TULSA — Oral Roberts University now faces a schism that threatens to further divide the university as it attempts to serve more than 5,700 students enrolled there. The university's regents — led by a man who once said the Lord told him to do anything President Richard Roberts told him to — are being asked to make a monumental choice: Do they banish Roberts, despite founder and Chancellor Oral Roberts' plea to give his son a second chance, or bring the embattled president back and risk alienating an administration and faculty increasingly unsupportive of him? This week, a faction of the ORU faculty and administration delivered the first blows in a battle to wrestle control away from the Roberts family for the first time in ORU's 42-year history. Tenured faculty voted no confidence in Richard Roberts, and Provost Mark Lewandoswki wrote a letter to regents saying he would resign if Roberts returns as president from a leave of absence.Comments
"It's become more divisive.
It's starting to tire me down.”
Sam Dyk, ORU junior business student
Reaction from studentsAs the rift worsens, ORU students try to remain focused on education but are choosing sides in the debate over control of the interdenominational university. They circulated petitions before and after a Friday chapel service, asking peers to support either Richard Roberts or the faculty and staff. "It's become more divisive,” said Sam Dyk, a junior business student at ORU. "It's starting to tire me down.” Dyk said this week's developments prompted the student body to feel less fear when discussing the situation publicly. He also said some students, including him, are considering transferring because they don't want a "tainted” degree. "It's been a crazy last month,” Dyk said. "Some people just focus on their studies so they don't have to think about it.” Roberts took his leave after three former professors sued him, ORU and others last month. The suit claims they were wrongfully fired for questioning his political motives and for giving regents a report they obtained that alleged his family abused university resources to live a ritzy lifestyle littered with moral and ethical misconduct.
Where do loyalties lie?When George Pearsons accepted the position of chairman of the ORU regents in May, he said in an address to the board: "I am standing here today because the Lord clearly spoke to me and said, ‘Do whatever Richard Roberts asks you to do,'” according to a copy of the address. Pearsons is the son-in-law of Kenneth Copeland, a televangelist and ORU regent. Pearsons said in the address that the "covenant” between the Roberts and Copeland families also contributed to his decision to accept the chairman position. He said the "families are forever connected.” Holding the Roberts in such high regard is typical of many ORU regents, particularly the other ministers and televangelists serving on the board, the president of a religious watchdog group said. "They all, in essence, pay obeisance to Oral. They all almost bow down in Oral's presence,” said Ole Anthony, president and co-founder of Trinity Foundation, which has investigated religious organizations, including ORU, for decades. But after the lawsuit was filed and regents initiated an outside review of the claims, Pearsons' stance appeared to change. Pearsons recently said "the buck stops with the board” when it comes to Richard Roberts' future at ORU. He has maintained that stance, despite the Roberts' public claims of innocence and Oral Roberts' vow that his son would return to power.
‘Dose of new blood'Anthony suggested that the Roberts family and the evangelicals serving as regents should share equal blame for the university's troubles. "They could use a good dose of new blood,” Anthony said. "It just needs to be run with more academic integrity and financial responsibility. ... I'm pleased that all the students and the faculty are trying to get their university back.” Through an ORU spokesman, Pearsons declined to be interviewed for this article. Other universities have faced similar leadership turmoil, but experts said the Oral Roberts University situation is unique because of Oral and Richard Roberts' national reputation and the significant debt — more than $50 million — the university faces. "There are places where there has been such fighting over leadership that it has ripped the place apart,” said Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication based in Washington, D.C. Most of those institutions had a longer history and better financial standing than the university that allowed them to make it through the rough times, Lederman said. At universities such as ORU, where the founders continue to maintain control, Lederman said "there tends not to be push-back.” "There's not a lot of controversy either because it's quashed, or because people come there knowing what they're getting into. If you have a chance to peel back the layers, you may find that there's dissatisfaction, but it rarely comes out.” That makes the no-confidence vote and the Oral Roberts University provost's threat to resign particularly alarming. "There are no-confidence votes daily, if not weekly, in higher education. But they're pretty unheard of at places like Oral Roberts,” Lederman said. "It takes a level of alleged wrongdoing to embolden critics to come out.”