If your school is tightening its belt, chances are good that you've dreamed about an angel. You've dreamed that someone would come out of the blue with a nice donation to wipe away your debt, or allow you to catch up on your deferred maintenance, or simply to help you balance your budget. But you know that this never happens.
Except, at Oral Roberts University (ORU), it did happen.
Back in late 2007, it seemed like ORU was imploding. The university president, Richard Roberts, resigned on November 23, a few weeks after three terminated faculty filed suit against ORU alleging breach of contract.
As the lawsuit and its many accusations became public, still more damaging information came to light. For one, the university was $55 million in debt. For another, a campus visit by the regional accrediting agency reiterated governance problems that had plagued the university for many years — the financial difficulties, to be sure, but also a weak board of regents and an unpredictable president.
That's when the David Green family of Oklahoma City stepped in. The founder and chief executive of Hobby Lobby, a privately held chain of 472 retail stores operating in 40 states, Green liked the ORU graduates he had met and he harbored good feelings about the school, although he had never before given a donation. In November 2007, the same month that Richard Roberts resigned, Green's son Mart presented the board of regents with a generous offer: The Green family would offer a $70 million gift — enough to wipe out ORU's debt - if the board agreed to make changes.
And after Mart Green consulted extensively with governance expert Robert C. Cooley (former chair of In Trust's board of directors), he grew more specific about what these changes needed to be:
A completely new governing board — with himself as chair — to replace the board of regents.
Membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), with its stringent requirements for financial transparency.
The complete separation of Oral Roberts University from the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, still headed by Richard Roberts.
Green was aware that the massive gift might lead some to think his family was buying the school, so Green, Cooley, and their colleagues assured the regents that the new board would employ the best governance practices and maintain the mission (and the name) of the university. And so, after deliberation, the university board of regents accepted these terms on January 14, 2008.
The board of regents voted itself out of existence.
Wanted: New board seeks new president
Aside from helping run the family business, the new chair of the new board of trustees was busy with his own enterprises. Mart Green is the owner of Mardel Christian and Education (a chain of 34 religious bookstores) and the chief executive of Every Tribe Entertainment, which produced the 2005 film End of the Spear. He founded a nonprofit called EthnoGraphic Media to produce religious films. But he had never been involved in higher education.
Green proved himself a quick learner. He started spending one day per week on campus, and he relied heavily on Cooley, an experienced coach who is one of In Trust's Governance Mentors. One of the first orders of business was to confirm as interim president Ralph Fagin, a long-time professor at the university who had been vice president for academic affairs.
The next task was to find a permanent president.
Under Cooley's tutelage, Green and the new board of trustees aimed to conduct the search in a way that emphasized shared governance. First, faculty, staff, students, and alumni gave input for a "presidential opportunity profile." Next, the board hired an executive search firm, which shaped the profile into something that could be sent to potential candidates.
Stakeholders were invited to submit names, and more than 130 potential candidates were suggested. As the search firm began to talk to them and narrow the list, the board assembled a search committee made up of five trustees, one alumnus, one student, one faculty member, and one staff member. The committee worked with the search firm to find three finalists.
September 25, 2009, the day of Mark Rutland’s inauguration as ORU’s third president, gave the university’s founder a setting to offer his public support to the new leadership. From left, Mart Green, Oral Roberts, and Rutland. Roberts died less than three months later.
In December 2008, the finalists were brought to campus for interviews, but the result was unsatisfactory. The board felt that none of the three was the right fit. It was time to reassess.
A dark horse
Green had already heard about another possibility — Mark Rutland, the president of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. But Rutland wasn't interested. He had been at Southeastern for nine years with some significant success — tripling the student body to about 3,000 and reducing the school's debt. He was 61, and he planned to finish his career at Southeastern.
A graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Rutland had been approached several times by ORU's search firm, and he had eventually asked them to stop calling. Finally, after a friendly request from Cooley, Rutland agreed to meet with Green, but even after a cordial meeting, Rutland told Green that he wasn't interested.
Green persisted, and Rutland and his wife, Alison, began praying about the situation. "Alison came to 100 percent conviction we should do this before I did," he told the Tulsa World last year. They met with the search committee, and Green flew Rutland out to see the ailing Oral Roberts in his California home.
"You know, Oral may have been wrong sometimes, but he was never in doubt," Rutland told the World. "He said to me, ‘The Lord revealed to me that you're to be the next president.'"
And on January 28, 2009, the board of trustees unanimously elected Mark Rutland as ORU's third president.
The new president and his board chair
Rutland's term as president of Oral Roberts University began in July 2009. Recently In Trust asked him how things have worked out with his board. "I was a little bit prepared for the board to let go less readily," he said, aware that the board of trustees had been acting in a very hands-on way during the interim period.
"The chairman of the board has moved into a more generative role — far less involved in day-to-day management — faster than I thought and more graciously than I feared. He's really been a tremendous chairman and has allowed me to be the president," Rutland said.
"Now the board is dealing with issues of priorities and vision and mission and values. Instead of trying to decide where the administration spends money, they're trying to ask, ‘What are our priorities? Now you tell us how that works out in the budget.' That's a good shared model of leadership."
How does ORU deal with the possible pitfalls of having a major philanthropist as board chair? Rutland said that Green has been careful not to force his own ideas onto the board or the president. "It hasn't been a problem," said Rutland. "He's been very cautious not to ramrod things or throw his weight around. Mart is very evenhanded. He constantly says, ‘I don't want to make this decision, this is not mine.'
Rutland recounted a discussion in a board meeting, when someone mentioned the Green family and its interests. "I said, ‘Mart is not sitting here as a representative of the Green family,'" Rutland recalled. "‘He's the chairman of the board. So we're not talking to the Green family now; we're talking to the chairman of the board.' And he spoke right up. He said, ‘That's exactly right. You all have to know that in this room, I'm here as the chairman.'"
Green is an active chair. "He listens to my counsel; I listen to his," Rutland said. "He's a much more engaged chair than I've had in the past. But ‘engaged' does not mean oppressive. It just means that when Mart calls with questions, I've got to have my homework done. He's an innate businessman. He will catch errors in a table or chart that nobody else gets. It makes the administration want to be on its toes."
On the learning curve together
Was Rutland ready for the challenges he would face at ORU? His answer was careful. "First of all, I would say I was ready to learn the things I needed to," he said.
"Secondly, this is the third institutional turnaround I've been involved in, so there are some things that you recognize and understand — some dynamics that are similar," Rutland continued.
"Third, there were troubles and challenges here that I underestimated. Then there were other things that I projected onto this situation from previous situations, but they were not near as challenging as I thought they would be."
Sharing the work with a colleague has been very satisfying. "I think that getting on the learning curve with somebody who also saw himself on the same learning curve was very helpful," Rutland said. "The partnership between the chairman and me developed rapidly, and I can't speak for him, but I think we have a pretty high level of mutual confidence. I know I have a great deal of confidence in him."
Administrative changes afoot
One of Mark Rutland's first tasks as president of Oral Roberts University was to reorganize the business office.
When he got to ORU, there was a three-person team at the helm — president, provost, and an executive vice president who served as both the chief financial officer and chief operating officer. But Rutland split the position down the middle, hiring a new CFO and a new COO. He also added to the staff a new general counsel (to reduce the fees they were paying for outside legal representation). These three new hires, plus the provost and president, serve as the executive council, which meets once a week.
One level below that, a "vice presidents' council" includes the five executives plus the athletic director and the vice presidents in charge of academic affairs, enrollment management, and administrative services. The vice presidents meet monthly.
Two or three times a semester, Rutland also meets with a "deans' council," which includes the provost, vice president for academic affairs, and the deans of the various colleges.
About once a year, the vice presidents and deans meet together as the "university council." That's the opportunity for the senior administrative and academic leaders to share strategies and agendas and dismantle any silos.
At ORU, the College of Theology and Ministry includes both an undergraduate program and the graduate-level School of Theology and Ministry, which is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. The dean of the college is Thomson Mathew.
The fourth in a series of articles about the turnaround at Oral Roberts University.
In the next issue: An interview with ORU president Mark Rutland and board chair Mart Green, who discuss their responsibilities toward each other.
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More about the relationship between a president and a board chair:
Forum: The president/board chair partnership
Wing on wing: After three cups of coffee
President and board chair dialogue