OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has gone through a period of megatransition involving changes in leadership, governance, and financial management. Founded in 1963 by evangelist Oral Roberts, the university has long been considered the premier institution of higher learning for the nondenominational charismatic movement.
Know the mission
From its very beginning, Oral Roberts University has had a particular vision, given to the founder as a message from the Lord: “Train 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.” Evangelist Billy Graham spoke at the inauguration of the university in 1965, affirming this vision.
The university’s mission statement is based on this vision. “The mission of Oral Roberts University — in its commitment to the Christian faith — is to educate the whole person in spirit, mind, and body, thereby preparing its graduates to be professionally competent servant- leaders who are spiritually alive, intellectually alert, physically disciplined and socially adept. The University seeks to synthesize the best practices of liberal arts, professional and graduate education with a charismatic emphasis to enable students to go into every person’s world with God’s message of salvation and healing for the totality of human need.”
Embedded in this mission statement are several theological commitments and core values.
- Christian distinctiveness. ORU is to be a God-centered university that upholds a Christian worldview with a charismatic emphasis. The ORU community is called to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, training students to “go into every person’s world” with the message of healing for the whole person.
- Commitment to whole-person education. ORU is committed to a philosophy of education which develops the students as whole persons in spirit, mind, and body.
- Excellence. This is the commitment to instill the value of excellence with integrity in all aspects of students’ lives.
Guard the mission
All religious institutions start with formal or informal purpose statements, but many wind up deviating from their original purposes. This seems especially true of institutions of learning, where a clear Christian purpose can easily shift over time. Sometimes, in spite of good intentions, rejuvenation of an institution diminishes the thrust of its original mission and purpose. How can a place like ORU prevent this from happening? ORU’s recent history and its challenges in the area of leadership, governance, and finances, and its turnaround have been well documented. With the help of an unlikely donor who became the university’s board chair, ORU has entered the second stage of its institutional development, moving from a founder-centered governance model to a shared governance model involving the trustees, the office of the president, and the faculty. It has been a monumental shift.
Losing sight of the institutional mission is a real possibility during a major transition. This was a risk ORU had to take seriously, but ORU was fortunate to have a particular benefactor, Mart Green, who became the first chairman of the newly formed board of trustees. During the early days of transition, Green began to explain to constituent groups that the primary focus of the board was “mission with economic sustainability.” (This was later updated to “mission with economic vitality.”) His articulation of the board’s focus became the first firewall around the mission of the university — preserving it from people with their own agendas. The transitional administration, which was led by an interim president and the regular faculty, formed a second firewall.
The board of trustees took three measures to guard the university’s mission throughout the transition.
- Board continuity. Several members of the university’s previous board of regents were retained in the newly formed board of trustees for the explicit purpose of maintaining institutional memory.
- Leadership qualifications. The board stipulated that all future deans will have to meet spiritual qualifications and “mission fit” commensurate with a tenured professor at ORU. Criteria for tenure at ORU include specific spiritual qualifications consistent with the mission of the university.
- Stakeholder input. The board held open forums to demonstrate its commitment to preserve the original mission of the university and to give voice to those stakeholders who were concerned about its potential loss.
Strengthen the mission
As a new president was later appointed, the mantle of preserving the mission fell on him. At the presidential inauguration, founder Oral Roberts himself conferred this mandate on the new president, sealed it publicly with his prayer, and walked away from the university he had birthed and nurtured, entrusting it to its new leaders. Soon after, his original vision statement was inscribed in gold letters on a prominent wall in the university chapel. The president now keeps the mission before the university community and all its constituents and makes every effort to write it on the hearts of all who serve and study at ORU.
Those of us who have weathered the changes at ORU hope and pray that the university has passed the period of greatest risk for losing its original institutional mission. We are confident that the watchfulness of the board, as well as the ongoing commitment of the administration and faculty to the founding vision, will preserve ORU’s mission and produce new generations of graduates who will hear God’s voice and “go into every person’s world.”
In Trust published a four-part special report on Oral Roberts University, which appeared in the Autumn 2009, New Year 2010, Spring 2010, and Spring 2011 issues. All four articles are available at www.intrust.org/ORU.