Praying Hands: For God or More Money?
Twenty years ago, on his widely viewed national televsion program, televangelist Oral Roberts announced to his viewers that he had been reading a spy novel when, all of a sudden, God visited him and ordered him to raise $8 million for Roberts’ university, or else he would be “called home.” Of course, not wanting that to happen, Roberts’ viewers showered him with vast amounts of money for the university.
Last Tuesday, three former professors at Oral Roberts University sued the evangelical institution in Tulsa (OK), filing a petition in state court that accuses the university’s current president, Oral Roberts’ son Richard L. Roberts, of using university resources to back a local mayoral candidate and to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle for his family. The lawsuit also says that university administrators tried to cover up the president’s involvement in the mayoral campaign when the Internal Revenue Service began investigating the nonprofit institution’s interventions into local politics.
The university immediately issued brief a statement regarding the lawsuit on Tuesday that read, in its entirety, “It is important for ORU students and their families, faculty and staff, alumni, partners as well as the general public to understand that this lawsuit is largely premised upon a compilation of incomplete statements, unsubstantiated rumors, and innuendoes. ORU will address these allegations through the legal process.”
Later in the week, Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts, announced that God had recently visited him as well, ordering him to deny all of the lurid allegations that are contained in a lawsuit that threatens to bury this 44-year-old Bible Belt college in scandal. As mentioned before, Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and extravagant spending at the university’s donors’ expense, lavish spending that has included numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university’s jet for his daughter’s senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay. She, in turn, is being accused of squandering tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as “underage males.”
Roberts’ announcement came during a chapel service last week on the 5,300-student campus known for its 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture of praying hands. He told the assembled students and faculty members God had personally advised him that, “We live in a litigious society. Anyone can get mad and file a lawsuit against another person whether they have a legitimate case or not. This lawsuit … is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion.” One member of the university’s Board of Regents, San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, said that, “The university’s executive board is conducting a full and thorough investigation.”
Colleagues of the three professors claiming wrongful dismissal for giving a report of Richard Roberts’ misconduct, now fear for the reputation of the university and the future of the Roberts’ ministry, which grew from Southern tent revivals to one of the most successful evangelical empires in the country, hauling in tens of millions of dollars in contributions a year. For example, the university reported nearly $76 million in revenue in 2005, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The 89 year-old Oral Roberts now lives in California, but he still holds the position of chancellor of Oral Roberts University. However, the university describes him as semi-retired, and his son presides over day-to-day operations on the campus. The university’s campus, which had a modern, space-age design when it was first constructed in the early 1960s, now looks strangely outdated, not unlike Disney’s Tomorrowland in The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando (FL).
Some students are thinking about transferring to another school, because the scandal has “severely devalued and hurt the reputation of [their degrees].” “We have asked and asked and asked to see the finances of our school and what they’re doing with our money, and we’ve been told no,” said one of those students. “Now we know why. As a student, I’m not going to stand for it any longer.”
The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by three former professors who are suing Oral Roberts University and Richard Roberts, claiming that they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school’s involvement in a local political race. According to the suit, in 2005 Roberts asked a professor to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner’s bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university’s nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.
The professors also said their dismissals came after they turned over to the board of regents a copy of a report that documented the moral and ethical lapses on the part of Roberts and his family. That report alleged dozens of alleged instances of misconduct, including:
- A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.
- Mrs. Roberts, who is a member of the Board of Regents and is referred to as ORU’s “first lady” on the university’s website, frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to “underage males who had been provided phones at university expense.”
- The university’s jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an “evangelistic function of the president.”
- Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico’s clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, “As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off.” The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.
- Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.
- University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts’ home to do the daughters’ homework.
- The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts’ children.
- The Roberts’ home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.
Tim Brooker, one of the professors who sued, said he that fears for the university’s survival if certain changes aren’t made. “All over that campus, there are signs up that say, ‘And God said, build me a university, build it on my authority, and build it on the Holy Spirit,'” Brooker said.
Unfortunately, it seems that the ownership of the university has shifted.
The Oral Roberts University Scandal
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