Student Exodus from Oral Roberts University
After scandal, students are transferring out of Oral Roberts University; exodus is feared
By JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS
The Associated Press
As Oral Roberts University prepares to hand out diplomas to its Class of 2008, Anna Siebring, a junior, will be mailing out applications to transfer to another school. Siebring, a government major, is among many students having second thoughts about staying at Oral Roberts after six months of scandal at the evangelical Christian university.
She and others fear the furor will reduce the value of any degree they earn there. Some graduates worry that they will have to try twice as hard to market themselves to potential employers after Saturday's commencement.
"The reputation of the school means a lot," Siebring said. "I want to be proud of the school that I went to, but I could definitely not say that about the school right now."
During the past school year, TV evangelist Richard Roberts, son of school founder Oral Roberts, resigned as president after being accused of misspending university funds to live in style. Also, it was disclosed that the school was more than $50 million in debt.
Among other things, Roberts and his wife were accused of spending school money on shopping sprees, home improvements and a stable of horses for their daughters. They are also alleged to have sent a daughter and her friends on a Bahamas vacation aboard a university jet.
Projected enrollment for the fall semester could be 150 students fewer than the 3,166 who attended last fall, interim President Ralph Fagin said in an interview last week. Two university employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation said they have been told a much higher figure: around 400.
That would amount to a startling drop of almost 13 percent.
Oral Roberts spokesman Jeremy Burton said the decline has less to do with students leaving and more to do with fewer new ones enrolling.
"It doesn't typically swing this much," he said. "We don't want to be down any for next fall. We are doing everything we can to tell students ORU is a good place to come to get your education."
He said applications are down by 83 compared with last year at this time, but he said he did not have overall numbers. In the past eight years, the university has lost 500 students.
School leaders have urged professors to lean on students and encourage them to return in the fall. Billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green, who stepped in last year to save the school with a $70 million donation and became chairman of the board of trustees in January, said budget cuts and layoffs are possible.
But the new beginning that many expected after Roberts stepped down appears slow in coming, according to interviews with more than a dozen professors, students and alumni
Before the scandal, authority was concentrated largely in the hands of Roberts and his wife. With their departure, many on campus expected the administration to be more open and more collegial, with students given more of a say.
Administrators are urging patience from professors and students. Last week, Fagin conceded it would take "a while to turn a big ship." Similarly, Green said it will take years to make necessary overhauls and begin rebuilding trust. He has already dissolved the old board of regents and established a new set of bylaws.
"We have a bright future. Most of the students are excited the picture has changed quite significantly," Green said. But "it doesn't happen overnight."
Green's money has been used to eliminate about half the school's debt and is going for numerous renovations to the dated, 1960s-era campus, known for its 60-foot-high bronze sculpture of praying hands.
Improvements include a microwave-refrigerator in every dorm room, a picnic area that can accommodate 50 students and new wiring in the dormitories. Money is also being set aside for recruitment and for the awarding of scholarships to retain students.
But that doesn't appear enough for sophomore Andrew Saah, who has already been accepted at the University of Maryland as a transfer student and is thinking about making the jump. He said Oral Roberts needs to change its culture to give more voice to its students.
"You could buy everyone a plasma-screen TV for their rooms, it doesn't matter," Saah said. "You have to treat everyone like adults."
Some graduating seniors are standing by their school.
Adam Arrington, the past student body president, is returning to pursue a master's degree.
"All you can do is build the trust with the public by proving yourself," he said. "Trust is earned. I believe they will gain it back."
John Swails, one of three professors who filed a lawsuit claiming they were forced out after accusing Richard Roberts and his family of wrongdoing, described morale among faculty as "marginally hopeful." He was reinstated in a settlement with the school.
Nobody I know was brainwashed into being an atheist.