Scandal Plagues Oral Roberts University

Nov 23, 2007

Oral Roberts University is in trouble. The Tulsa, Okla., school founded by evangelist Oral Roberts is the target of several lawsuits. The Christian university also says it is more than $50 million in debt.

And there are allegations that the university's current president, Richard Roberts, and his family spent university money for personal use. Roberts is the son of Oral Roberts.

Scott Gurian reports from member station KGOU in Norman, Okla.

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Oral Roberts University is in trouble. The Tulsa, Oklahoma college is the target of several lawsuits. This Christian university says it's more than $50 million in debt, and there are allegations that president Richard Roberts and his family spent university money for their personal use. Roberts is the son of the school's founder, evangelist Oral Roberts.

From member station KGOU, Scott Gurian reports.

SCOTT GURIAN: When Cornell Cross was looking for a school to study government, Oral Roberts University seemed like a perfect match. He says it was highly regarded in conservative political circles - that was three years ago. Cross says things have changed.

Mr. CORNELL CROSS II (Oral Roberts University): I'm going to have to say that it's become something of a joke. And it's not the kind of thing I want to enter a job interview.

GURIAN: Cross is in a parking lot next to campus. The school officials warned him against speaking to reporters on university grounds. Behind him, beyond the 60-foot bronze sculpture of the praying hands, past the Prayer Tower and the gold-domed auditorium, is a vacant lot where school president Richard Roberts led a ceremonial grounds-breaking in 2001 for a new student center.

The university raised nearly $9 million, but construction hasn't begun and the money has almost vanished. Questions about where this and other university funds have gone are at the heart of allegations that began with the 2006 political campaign.

In that year, Oral Roberts University allegedly ordered the head of its government program, Tim Brooker, to encourage his students to work on behalf of a Tulsa mayoral candidate. Brooker was concerned that could put the school's tax exempt status in jeopardy, but he went ahead. And when the IRS investigated five months later, Brooker's attorney, Gary Richardson, says his client was made to be the fall guy.

Mr. GARY RICHARDSON (Attorney): They had forced Dr. Brooker to be a part of an illegitimate cover-up with the Internal Revenue Service, to fall on the sword and take responsibility for that himself, when in fact he was against doing that and was directed to do so by president Roberts.

GURIAN: Other allegations have surfaced, including the university paid $29,000 to send Roberts's daughter and her friends on a senior trip to the Bahamas and that Mrs. Roberts was involved with a teenage boy.

After Professor Brooker brought the allegations to the Board of Regents, he was forced to resign while his wife, also a professor, and the head of his department, were fired. The three have filed a wrongful termination suit.

University president Richard Roberts responded with detailed rebuttals to the allegations. Oral Roberts University officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but provided a recording of Roberts speaking to students last month about the lawsuit.

Dr. RICHARD ROBERTS (President, Oral Roberts University): It is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion. Make no mistake about it. This suit is about money.

GURIAN: Roberts has since taking a leave of absence from the university. His father, university founder Oral Roberts, has returned to Tulsa from retirement to offer moral support.

On Wednesday, three new lawsuits were filed, including one by student Cornell Cross and another by a university accountant who says he was ordered to cook the books.

ORU's faculty has overwhelmingly issued a vote of no confidence in Richard Roberts's leadership, leaving some university backers to suggest the best way for Oral Roberts University to survive is to remove the school's namesake family altogether.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Gurian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.