Dear ORU: told you so in ‘88

Monday, 26 November 2007
Editorial:  In the June 17, 1988, issue of the Independent Student News, students at Tulsa’s Oral Roberts University voiced concerns about the financial standing, administrative competence, and righteousness of leadership in administration of the school.  It was the first of many articles and a long effort to defend the voices of the students.  

If it was a battle, the students lost; those who fought are long gone to more productive daily struggles.  Oral and Richard Roberts always got their way.  They abused everyone to accomplish whatever ego-driven mission they had in mind – not once, but repeatedly.  Sunday, the Tulsa daily newspaper headlined, “ORU alumni support sought,” but should anyone rally to save the school?  Been there, tried that – when many of us were students.

In the 1988 piece, students defended professors, writing, “The average salary for a professor at ORU is approximately $18,000, compared to the national average of $35,000.”  They listed the desperate public calls for money from the Robertses, including, but not limited to: 1985 – $15 million to construct a healing center, 1986 – $8 million to “save” Oral’s life and send medical missionaries to the world, 1987 – $2.5 million to “adopt-a-student” – and yet no student ever got a check.”

This cartoon of Oral and Richard by a local artist was first published by the Tulsa Independent News April 19, 1989.Where was the money going, they asked?  Students answered their own question by listing the private jet, the $500,000 parsonage, the Palm Springs home, the Beverly Hills home, the country club memberships, the luxury apartments atop the City of Faith, and Oral’s own $94,000 tax-free salary.  They asked, “If there is so much money floating around at ORU, why do professors have to sell their homes, have their utilities shut off, pull their children out of college, and literally starve to death, while ORU’s fearless leader sits atop his golden tower?”

Students at the time also tried to work within the system to help their professors, but the administration refused to allow the student senate to collect an offering for struggling faculty members at chapel.  The administration offered to “give professors a one-time pay raise (of 6 percent) if they collect up to 70 percent of student delinquent accounts”… and sign an employment contract without knowing what benefits they were to receive.

At the same time, the ORU Men’s resident Advisor Program (called The Gestapo by students) were given pagers (high-tech at that time) to better coordinate their activities, such as destroying the Independent Student News on sight.  They threatened distributors.  They stole papers from public distribution points off campus.  All of this was public, and an offer was made to the administration to rebut the accusations.  Their answer, “The official response of the university is to make no response.”

The Independent Student News, the only student-owned and -operated publication in America to cover both public and private higher education facilities within one metropolitan area, welcomed ORU student articles and stood as buffer to prevent retaliation.  Our columnist “Ester La Tell” (an obvious pen name) is still a good friend and still asserts both love and criticism for the university.  After receiving her ORU degree and gathering a master’s degree, she returned and taught at ORU.  To this day, the administration does not know her real identity – and they never will.

The Independent Student News also covered the rise and fall of the ORU medical school and followed the fate of students caught in the confusion.  At one point, students invited me to attend a public student meeting where Richard Roberts was to explain future plans for the troubled program.  Recognized by administration officials, I was asked to leave before the program began and, once outside the room, Richard Roberts confronted me directly.

“I invite you to leave, I invite you to leave, I invite you to leave,” he repeated continually, loudly, and almost franticly, allowing no pause for response.  I turned to leave and was followed by armed security.  We have met since with much greater civility.

Student controversy kicked up again on February 2, 1989, when the son of an ORU Regent and three other student writers crafted a collection of stories and editorials that dealt with racism as they saw it on the campus for the campus newspaper the "Oracle."  Thereafter, editorials and letters to the editor were banned.  The February 16 Oracle carried a front page story on the editorial policy change authored by Dr. Roberta Potts, dean of student services at the time and daughter of Oral Roberts.

Of course, the Independent Student News, which had changed names by that time to the Tulsa Independent News, continued to follow developments at ORU.  In reaction to the Oracle story, Richard Roberts then went on-air with KOTV to denounce me, personally saying I had a grudge against him because he had once thrown me off campus.

It wasn’t personal, then or now, Richard; it is professional.  If you are going to run a university, one would think you (as president) would have earned a college degree (not just be given one by Daddy) and, with such a marvelous opportunity, do a good job.  Besides, I have been thrown out of bigger and better places than ORU, more than once.  In those days, I had plenty of investigative reporter attitudes.

Time and again, from supporters of the Roberts family, I heard the scripture hurled as a command and a curse, “Touch not the anointed.”  However, in no regard does that scripture (Psalm 105:15) mean that prophets cannot be criticized.  In fact, religious authority is structured and well outlined in scripture and totally ignored by Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts, and clan.  If you use the public media to reach the congregation (raise money, save souls, etc.), then, by right, public media should serve as the elders of that congregation.

I was also contributing to the L. A. Times material on ORU.  Funny, the last time I called the editor with a pitch on an angle he said they had declared the Oral Roberts group non-news.  He said, “If we cover whatever created crisis they are up to this time, then we are obligated to cover their recovery story.  We don’t want to do that anymore.  We have given them enough publicity.  We are declaring them non-news.”

I remember students telling of a time that, with Oral Roberts, Fred Price, a visiting evangelical, preached at chapel that “faith” was greater than “love.”  When a theology professor rose to disagree, he was dressed down by Oral and later fired.  If a theology professor cannot stand up for the scriptures, then there is no intelligential or spiritual freedom or any degree of real education – at that moment, ORU was a propagandizing facility funding personal ego and excess.  

Individual professors daily taught a higher standard than the administration and the success of ORU students is outstanding in many fields.  Administrative mistakes seemed to value image over substance.

I remember a young girl on scholarship from a Tulsa high school.  She was the victim of incest by her father and she had enrolled at ORU for sanctuary and help in the name of God.  Her father followed her and shadowed her movements and harassed her – still playing his games, threatening her mother and sister to get what he wanted.  Did the administration of ORU help her, protect her, or attempt to stand between her and evil?  No.  They expelled her.  God saved her and now she has a happy life no thanks to ORU.

I know Richard’s sister-in-law, Stephanie Cantrees and have visited with her several times.  She is another self-aggrandizing wanna-be mover and shaker without a clue.  She wanted me to manipulate news and events for her on some subject I have long forgotten.  That lady was trouble.

I also volunteered for Randi Miller’s campaign for Mayor.  I know Oral Roberts students were involved, but many college students studying government often work in various campaigns throughout America.  I have also met former government professor Tim Booker, who is now suing the university and the Robertses.  I was told he was directing the students, but I am not sure that he did not deliberately lead Richard Roberts into impropriety.  Booker seemed very much impressed with himself, but ORU students were also active in Mayor Bill LaFortune’s campaign.  It’s an interesting set of lawsuits.

Oral Roberts University may or may not survive, but change is long overdue.  It is time to become a real university with a competent professional administration.  Those who love the spirit and the fellowship of the university are still interested.  We are watching.  We hope and pray for the best.  In God’s name we wish Oral Roberts University well.

However, before the alumni save the school, it must prove it is worth saving – and that must be done in public with full transparency.  We told you beginning in 1988 and the totalitarian control, disingenuous spiritualism, and self-indulgent soaking of revenue for personal aggrandizement has continued now for about 20 years.
In the April 19, 1989, edition of the Tulsa Independent News, James Newman, ORU Class of 1980, wrote, “To those unfamiliar with Oral Roberts University, this institution attracts some of the brightest young people in America, in all fields of study.  Unfortunately, the natural human curiosity which fuels great research universities is not allowed at ORU.  Here, creativity and inquisitiveness are stifled in favor of a ‘go with the flow’ attitude.  Anyone wishing to express an opinion or make a suggestion which is contrary to an existing policy is labeled a heretic or a troublemaker, and soon will feel the pressure of conformity from the administration.”

In that same edition, I contributed a commentary as follows:  The dream of Oral Roberts University becoming a top quality Christian educational facility is a good dream.  It is a fitting legacy and may eventually become the only lasting return people will receive for the billions gathered by television evangelists.”

However, Patti Roberts’ book, “Ashes to Gold” and Jerry Sholes book, “Give Me That Prime Time Religion” are just two notable works that lead some to question if the Robertses have built this empire on misrepresentation, manipulation and materialism.

The most severe critics are those who know the inside story.  Most have worked or gone to school at ORU and at one time were followers.  What changes a follower into a critic is personal experience with reality which shatters pristine image.  The Robertses rant and rave against the media for treating them so unfairly, but the media is just air-time, paper and ink.  They are not mistreated; their critics are just quoted.

Unfortunately, the empire is in decline.  So many cracks are appearing within the basic structure (both human and financial) that even those who still support the potentate realize the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Published reports of the conversion of funds into trusts for the family lead most to the conclusion that the Roberts family could “walk away” and live quite comfortably.

Many other individual Tulsans have enriched themselves from the empire and some of them are very powerful, but even they see that Oral is losing it and Richard doesn’t have what it takes to draw in the cash flow requirements of the current structure.  After all the rhetoric is striped away, the inescapable conclusion is that one day the Robertses will be gone and the dream left to stand or fall on its own.  The hope of many is that the transition will be as smooth as possible.

It is for the success of Oral Roberts’ dream that critics encourage the Robertses to “walk away.”  Let the Regents assume control, involve the alumni and hire competent administrators to establish plans for the future.

Twenty years later, those words stand true and I am personally thankful that zealots didn’t beat the hell out of me like they did Jerry Sholes, who spent time recovering in a local hospital before he disappeared from Tulsa.

Dramatic action is long overdue and much needed.  Student confidence is critical.  Alumni support is possible, but awaiting outward and visible signs of inward change.  Richard’s resignation is a good beginning.  Let’s just hope it is not too late.  God can save Oral Roberts University and I pray he will.

About the graphics:
The drawing of Ester La Tell opening the ORU Prayer Tower from the inside was the graphic (including the Starship Enterprise) that accompanied her column in 1988.  Richard Roberts called many students into his office trying to find who she was and he threatened some with expulsion.  Photos of ORU facilities have been added as background in this 2007 version.

The “Heal” cartoon of Oral and Richard by a local artist was first published by the Tulsa Independent News April 19, 1989.

About the Author:
David Arnett began his career in professional journalism in 1985 and has published Tulsa Today since 1996 – before Al Gore invented the Internet.  He has won two national awards as a First Amendment Publisher.  Arnett is a Constitutional Republican, Public Information Specialist and Conservative Media Critic.  This editorial may be reproduced with proper attribution and links back to the original source.  Publisher David Arnett is available for interviews by recognized media.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 28 November 2007 )