Crisis of Identity: ORU’s Next Great Challenge

(Photo: David Silver, flickr)

I debated for a long time over whether or not I wanted to publish this. As my senior year at Oral Roberts University wound down over the past few months, I had conversations with several of my close friends about this very topic and basically all of those conversations ended with us sharing more or less the same concerns and sentiments. Any of you who know me understand that there are plenty of things that irritate me about the university, but the relationships I made, the skills I learned, and the life I lived in my time as a student are invaluable and the direction the institution takes in the future is of great concern to me.

As a disclaimer, people should bear in mind that I am twenty-two years old, a recent college graduate with a degree in Communication and Writing, and not an expert in organizational psychology or any other similar discipline on which the type of comments I’m about to make rely. Also bear in mind that I didn’t hear any of this from God; these are just some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for some time that I thought were important to share. It’s my hope that up-and-coming student leaders on campus (since they’ll be the ones experiencing it near-term) and maybe even faculty and administration will find them useful–possibly even insightful.

A New Phase in ORU History

In 2007, a year before I started attending ORU, the university had a near-death experience. Many of the younger students aren’t aware of this, but in December of that year, it looked inevitable that the university would close. I once sat through a press conference with President Rutland in which he explained that the financial situation was so dire at the end of the fall semester in 2007 that the university wasn’t going to be able to make payroll; had the Green family not swooped in when they did, ORU’s history would have ended with the doors being chained by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and the campus being put up for auction–and likely purchased for use as a satellite by the University of Oklahoma for “pennies on the dollar,” to quote President Rutland. When I first visited in the summer of 2008 for a campus tour, there was a palpable sense of this reality. Near-death experiences can do that. Even so, that knowledge was wedded to the excitement of the university’s survival and its blossoming recovery.

Since that time, the collective perception has been that the university survived an existential crisis and is now focused on recovering from and coming out of that crisis. In a very real sense, the university became defined by the crisis and, in a lot of ways, drew its identity from it.

For virtually all of its history prior to the crisis, ORU drew its identity from the man who founded it and, later, his progeny. The university is “Christian,” but it isn’t affiliated with any organized Christian body. Indeed, it markets itself as aligned with the non-denominational strain of Christianity, a movement that prides itself on its non-organization. Except for a brief stint of affiliation with the United Methodist Church in the 1980s, ORU has lacked any major source of theological accountability. This is significant because the university is fairly vocal about its Christianity, particularly its historical connections to a very controversial (and vanishing) strain of Christianity embodied by its late founder. The inevitable result of this has been that ORU has historically been a very personality-driven institution.

All of these factors have combined to produce, as I see it, a unique situation that will play out over the next fifteen to twenty years. Now that Oral is gone and Richard has been thoroughly discredited, the primary source of the university’s identity is slipping away, especially given its emphasis on charting a new course. People can only look to the past for so long and as the Christian movement that spawned Oral Roberts and his university comes to an end, his distinctly mid- to late-Twentieth Century, culturally-inspired message and, indeed, his memory will grow increasingly irrelevant. What’s more, the “crisis” that so defined the university in my time there is ending–indeed, it has already ended. The university is debt-free, on track to achieve financial sustainability, experiencing increasing enrollment, and focused more on the future than on the past.

Despite the crisis that began in 2007 having been largely over for a year or more, it will symbolically end with the opening of the new student center in the spring of 2013 and with current President Dr. Mark Rutland’s departure from his post in the succeeding months. Those two events will signal a psychological shift in which the question “Who are we?” will become much more relevant than “Who were we?”

The Lack of an Anchor

As I said earlier, ORU has been generally at the mercy of the personality leading it at any particular time. The ORU presidency has been unique among university presidencies as I see it in that its occupant has served not only as chief executive office, but also as pastor; the only other analogs I can see are–shocker–a handful of other Christian universities. At ORU, that was its founder until 1993; from 1993 to 2007, that was the founder’s son. Personally, I find the idea of a dynastic succession at a major academic institution interesting, but that’s a topic for another discussion. In 2007, the anchor linking the university to the Roberts family was broken and even though it still has a presence in leadership in the form of Oral’s daughter, Roberta Potts, a trustee, the university is now firmly under external, mostly corporate control.

What’s more, ORU lacks any sort of statement of faith. Other than the words Oral jotted down on a napkin at a meeting with Pat Robertson that he said came from God, the university is really only Christian by virtue of the fact that the people who lead it and a majority of the students who attend it identify as such. That’s where it gets interesting. For the record, the following are the words Oral said came from God that became the mission statement of the university:

“Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is [seen] dim, where My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.”

This isn’t news, but people might be interested to know that there is a growing number of atheists and agnostics who attend ORU, many of whom make a transition into those beliefs in their time as students. Add to the mix a declining number of people (students and faculty) who identify with the Charismatic Renewal strain of Christianity and the absence of a statement of faith or a unifying creed and the stage is set for what could be an interesting scenario. The problem with Charismatic Christianity is that, while mostly true, it creates a lot of unnecessary dogma. Theoretically, that’s okay so long as those points of dogma aren’t huge stumbling blocks for people. That’s changing.

A growing number of people in my generation are turned off by Charismatic dogma concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit, how it works, how it’s manifested, and so on; they’re also moving away from the Charismatic understanding of healing, blessing (especially financial blessing), and things of that nature. While ORU’s connection to those Charismatic tenets has softened of late, the association is still strong enough for there to be a significant–and growing–ideological differentiation between the institution and a growing segment of the student body. Furthermore, while the university is not overly-dogmatic (in fact, it goes to great lengths to avoid being so), the things it does choose to be dogmatic about are becoming increasingly hard to explain and justify to post-modernist millennials. In addition to the theological points I’ve already outlined, I’m also talking about, for example, drinking, for people of legal age; gender segregation; curfew, etc.

In digest, the core institutional anchors (the Roberts family, Charismatic theology, a distinctly-Southern and mid-century understanding of Christian morality) are gone or becoming irrelevant and the university has done little to prepare itself for the culture shift that will likely ensue. My opinion is that the university has been dogmatic on superfluous things while neglecting to protect the things that truly make it a Christian community. While some stumbling blocks are unnecessary (and, indeed, sinful to place), there are things that a person must believe in order to be a true, right-believing (i.e., orthodox) Christian. Take a look at the Nicene Creed to get an idea of what I’m talking about. If those things are gone, then an institution cannot truthfully call itself Christian. It becomes something else, for which a lot of terms exist to describe but the most stark is post-Christian.

Final Thoughts

Again, I ask people reading to remain aware of the fact that I’m not an expert and I can only draw from my limited experience and body of knowledge. I can also only report what I see and this is it: there are two issues pressing against the university that will have to be faced before it can achieve any kind of lasting stability.

First, the university needs to move away from the strong pastor/president model of executive leadership. As any student of or expert in organizational management will tell you, institutions dependent on an individual personality tend to be extremely unstable and the last thing ORU wants is to have to adapt to a new personality every time the president dies, resigns, retires, is scandalized, or otherwise jumps off the deep end. The next president should remain visible, but allow the institution to develop an identity independent of him or herself. Essentially, a change in executive leadership should not be a time of anxiety and there should be care taken to cultivate a mindset that the university will do just fine and maintain fealty to its mission no matter who is serving in leadership.

Secondly, it’s very likely that ORU will find it increasingly hard to draw people that fit the traditional mold of an ORU student for the primary reason that the pool of people who fit that mold will continue to shrink. As that happens, the university will be faced with a tough decision and will have to find a way to balance whatever loyalty it has to its Charismatic past with sheer economic reality. Moreover, as the culture continues to shift, young Christians will find it ever more easy to choose cheaper, less strict state schools over institutions like ORU, especially if they continue to cling to an outdated understanding of Christian culture and morality. Many of the reasons the university steers clear of defining doctrine are good ones, not the least of which is its desire to remain a pan-denominational Christian institution. The problem with that approach is that without something to solidify some sort of Christian identity, ORU will eventually become indistinguishable from other nominally Christian institutions.

Some will read this discussion and think, “This is nice and all, but the people at ORU will never let any of this happen.” The inescapable reality is, however, that people change. People die, people retire, people move on with life, people lose their faith, and a host of other things. Institutions dependent on people that aren’t united under a well-articulated and clearly defined idea of what the institution is are destined to be forever at the whims of those people. People, I’m sorry to say, are extraordinarily fickle and something has to exist to supplement their zeal with a declaration of who they are.

Others might think, “Yeah, but the Holy Spirit will never let this happen. He cares too much about ORU and its mission.” There are, unfortunately, other spiritual forces at work in this world other than the Holy Spirit and while he is ever-present and fills all things, believers aren’t singular in their devotion to him, as all are eventually forced to admit. Even the holiest among us is still fallible and still very divided in our loyalties. No creed is a sure fail-safe, but a creed-like understanding of identity does assist in keeping a community of believers mindful of who they are.

In much the same way that Christianity is a union of community, faith, and Holy Tradition, Christian institutions have to find a way to balance the three to insure sustainability. If ORU truly wants to survive as a community of faith seeking the Lord together and gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to be little Christs in whatever professional world its members go into, it will have to make a concerted effort to prevent what is otherwise an historical inevitability. In the latter case, I and my contemporaries might one day return to an ORU we no longer recognize but that has become a sad addition to the long list of institutions that lose their Christian identities.

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4 thoughts on “Crisis of Identity: ORU’s Next Great Challenge

  1. Your reflections are very insightful and give structure to many of the developments we read about in the news. I think there is a second awakening that will involve every legitimate Christian backed university and most Christian churches. We can’t have two different sets of truths, Biblical and what we have discovered running counter to the Bible’s claims. As such science and it’s many divisions, anthropology, geology, and many others are so pitifully represented at most Christian universities, if not for the need to be accredited, they would not be taught at all. At what point does the mountain of evidence telling us the great story of the earth’s age and how it developed, the advent of mankind, etc. become so high that it is simply farsical to engage in the old Biblical myths, Great Flood, the ark and Noah, the earth stopping its revolution and standing still, and so many more? Don’t forget that the authors of Genisis describe a FLAT earth, floating on a sea, resting on pillars a foundation while the sun, moon and stars are hung directly above.
    At what point does our pious acceptance of God’s activities in the Old Testament, surrender to our sense of justice, our love of humanity, when we repeatedly see a temperamental God, murdering millions. The reasons are non-sensical, (spilling seman on the ground, David taking a census, marrying outside the faith, occupying land God wishes for others, losing your faith, complaining about your hardships, living in a city where a rape had taken place (Jacob’s daughter) and so many more (260 incidents in total)? Or do we just ignore the “bad” verses in the same way we ignore the verses in each of the Gospels wherein Christ promises to return, IN THE LIFETIMES of those he is speaking to? If Christianity is going to continue to be strong and hold relevance in the lives of its followers, especially it’s educated young people, the beautiful story of the life of Christ, his sacrifice for mankind has to be pulled out of the rubbish of the Old Testament both it’s stories and the insane number of very harse laws (don’t eat shellfish, don’t wear both cotton and wool, stone adulterous women, men? and disobedient children or those who cuss), the entire book has to be recognized as having errors and hundreds of contradictions, along with the influence of men who edited it’s text to support their personal doctrines. The status quo is ether take the whole volume as God’s word or become an atheist or agnostic. Is there a Christian alive who does not engage in dumbing themselves down with blind faith just to fall in line?

  2. Thanks for your post! As a faculty member at ORU for 32 yrs, it might surprise you or others that I appreciate your honest reflections and agree w/ your concerns. I’ve seen hundreds of amazing young people come to ORU, get a whole-person education, make lifelong, meaningful friendships, and leave fully equipped to make (and actually making) Godly positive impacts in “every person’s world”. The vibrant fruit is still being produced, but we can’t take that for granted. We need young, Christ-centered, God-fearing administrators and faculty to be ready to carry the baton when the Lord conveys to us that our time if done. Please be praying, and don’t hesitate admonishing all of us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). IHS, John

  3. Good article.

    The university should have been renamed when Richard was ousted and the Green family took over. They missed a golden opportunity to re-brand ORU.

    I’m not sure the Charismatic/Pentecostal distinctive will ever go away. I’m just glad to see that it is moving away from the absurdity of the Word of Faith movement. As a mid 90’s grad, the chapel messages were mostly an embarrassment and at times heretical.

    The ban on of age drinking and curfew will eventually go away, but I don’t think you will ever see co-ed dorms.

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