I have to admit that when I posted Cassie McNaney’s article on my site, I initially had no idea it would elicit the response that it has. I’ve told several people this, but I find this entire situation supremely humorous, primarily because had ORU’s administration elected not to censor, thirty or forty people at most would have read Cassie’s letter. It might have drawn a response or two online or (less likely) in next year’s first edition, but the entire thing would have blown over without much fanfare.
But, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. I’ll avoid rehashing the story for those of you just joining in (you can read the older post), but there are a few things I think we can all take away from this situation that I’d like to share with you.
1. Censorship is often unnecessary and usually counter-productive.
As I’ve said, had administration just let it go, probably none of this would have happened. As it is, however, Cassie’s post has been read almost 4000 times and shared via social media almost 700 times. What’s more, people have opened up about their experiences with the university in very raw ways, revealing a lot of unresolved hurt. In many ways, censoring the article was probably the best thing that could have happened.
I worked as editor in chief of the Oracle for long enough to know full-well the maddening way the organization is set up. Cassie was lucky; in my time, there were plenty of really good articles that never made it past the censor’s pen. And, bear in mind, I was there post-Regime Change (i.e., after Richard Roberts became persona non grata); when the Roberts family ran the show, each edition of the Oracle was inspected by Richard’s wife, Lindsey, herself before publication and it truly was little more than a glorified public relations piece. I have nothing against PR flacks (I’m friends with more than a few), but there are times when they need to not meddle in the work and purpose of journalists.
Granted, the Oracle is wholly-owned and funded by Oral Roberts University and, consequently, they are fully within their legal rights to censor it. Alas, the first amendment right to freedom of the press does not extend to publications owned by private entities. Nevertheless, I have always believed and continue to believe that ORU’s practice of censoring stories they don’t like fosters cynicism and ill-will between student journalists (indeed, students in general) and administration. What’s more, it lowers the academic credibility of ORU as an institution of higher learning. As such an institution, the university should seek to cultivate an environment wherein freedom of expression and thought is encouraged. Furthermore, students should be allowed to voice their concerns and grievances in a public forum (like the student newspaper) when they so wish. That just comes comes with the territory.
2. Truth is more important than image.
I can’t believe I even have to say this, especially in light of the plethora of sermons based on this very statement that have been preached from the Chapel stage. Many of the comments on the previous post suggested that because ORU is a Christian institution, it shouldn’t “air its dirty laundry” out for everyone to see.
Sure, there’s no reason to go out of our way to document every single act of indiscretion committed by students; that’s what tabloids are for. On the other hand, intentionally hiding and tabooing discourse about the things that do happen on a regular basis is dishonest, especially when those things are part and parcel of a larger problem.
Another cohort of commenters suggested that maintaining the university’s “pristine” image (the quotes draw attention to the fact that my original use of that word was satirical) was of greater importance than acknowledging and dealing with its problems. They felt this way because it might cause prospective students to be turned off from coming. All I can say is that, in a lot of ways, that’s the point; burying problems relieves the urgency of solving them and thereby often perpetuates them. On the other hand, when those things are common knowledge, there’s greater organizational incentive (i.e., financial incentive) to fix what’s broken.
3. People need to be better about managing their expectations.
This applies to administration and to students. In many cases, the simple act of tempering what we expect to get out of our relationships as professors, students, and administrators can help avoid a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding.
For administration, this means that accepting the fact that students are probably not going to just go along with whatever you tell them just because you said so. Clinging to that notion only insults their intelligence and feeds the idea that the relational dynamic the university seeks to create is more of parent/child instead of teacher/apprentice. With a few exceptions, most of us are competent and mature adults who are perfectly capable of managing our own lives but who do want to learn from the professors who teach here. So, in that light, I would suggest to administration and Student Development a review of the purpose of the rules in question and see whether their purpose can be served in less annoying ways.
For students, this means that just because the university is “Christian” doesn’t mean our experience here is going to be perfectly Christ-like. In all actuality, I’m not even sure how an institution can be “Christian” anyway. While I’m not at all seeking to belittle people who do have very genuine grievances, when we recognize that the institution is bound to do something at some point that is decidedly un-Christ-like, we can be ready for it and frame it more appropriately (e.g., “You’ve failed organizationally” instead of “You’ve failed God”). We’ll also be in a better position to extend grace when appropriate.
4. The primary grievances of censorship and sexism remain unresolved and will have to be addressed eventually.
When I decided to re-post Cassie’s article, my purpose was simple: demonstrate that exercising the power of censorship in this situation was childish. I have the utmost respect for ORU’s administrators and know many of them personally; but, no matter how deep my respect for those individuals might run, I have no patience for this sort of action. Silencing legitimate discourse because it’s inconvenient or simply because you don’t like it is unacademic and unbefitting of a major university. So, that point has been made and now there are two underlying issues that remain to be addressed.
Firstly, as the responses to Cassie’s letter have indicated, there is a very real perception by a great many students and some faculty of systemic sexism at Oral Roberts University. Whether or not this perception is accurate is a topic for another discussion and one I daresay is long overdue. It’s a discussion that the university needs to have with itself and in a context where people are free to say what they think without fear of retribution.
Secondly, a more clearly delineated policy of editorial oversight is clearly in need to deal with these sorts of situations. The fact an administrator can demand that newspapers be removed from distribution bins and forbid the publishing of articles online simply because they don’t agree with what’s being said is clearly indicative of a dysfunctional system. Proper channels need to be established and lines of communication opened and enforced so both sides can better understand each other in these instances.
I’m not interested in bringing down the university or starting some sort of epic confrontation between students and administration. There are plenty of things that annoy me about ORU, but there are also plenty of things that annoy me about pretty much everything and everyone in my life. Part of being human and living with other humans is accepting the inevitable presence of imperfection and, as one of my favorite professors has said, “You can be right 100 percent of the time and be alone, or you can let some things slide and have people around.” Believe it or not, I’m deeply grateful for the relationships with peers and professors that I’ve developed because I chose to attend ORU and wouldn’t trade them for anything. Even though I’m graduating, I still care very much about the university and the direction it takes.
What I want readers to take away from this is that truly caring about something means working to perfect it as much as is humanly possible. That process is never easy as people don’t always agree and sometimes things have to be said that will piss someone off. Regardless, by working to establish an atmosphere wherein the expectation is that we will solve our problems together openly and respectfully, the end result will hopefully be a university more people can be proud of and that strikes the proper balance between its dual purpose as an academic institution and as a place designed to draw people into seeking the Lord.