Family Tradition Ends As Oral Roberts U. Revamps

Workers are toiling in the thick summer heat, trying to bring the campus of Oral Roberts University into the current century.

Parking lots are torn up on the 1960s-era grounds, dormitory walls have been stripped to the studs and crates of new stainless-steel appliances wait to be put in the cafeteria.

Two years ago, this kind of large-scale remodel — about $20.5 million worth — would have been impossible because the evangelical school was mired in debt. Morale was circling the drain, too, as then-school president Richard Roberts was accused of spending university money on vacations, home remodels and other luxuries.

Roberts, the son of the school's namesake founder, eventually resigned but denied any wrongdoing.

Today, the once-tarnished university known for its 60-foot-high bronze sculpture of praying hands is emerging from the 2007 scandal with a new campus, hundreds of new donors, tens of millions of dollars in paid-off debt — and a new president.

Mark Rutland, 61, takes office Wednesday and becomes the first person to lead the school without the surname of Roberts. He'll make $275,000 a year.

He faces several challenges, including reversing sluggish enrollment and deciding whether to sell a handful of key university properties to shore up finances.

The university already laid off 53 employees in January to make ends meet, and has been looking at other ways to save money.

But Rutland's hardest task could come in restoring the ORU brand, hoping to make it among the schools recognized by a mere acronym, such as the nearby University of Oklahoma, or even a school color, like at the University of Tennessee.

"Look, if you see OU, you know what that means, if you see ND, you know it means Notre Dame," Rutland said in a recent interview in his office overlooking the campus. "If you see a big, orange T, you know what it means.

"It finds its own identity, where just the letters make the statement," he says.

The school already has made significant progress. It has whittled its debt from $55 million at the height of the scandal to around $720,000, thanks to a matching gift campaign that brought in more than $22 million.

Once-disgruntled alumni — of which only 6 percent had donated to the school two years ago — are being courted. The number of new donors rocketed more than 145 percent between 2008 and 2009, from 361 to 887, and donations spiked from $763,000 in 2007 to $2.3 million this year.

"It's the highest year of alumni giving in the history of the school," Rutland said. "And I don't think we're at the end of it, I think we're at the beginning of it."

Rutland didn't want the ORU job at first. He was happy as president at Southeastern University, a Christian liberal arts college in Lakeland, Fla.

There, he was credited during his 10-year tenure with improving the school's finances and growing the student body from 1,000 to more than 3,000, which is about the current enrollment at ORU.

But he was hand-picked by billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green, heir to the Hobby Lobby fortune and ORU trustees board chairman. He took the reins at the school last year after donating $70 million.

After an exhaustive search where more than 130 candidates were considered, Mart still wanted Rutland.

"Much prayer, time and thought was put into the presidential search process, and I am excited that Dr. Rutland was chosen as ORU's third president," Mart Green said in an e-mail. "He brings great wisdom and experience to this role."

This fall, ORU plans a celebration coinciding with the elimination of all its debt.

"Frankly, I could (pay it off) today," Rutland said of the roughly $720,000. "But that's like making a hole in one with nobody on the golf course.

"So, we're going to wait until school starts ... and then we'll have a 'ta-dah' moment."

School founder Oral Roberts will be almost 92 when he is expected to attend Rutland's formal inauguration in September. Rutland has defended preserving the evangelist's past accomplishments on campus and does not see the school ever being renamed.

"George Washington wasn't a perfect guy, you know, but he was George Washington," Rutland said. "I think that the founding stage of anything is always exciting and complicated and thrilling and contradictory, and those adventurous guys ... do things that nobody else will do, walk where nobody will walk.

"Oral Roberts is a significant person ... in the history of American Christianity, and I think that with time and history, that his great accomplishments ... will become what is memorialized," he said.

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