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Episode 60: Living the Cowboy Code - President Kayse Shrum

On April 2, 2021, the OSU/A&M Board of Regents selected Dr. Kayse Shrum as the 19th president of Oklahoma State University. A native Oklahoman, President Shrum earned her doctor of osteopathic medicine degree from the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and has completed executive leadership and management training programs at Harvard University and Stanford University.

Since taking office in July 2021, Dr. Shrum has forged a new chapter for OSU — boldly facing challenges like conference realignment and COVID-19 while positioning the university for future success by embarking on a strategic planning process. The systemwide strategy process will guide the future of OSU and secure its position as the nation’s premier land-grant university — with a focus on creating and discovering solutions to societal problems, providing students with a world-class education and sending them into the world after graduation well-equipped to handle the challenges before them. 

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As a doctor, you’re not very theatrical. You’re kind of calm. I mean, you don’t want to get too excited or animated in an exam room. It scares people. And so, you’re just trained to be really calm. It was totally different for me in kind of learning how to use your voice and use your hands. 

Welcome or welcome back to the Speak with Presence podcast. This is where perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. I’m Jen Vellenga. I’m here with my co-host, Jennifer Rettele Thomas. We’re the co-founders of Voice First World, a communication coaching company.

While you’re listening and checking out the show notes for today’s guest, take a moment to rate and review the Speak with Presence podcast. It really helps people just like you find us. This is episode 60 with President Kayse Shrum from Oklahoma State University. Where are we today, JRT? Well, today, for those of you that follow us, we spend a lot of time in Oklahoma City, but today we took a little turn a little early, headed south on 35, and we are in Stillwater. More specifically, we are on the campus of Oklahoma State University in the president’s office.

Jen V, we are in the president’s office. We’re with a powerful woman, a medical doctor, and a mother of six grown children. And what more do we know about President Kayse Shrum, JRT? Let me tell you a little bit. As the first woman to lead Oklahoma State University, she has overcome barriers throughout her professional career. 

She led the OSU Center for Health Sciences and was the youngest and first female president and dean of the medical school in the state of Oklahoma. She is a native Oklahoman and is passionate about rural health, and she even established the first tribally affiliated medical school in the U.S. at the Cherokee Nation.

President Shrum, welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. Well, thank you, and welcome to Stillwater. Oh, we love it. We love it already. Where would you say we had dinner last night? Oh, the Rancher’s Club. We did not. Oh, one more guess. Eskimo Joe’s. Thank you very much. Cheese fries.

Well, we don’t want to go there. All right. We’ll talk about that after we stop the taping today. Well, I wanted to start out by asking as we watched virtually just this very week, you and other powerful women on your leadership team. You spoke for OSU’s International Women’s Day panel. And I would like to know why you feel like now is the best time for students to attend Oklahoma State? 

Because I heard you talking about something that higher ed is in this place that some people think it’s not important anymore. And so, why is now the best time? Yeah, I mean, that is something that I spoke about was what are the challenges facing higher education, and I think we really have an opportunity here at Oklahoma State University to shine.

I mean, there’s a lot of excitement around the campus, a lot of new things happening, and, you know, we have amazing academic programs. State-of-the-art facilities. Almost every college has a new academic building. Our new Ferguson College has an Ag Hall that’s under construction. ENDEAVOR is a lab that’s here on campus. The Greenwood School of Music. I mean, I could go on and on about those places. I think what’s really unique about Oklahoma State is that as a land-grant university, we are set aside in a unique way from other academic institutions. And that’s because of our land-grant mission and why we were created.

And because of that, we have this opportunity to be relevant in society today. We were created to extend access for new generations and to create leaders who are individual leaders, better — working towards a common good for society. Our research is really focused on solving society’s most pressing challenges and serving the people that we serve as economic engines, and so because of that we’re really focused on it. I think there’s so much momentum here.

In addition to that, I like to talk about how we come together as what we commonly say is the Cowboy Family. And what brings us together is we try to live by a Cowboy Code. That honestly creates this environment that is really special here in Stillwater and is unique. And so you get this great education in an environment that is, I think, only found here.

 Oklahoma’s so lucky to have that, and a land-grant institution is important and it brings access to all, and I really appreciate you saying that. We were in the student union, and we felt that vibrancy of that Cowboy Family, so it’s a real thing. Yes, I mean, when I talk about land grants, I think people don’t necessarily always know what the difference is.

 So any university that does research, they do teaching and research. But it is that service and extension mission that you can feel that’s different in a land grant. So the idea that what we do needs to serve society and all that we do and that our extension is really about making good communities great.  And we do that through the individual students we have here, through our research and addressing the greatest needs that we have in society and really listening to our communities.

 Not being the university that says we have all the answers, but really partnering and listening and allowing that to drive what we do is so important for the future. Yeah. I appreciate that definition because not everybody knows it. As Jen and I were visiting campus today, as you said, Jen, the vibrancy to see the students, see the collaboration, and the reality is, there’s some universities struggling, right?

 And that some of that vibrancy and when you come on campus, just not feeling the same energy. So I’m curious. Less enrollment, really. When it comes down to it, we’re seeing a lot of universities with less enrollment, but that’s not the case here. No. And so, how much do you believe that Cowboy Way and what you just said has really helped. You build in a time where other universities are struggling.

 Well, I do think that makes a difference. You know, last fall was our largest freshman class in history. We’re on track to be even larger next year than this year with our freshman class. And we’re really excited about that. And I do think there is that relevance of land grants.

 And I think for a long time, maybe land-grant universities pulled away from that. We looked at, you know, how we define excellence in a different way and comparing ourselves to other universities. And what we’ve really said in our strategy, and we were really focused on this, is to say, we want to define what a preeminent land-grant university is.

 And that is not by our rankings. That is, we measure that by how we serve the people that we serve. And if we serve our populations well, if we serve our students, if we serve our state and our world through what we do, that, to me, is preeminent, and that sets us on a course that’s different from everyone else.

 I’m a big believer that if you do the right thing for the right reasons, outcomes tend to happen. I’m not saying we’re not paying attention to rankings. I just believe that if we do the right things in serving the people that we serve, the rankings take care of themselves. I’m not a believer in chasing rankings.

I think we define what preeminent means. It’s very unusual. We’d like to say ding, ding, ding. We need something right now. Ding, ding. It’s very unusual. And I’m just going to say, I think it’s a woman’s touch. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I’m sure there’s men doing amazing things like that, too, but I’m just going to believe that.

Well, thank you. We believe I think that people are looking for something. And it’s not really about convincing them you’re relevant. It’s just about going forward and being relevant. And that will attract people, and I think they feel that excitement, and it’s something different. I really do believe — I mean, you know, my children are around the same age as our students.

So, I believe that generation and I believe, you know, future generations, want to really connect with something larger than themselves. And when we can say this is what you get with a degree here at Oklahoma State University. We want to make sure that you leave here with more than just a degree, and so that is a part of our strategy as well.  Saying we want when I was at the medical school, I knew that we had the best medical students sitting in our classroom, but when they graduate, they’re doctors, and they’re caring for patients.

And we wanted to make sure that they had certain competencies and that when they graduated from OSU’s medical school, we could say, we know that when they go out, they’re going to represent, the way we’ve taught them to care for patients, too. So part of what we’ve said in our strategy is we want our students here to graduate with certain competencies. So we’ve said we want them to be ethical leaders, we want them to be engaged citizens, we want them to be prepared to go into a profession, and then we want them to be personally responsible.

Things like making sure everyone has a personal financial course. Because how many of us know people whose career got off track because they weren’t personally financially responsible, and that changes what you have to do in your life instead of pursuing a career if that happens to you. You know, thinking about ethical leadership, we want that, right? 

And today, there’s… I think nothing more important for us to be able to do is to teach students how to be engaged citizens. How to really look at civil discourse, how to have a voice, but to do it in a way that encourages everyone to share their voice. And so, we’re really rethinking, you know, how we make sure that our students have the opportunity I did to gain these competencies, and we’re actually working with them with some of the big employers to say, how do you want this to look? And through our strategy process, we actually talk to a lot of people to say, what do you want in an employee? And so that’s what we want to help our students achieve.

Yeah, you’re reverse-engineering it. It’s a great idea of being forward thinking and what we need out in the world right now, and we might as well ask the people that are hiring. Yes. And we’ve had great responses. And really, we’ve talked to a lot of people who actually hire our graduates and say, you know, what do you think we do really well?

Because you know, you don’t ever want to take away what you’re doing really well. And then, what could we do better? We really took that feedback to try to really put together what it is that we want. We’re also, our faculty are looking at our general education requirements. One of the things that are common in our general education, or in our feedback sessions, people would say a lot.

I think students should; if you have a well-rounded student, they should take courses and learn outside of their major. Because typically students just get in their major, but we don’t want to add time for them to graduate or increase our costs. So, what we’ve said is, how can we take those general education requirements and structure them in a way that, you know, they’re learning around something. 

So even if it was, you know, and the faculty are still working on this. So I’m just talking, in generalities.  But say it’s around clean water, and that’s a pathway clean water around the world. So your English courses are focused on that. You get to learn all about that. There’s some commonality in your general education courses because how many times have we heard people say, I just have to get through these courses to do what I want, right? And we don’t want, you know, instead of saying, well, we want every student to have a minor. Instead, we can say, why don’t you focus on some area that’s of interest to you that makes you a good global citizen at the same time and embed some of these competencies within our general education requirements.

I just want to say congratulations to you because I know of several universities that have worked years through committees Trying to get a one, two, or three-hour course in personal financial planning and just personal financial because of the issue as a person that my background was more on the human ecology, human sciences side I had an appreciation for the value of what home economics brought, you know, some of those things that aren’t being taught in the school systems anymore.

And we’re going off to college, and we don’t have those basic principles and to hear you, I’m sure it took some time to make some of these things happen, but it’s some of those life course skills. That’s so important. And if I want to do another plug, do you mind if I do another plug for you? I don’t know if you’ll do this or not. 

I think a basic requirement of all students should be one class in theater. Yes. That is good. Well, it’s funny because, okay, she’s on this kick because, you know, my BFA and MFA are theater. And, she’s always like, everyone needs a theater degree; you learn so many skills in collaboration. Yes, you do.

But on the other end, I’m a person from theater who started a business. So, where were my business classes? I mean, you never know where life is going to take you and why, you know? I think theater majors now should have business classes. I think they mostly do anymore. But yeah, communications, for sure. It is interesting how, you know, I was trying to explain my path from pediatrician to university presidency, so life just kind of tends to take you in a direction, and so yeah, there are lots of things that are just general skills that we think are so good for students. And yeah, I think about that from the perspective of public speaking.

Yes. And I told the students, you know, they’re not on the panel; that was like my biggest fear. Please tell us the story. We were dying for you to tell the story. So, yes. So, that was something, I mean, from the time I was little, I had this fear. It was really about people looking at me, you know. If someone was looking at me, I would get behind my mom. I cried every time somebody pulled out a camera. If we went to get pictures made and the photographer was looking happy, I would be crying.

I mean, my mother doesn’t have any good pictures of me where my face isn’t red. You’re that kid. Yes, or my dad isn’t gripping me underneath, you know, my little dress. So we get in college, you know, you have this requirement for speech, and I thought, I can’t do it. So one of my friends and I, we truly, and this was back when you couldn’t just get online and see your courses.  You had to go through the catalog, and you had to ask people. We were looking for the smallest, what we thought would be the smallest speech class with the oldest people. And so, the oldest professors, no oldest, like, well, we would say oldest people in class, but it was really like, you know, people that were going part-time.

They were coming back to school. Oh my goodness, I mean they could have been 25 or 30 for that matter at that time. You know, old, old. I mean if they were my current age, they’d have been really old. The funny part is I didn’t share at the end of that it kind of backfired because we get in class, you know, and it’s like she and I and maybe seven other older people in the class, which worked out great because it was a night class and it was a weird hour that college kids were not going to take.

That’s where those continuing education students go. And we knew it. We knew it. So the very first day, it was like, everybody’s going to stand up and just give a talk about who they are, what they like, whatever. And so I’m like, I’m not going first; I’ll just sit here because one of these people is going to jump up. 

There was a pastor in that class, and he was the first one that got up and gave his speech, and I was like, oh, this is bad. So, on his way back to the desk, I was like, please pray for us. Because we’re in here because we’re terrible, and we don’t want to do this, and we’re dying right now on the inside.  Anyway, it ended up being good, and it was small, and we made it through. But, I mean, I guess I got off on that to say, you know, even in public speaking, it took me a while to be able to get over that. Even as a dean that was one of the things when I became the Dean of the Medical School that I was like, oh, I’m terrible at public speaking.

That is something that I always share because I tell people all the time just embrace whatever it is. If you think you’re not good, just tell people that because it’s so freeing because you’re trying to hide it. That’s really what you’re doing, and you shouldn’t hide it. You should just say and, like the very first time I spoke, someone told me, well, so and so made a snarky comment about how you speak. And it really hurt my feelings.

It was another female that said it, and the other female told me, and I think the female that told me was like to get in my good graces and to make me not like the other person. But in that moment, I was like, this really bothers me, and why is that? It’s because, you know. I feel like she just said something about me that I’m already sensitive about.

And so from that point on, I was like, well, yeah, I am, and I’m just going to get better at it. So what? You know, I mean, you can either shy away from it, or you can just claim it. And honestly, once you claim it, what are they going to say about you? I love that you say claim it because we tell our clients all the time; name things because if you’re sitting there in front in a conference room, you’re in front of people, and they’re all looking at you going, I think she seems really nervous.

And you say, you’re probably noticing that I’m really nervous. I am. I don’t love public speaking, but here I am. And then they relax, and they go, oh, I don’t have to judge or wonder, have all these questions in my head because you just told me what I’m noticing. Yes. And they also then are like, oh, don’t, you know, don’t be nervous. 

Everybody, you know, people are always very reassuring when you just claim whatever it is. And then, you know, after that, the people that, I mean, I would just… like, there were people that were on TV previously, and I would just tell them, I don’t know how to be real, and as a, you know, as a doctor, you’re not very theatrical, you’re kind of pretty calm, I mean, you don’t want to get too excited or, you know, animated in an exam room, it scares people, and so you’re just trained to be really calm, and so it was totally different for me, and kind of learning how to, use your voice and use your hands.

I remember one time someone said to me, she said, because I mean, after that, I was just like, tell me what I’m doing. I want to get better. It’s just like growing up playing softball. I mean, the coach would tell me when you work on this, you work on it to get better. This is no different. So, I was speaking, and she came, she said, okay. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. And I’m like, what? And she goes, every time you get behind a podium, you look like you’re paralyzed from the neck down. She’s like, why are your hands hanging to your side? I’m, like, very common. I don’t know. I mean, because I don’t know. I was just standing back. She’s like, use your hands and connect with people.

And I was like, Oh, okay. So then I’d have to think about it. But I got, I don’t know. It’s like you think something’s between you and the other people. So suddenly, you feel like you got to keep your hands down. But I don’t know. That’s just, I think, you know, embrace it, and you get better that way. Yes. Yes. So, I’d love to know how you maintain confidence when you have to make decisions about challenging issues.

Well, you know, I think very early on in my medical career, I always go back to, you know, when you’re a resident, and you’re in training, so, you know, you have an attending physician who supervises everything you do. And so it’s like, you start over that three years’ time feeling like, I know everything.

I got this down. I’m good. Because you kind of have a safety. It’s like walking a tightrope with a safety net, you know? You’re not worried about it because you’re not going to fall. You gain this confidence, and then you graduate, and the very first day in your office and you get something challenging, you’re like, oh, there’s nobody to like run this by, and sometimes it’s life and death.

You know, I learned right in that moment to say, okay, I’ve trained for seven years for this. It is about what I always do. I try to collect as much information as I can to make the right decision in the moment. So sometimes it’s even, you know, reaching out to people who may have a differing opinion because that’s kind of how I challenge my own thought process to make sure that maybe they’re saying something to me that I didn’t think of in this decision-making process.

And once I feel like I have all the information that I need, then I feel pretty confident in that decision. And am I always going to be right? No, but I’m always going to try to make the best decision for the greatest good and for the organization. And I always know that I have gone through a process, and I have listened.

Good decisions start with listening. And so with that, I have learned that there’s been times like early in my career where I felt like I knew the writing and, you know, this is what I wanted to do. But I let somebody else convince me that it wasn’t.

And then, when things didn’t go well, I had to defend somebody else’s decision. And right then, I learned if I’m going to be defending something, I want to defend my own decision. Because as a leader, you don’t get to say, well, that was so and so’s idea, right? It must become your idea. And if you are uncomfortable with it in the first place, so to me, it’s like when I make a decision, I am going to stick by it.  And even if it isn’t, you know, even if the outcome isn’t where I anticipated that it should be, I at least can say, this is why I did these things. And this is why I thought that it was in the best interest of X, Y, or Z. And I think when you can go through that process, and you feel like, I’ve been thoughtful, I’ve listened to both sides.

I’ve collected the information that I need, and I made a decision. Then I think you can maintain that confidence. And to me, that kind of goes back to training as a physician. Sometimes, you only have a certain amount of time to gather information, and you need to know what’s the key information to get the critical information.

And make the best decision in that moment. And when you do that, I think, you know, once you’ve done that, you own it. And so, my whole career, I’ve owned the decisions that I’ve made. And I think once you get comfortable knowing that, or when you know that you’re going to be the one owning it. You figure out your process of saying this is how I want to go through that.

And so, that’s how I maintain the confidence and you know. The other thing I always say is surround yourself with people smarter than you. Makes you look good. And… honestly, they pick up, you know, they will pick up on things. If you do that, they may see something that you did not see and share that with you.

And that helps you to make the best decision possible. Such an important skill for a leader of any kind, but especially a university president. What’s some advice you can give to young girls who want to follow in your footsteps? Yes, well, something that I always, I tell all of our students, and any student really I have the opportunity to engage with. I always tell them that if your dreams don’t make you a little uncomfortable, then your dreams aren’t big enough because we grow when we’re outside our comfort zone.

So first I will tell them, dream big and don’t, don’t hold back because you’re afraid to tell somebody what that dream is. I also try to tell people to think about what fulfills you. If you’re fulfilled by, for me, it’s making an impact and helping people. So you would want to make sure that whatever it is you’re aspiring to, to be is, is going to be fulfilling to you.

Or even if you’re successful, you’re going to feel empty. And that happens a lot. So, you know, I tell them, set your dreams big, understand what fulfills you, know what your value system is. Know what your values are and what you hold dear because, as a leader, that’s what you have to set your foundation on every day. If something becomes outside of your values and I tell them, I’ve always looked at these are the things that fulfill me.

These are my values, and I looked for opportunities that match up with that and not to pass up opportunities until you feel like you’re ready. So you find the right one, and if it interests you, take it because you’ll never feel like you’re ready. You grow into those roles. And I think if you’re very introspective and you have, if you know those things going in, you can grow in the process of doing it and being in those roles 

And then, you know, when you know who you are and what you want, you can feel confident in those leadership roles because it is lonely sometimes, for sure, and, you know, you have to be confident in yourself and then don’t let people tell you what you can be, right? It, just because you have not, you know, if you haven’t seen a female in that role, or you’ve never been exposed to that, seek out people who can really mentor you.

But I always say, don’t let people tell you what you can be or what you can’t do. I think that’s always been something for me personally that really, you know, probably fuels me a little bit is when someone says, you know, you can’t do that. And then I just think. Well, that’s nice. Watch me. And I think that, you know, and I don’t say it.

I just think it because the best way to set aside doubt. Or those that are kind of the naysayers is success. So just put your head down and work. And, you know, that’s kind of the advice that I give to them is that there are always going to be people who say you can’t do it. Because there are people probably not out there doing it.

Go do it. And pretty soon, they can’t say that anymore. So it’s just determination and hard work wins most of the time. And that is an example of the Cowboy Code. And if you want to know how to live the Cowboy Code, there’s a way to do that easily online. Can you tell us about it? Yes, so we, I do a series, and interview people, it’s called Living the Cowboy Code.

And it, we take each of those, you know, pieces of the code and interview someone who actually is living that out. And that’s on Inside OSU. And really, again, that’s the value system that we try to say as a campus family, as an OSU family that bonds us together. Can’t wait to learn all of those, hear all of those interviews.

We are so appreciative of your time. We know how busy you are and how valuable it is for you to spend this much time with us. We just appreciate having you be on our podcast so much. Thank you. Yes, thank you both. We will be back in Oklahoma in just a few weeks. Right after this episode releases, we will be going to the LeadHERBoard Luminary Series, where we are sponsors.

And this is important to know because Wendy Doyle from United WE in Kansas City, where we’re located, is the featured speaker. The discussion with Wendy Doyle is going to be moderated by AJ Griffin, who is Oklahoma’s own powerhouse. She is a powerhouse, and she’s an advocate for women. She has served in our legislature and in advocacy roles for many, many years. 

She’s moderating with Wendy Doyle and United WE is the organization that partners with a lot of states around research and policy for the status of women in certain states.  Oklahoma State University is the university that’s worked on the research piece with United WE to learn about how women are doing in the state of Oklahoma.

Wendy Doyle will be at that event in Oklahoma City with LeadHERboard. Go to the website, and you can learn more about the Luminary Series and Wendy Doyle and the research they’ve done on the status of women in Oklahoma. Sorry, we have to say goodbye, but we’ll see you again.

Absolutely. Thank you for sharing your voice and your wisdom with our leaders because, as we all know, people see themselves through the story of others. Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Thanks for listening to the Speak with Presence podcast. If you or your team need to gain speaking presence or build communication skills without being perfect, I can get you there. I use actor training tools but revamped for the professional, so don’t be nervous. Go to to book a free call.

Until next time, JRT and I are wishing you a great week. I have to say, I mean, the three of us look really great in orange. Yes. We’ll give William and Lauren a little plug, yes. Yes. Shout out. Great job with the orange. Yes. We love you, Lauren. Yes.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL