Q&A with M. Susan Savage ’74, ’00H

By Susan Gettlin | June 21, 2017

My family has a legacy of strong, independent, and largely unconventional women who forged their own paths.

As the first female mayor of Tulsa, Okla., M. Susan Savage ’74, ’00H was named one of Newsweek Magazine’s “25 Mayors to Watch” for her leadership in pursuing issues such as clean air and water, equal employment for minorities and women, and environmental stewardship. Following her tenure as mayor from 1992 to 2002, Savage served as Oklahoma’s Secretary of State from 2003 to 2010, working with the Governor’s Cabinet on legislation that included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act. Throughout her time in politics, Savage was appointed to the President’s Council on Sustainable Developments by President Bill Clinton, authored a section of Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives, and was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. Now, as CEO of Morton Comprehensive Health Services, the largest provider of health services in northeast Oklahoma, she works to provide quality, cost-effective health care to people throughout the region.

Q. Why did you select Beaver College for your degree?

A. As one born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., I was interested in living and studying in a different part of the country. At the time of my college admissions I wanted to pursue teaching and was also enormously attracted to the study abroad opportunities. I purposely chose a liberal arts school because it always seemed to me if one could read, think, write, and speak, one could always learn any subject or a specialty.

Q. What is your best memory about Beaver?

A. Life in 1970 was very different for college- and university-bound students than it is today. There was no virtual learning, travel, texting, or communication. It appealed to me that I would live in an area of the country unknown to me and meet people I had never met. It was costly to travel from Philadelphia to Tulsa, so I only went home at Christmas and year-end, which opened the opportunity to be a guest at the homes of friends. Everything was new and required me to seek new experiences. The opportunity to be a student at Beaver College exposed me to people, places, and experiences that enriched my learning.

Q. How, and why, did you enter politics?

A. I rarely think about my experiences in elected and appointed office as my entrée into politics. Political systems abound in every sector of the economy and within every organization. The opportunities to direct and effect public policy through elected and appointed offices were unique experiences, but they were preceded by community-based work in the not-for-profit sector, both governmental and non-governmental.

Q. Did you feel an undue pressure to perform as the first female mayor of Tulsa?

A. Shortly after I was elected, I was asked, “How does it feel to be a woman mayor?” Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I replied, “The operative part of that question is ‘how does it feel to be a mayor.’ I have been female all of my life.” There is no question that public interest was heightened due to my gender; however, I had worked at a community level for more than a decade when I was elected in 1992 and had developed a reputation that served me well. The privilege of serving as my hometown’s chief elected official, chief executive officer, spokesperson, and face of the community was not something I took lightly. A Native American proverb became an important daily reminder of how tough it can be to lead a city and how essential an inclusive, long-term view to public policy was. To paraphrase: “Every decision should take into account the next seven generations.” 

A woman of my generation was often underestimated and, occasionally, I find that is still the case with women. In my earlier years, condescension directed at me was irritating and even offensive. I now realize most people who underestimate someone different than they do so from a place of ignorance and low expectations, which result from a lack of education and exposure. 

Q. Why did you make education a priority of your time in office? 

A. Education is the foundation for building life in any community. Educational attainment correlates with every other social determinant that impacts people’s lives, whether poverty, poor health, or economic status. Education creates opportunities, enables one to be a critical thinker, and fosters innovation. There is no substitute for education, and government at the federal, state, and local levels should invest in education excellence from preschool, to common education, to higher education. 

Q. You have spoken about how important it is for women to be strong. How have strong women influenced you?

A. My family has a legacy of strong, independent, and largely unconventional women who forged their own paths. My grandmother was a young married woman before she was granted the right to vote as an Oklahoman and US citizen and lived to see her granddaughter elected as Tulsa’s first woman mayor. I have a treasured photograph of her in her 90’s sporting a “Savage for Mayor” button; it is a daily reminder of how recently women have been granted full citizenship under the US Constitution and that of my home state. I know the opportunities I had as Tulsa’s mayor and Oklahoma’s Secretary of State were the result of many women who came before me and on whose shoulders I have stood. It is incumbent upon me to ensure that I forge a path for those who follow, including my daughters and granddaughter, nieces, and all young women.

Q. Why did you transition from politics to the health care industry?

A. I left local elected office after ten years of service, voluntarily. Public office is only one expression of engaging with political systems. I am serving as CEO of a community health center in a state where public officials have chosen not to invest in the health care of its citizens. I am engaged every day in one of the most essential and important public policy issues—providing primary care services to the underserved. There are few issues that have been as politicized as the health care of our citizens at the local, state, or federal level. I am in a key position to advocate and to be a voice for those who are ignored or overlooked by public officials. 

Q. What are your feelings on the current state of health care?

A. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has provided health insurance for millions who had previously not been able to secure coverage. There are many opportunities to improve upon the law and the delivery of services, but my belief is that will not happen in the polarized and toxic political climate that exists in Washington at this time. 

In Oklahoma, nearly 600,000 people are either uninsured or underinsured because the governor and legislature chose not to expand Medicaid under the ACA. This population defers their primary health care needs or seeks services from hospital emergency rooms. Oklahoma’s health outcomes are among the worst in the nation. Oklahoma’s hospitals, especially those in rural areas of the state, are in crisis. Oklahoma’s lack of investment in the health of its citizens is a workforce issue, an economic issue, a community issue, and certainly a quality of life issue. Lack of investment in primary care systems, prevention, wellness, and access to health care have resulted in a sick populace with chronic health conditions—a very costly and long-term problem.

As with any complex policy issue, there must be agreement about goals and priorities. Decision-making based upon data rather than political ideologies or special interests would go a long way to creating a system that serves the weakest among us.

Q. What would you say to today’s college students? 

A. I might ask several questions: Are you registered to vote? Do you vote regularly? How do you engage as a citizen in your community and in your state? What are you doing every day to make a contribution to improve the lives of those in need? 

I have great faith in the educational opportunities that students have, especially when they strive for individual excellence and seek to experience the world beyond what they know. To the extent I presume to offer unsolicited advice, I encourage people at all ages to put themselves in an arena with people who are vastly different and learn to see the world from their perspective. Listen more than talk. Ask questions and evaluate. Understand that you are part of a community—local and global—and engage. Use your mind and your talents in deliberate, intentional ways.