifetime, students can make a million dollars more than students who get no credential at all. Think about that. Going to college can make you a millionaire! If I told you that you had to pay $30,000 dollars (that's the average amount of student loan debt) and you could be a millionaire during your lifetime, you would probably do it. And you should. It is a great proposition.

Unfortunately, though, many students don't realize they qualify for our schools. Many students, instead of going to a four-year institution that they are academically prepared for, attend community college because they believe it is all they can afford and handle. Community college can work for many students; some students could also flourish at one of our institutions. Research has shown that many students who attend a community college instead of a selective four-year institution end up not finishing, because they do not have the additional support (residential housing, tutoring, etc.) that they may need to get them over the hump. These are issues impacting all Kentuckians. The fewer graduates we have, the less likely we are to get high-paying jobs added to our economy. More highly paid employees could generate, collectively, more taxes to increase revenue for public services. I am committed to working with my colleagues who support public higher education to continue to improve the realities and destroy the myths surrounding affordability and access in postsecondary education in Kentucky. 

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