Students, staff start anew with ORU
BY SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008
8/18/08 at 11:39 AM
For more: Read the latest ORU stories, view the lawsuit and other documents and watch slide shows and video.
After a year of unrest, ORU has reduced debt and made changes amid renovations.
Students returned late last week to Oral Roberts University, which in the past year lost a president to scandal and saw its legacy tarnished while the community began to question if it would have a future at all.
It is also a university that has seen more than $10 million of renovations during the summer, $2 million in salary increases and has put additional money into advancing technology.
"I think we're moving forward," Interim President Ralph Fagin said. "We have made strides in a number of areas."
The troubles started in October, when three former professors filed a lawsuit against the school and then-president Richard Roberts and his wife, Lindsay. The lawsuits alleged the professors had been fired without cause, and that the Robertses misspent university money to support a luxury home and lavish lifestyle.
What followed was a domino effect of woes. Richard Roberts resigned in November. Two regents resigned soon after, while another lost his voting power. The board of regents was eventually replaced by a board of trustees. Three more lawsuits were filed against the university, by two former students and an accountant. ORU then announced that it was $55 million in debt.
Yukon businessman Mart Green stepped up to offer $70 million to the university, most of it contingent on a new culture of transparency and financial accountability. More donations followed, and the new board promised to adopt a more open, power-shared governing style.
"It's a complete governance makeover," Fagin said. "A lot of people are working hard trying to do the right thing."
The original lawsuit has been refiled, after one professor settled his portion and returned to work at ORU. It is scheduled for a pretrial conference in January. A court hearing for the accountant's case is set for the end of this month.
Fagin said he doesn't think the lawsuits will continue to have much of an effect on the campus atmosphere.
"That doesn't mean we can't look forward to the day when they are successfully resolved." he said.
The university has hired a presidential search consultant, and the search has been narrowed to about 25 applicants. The university has said it will not set a deadline for choosing a new president, but the final three or four contenders will visit campus to be evaluated by the entire community.
The debt is now down to $19 million, in part because of a fundraising campaign that included dollar-to-dollar matching from the trustees.
Fall semester classes began last week amid a climate of hope that the university will emerge from scandal and controversy stronger than ever.
"We are going in the right direction," Fagin said.
'The place I want to be'
When Matthew McAfee started seeing the letters "ORU" amid allegations, lawsuits and scandal on the news, his head reeled.
McAfee, then a senior at Victory Christian School across the street, had decided a few months earlier that ORU was going to be his university. As the news continued to unfold, he asked his mother, "Is this really the place I'm supposed to go to?"
He talked to relatives, friends and ORU students. As he visited campus a few more times, he just knew ORU was still his place, regardless of its struggles. Come spring, it was the only university to receive his application.
"I think everybody was just kind of uneasy," McAfee said. "Nobody knew what was going to happen."
McAfee, a Tulsa native, has been following every development. Resting on a bench near the university's iconic prayer tower Thursday afternoon, he was all smiles about the first day of his college career.
"I absolutely loved it," he said. "I know this is the place I want to be."
McAfee is majoring in international relations. After college, he wants to work in business for a while before entering public office.
ORU is a good fit because it has a strong academic program and is a close-knit campus in the city he loves. McAfee believes ORU is in a good position to rebuild itself and regain a high position in the community, he said.
"I hope everything gets settled as quickly as possible," he said. "And I hope that if there was any wrong done, it will be corrected."
Kerrick Butler, a broadcast journalism senior, never really doubted his return to ORU this fall. The thought entered his mind, but he quickly pushed it aside.
"I said, 'I'm going to stick it out and see,' " he said. "And I'm glad I did."
Nobody in his circle left the university because of the scandal. Most of the students have decided to wait and watch, he said.
As founder of the student senate, Butler was privy to the latest developments in the saga, as well as the latest rumors. He was constantly receiving text message queries and updates. The environment on campus was mostly confusion. Some students thought the Robertses could do no wrong, while others were convinced they had ruined the university, he said.
Butler sought a calmer, middle ground. He didn't think all the allegations were true, but he still thought the university had a lot of recovery ahead.
Green and the remaining administrators met with student leaders to try to reassure them. During chapel last semester, they presented the top 10 reasons to return to ORU.
If this type of communication with students continues, ORU may have it best days ahead of it, Butler said.
Administrators "have to be more open if they expect the students to trust them," he said.
Before the new board of trustees was established, ORU faculty operated under a culture of fear, observers said, and they learned not to speak out against the university or its administration. Now, under the shared governance model, faculty are enabled with a bottom-up power structure, said Ken Weed, ORU chemistry professor and 1986 graduate.
"We are now all charged with accomplishing the mission," he said. "That is very unifying, but it is disconcerting at the same time, because it's a culture change."
As head of tenured faculty, Weed led a meeting that ended in a vote of no-confidence in Richard Roberts nine days before he resigned.
When tenured professor John Swails, chairman of the history, humanities and government department, was fired, faculty members became worried and upset, Weed said.
Swails, who along with professors Tim and Paulita Brooker filed the originally lawsuit against ORU, was fired after handing over the report on the Robertses' alleged misspending of ORU's money when a student found it while backing up a university computer.
"That was really concerning, to dismiss a tenured faculty member," Weed said.
Some faculty members talked about leaving the university in light of the scandals, but none did. When the trustees announced that faculty would be able to choose their own curriculum, set graduation requirements and have a say in how the university is run, professors began to see an opportunity to rebuild ORU, Weed said.
"The old structure wasn't healthy," he said, "and there was a lot of hurt."
The new, freer environment has blazed new trails for faculty members, Weed said.
The presidential search consultant has met with the group, and a few professors were chosen to help design the new presidential profile. The elevators have been de-keyed and administrative offices on the sixth floor have been turned into a faculty lounge. The seventh floor, which used to be entirely off-limits, is open now. The first-ever faculty senate is being formed and professors are reassessing what it means to be a dean or a department chair at ORU, he said.
As faculty began researching university government models, they found ORU is far from the only institution to restructure itself after a failed form of power concentration, Weed said.
"Others have done this before," he said. "We'll survive, and even thrive."
Shannon Muchmore 581-8378
ORU freshman Matthew McAfee (front row, right) sits in his Spanish class at Oral Roberts University on Friday. The Tulsa native plans to major in international relations.JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World
Ralph Fagin:“A lot ofpeople areworkinghard tryingto do theright thing.”
MatthewMcAfee:ORU wasthe onlycollege heapplied to.