Built on faith, grounded for the future
As Oral Roberts University celebrates its 50th anniversary, a look back at the iconic school’s origins, challenges and rebirth.
Five hundred steps northeast of the busy intersection at East 81st Street and South Lewis Avenue, Roberta Roberts Potts can still smell alfalfa.
Standing in the heart of the Oral Roberts University campus, she sees the land as it was when she was 12 years old — a farm on Tulsa’s southern edge.
But between 1962 and 1965, the farm transformed into a university built primarily on the faith of her father, Oral Roberts, a one-time tent preacher who became one of the world’s most well-known televangelists.
Now an Arizona-based attorney, Roberts Potts recalls ORU in its infancy.
“I remember when my dad first announced he would build a university,” Roberts Potts recalls, “and that young people would come and learn to hear God’s voice. It just sparked something in me that never left. I couldn’t wait to get old enough to go to Oral Roberts University.”
As it turned out, Roberts Potts was not alone in her enthusiasm for ORU. Within its first few years, ORU was home to hundreds of students from all over the world.
In 2015, Oral Roberts University celebrates its 50th year. Since the day it opened in 1965, ORU has strived to provide a “whole person education” to students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees, according to the school’s mission statement.
The alfalfa that once covered this ground is known for its deep root system and resilience to drought.
Looking back on the past 50 years, ORU has undoubtedly weathered its own difficult seasons, but the school’s deep roots have strengthened and prepared it for a new season in the sun.
When Oral Roberts was 17 years old, he was dying of tuberculosis. According to Oral Roberts Ministries, while attending a revival meeting, he was prayed over and had a vision that he would one day build a university. Fortunately, he recovered and went on to become a pastor and author. In 1947, he founded his evangelistic ministry, conducting international crusades and prayer meetings.
In the ‘50s, he brought television cameras to his crusades and meetings, which exposed millions of viewers to his message that God is good and wants his followers to be healthy and prosperous.
By 1958, he established the Abundant Life Prayer Group, a 24-hour prayer request line. It has been in operation for more than 50 years and has taken 26 million calls. By the early 1960s, his feverish vision of a university was becoming a reality.
He raised enough funds to break ground in 1962. In 1965, seven buildings and just over 300 students began life on campus. Two years later, more than 18,000 people attended the official dedication, at which prominent evangelist Billy Graham presided.
Almost 2,800 miles to the southeast in Trinidad, Donald Ryan and his family listened to Roberts’ broadcasts nearly every Sunday morning.
In 1967, Ryan completed the U.S. equivalent of high school but had no plans to pursue music at the university level. By 1968, his skills impressed a featured performer and judge while at a music competition, which secured Ryan a place in the third class at ORU to study piano.
“No one at ORU had ever heard me play,” Ryan remembers, “but they took a chance on me. And I took a chance on ORU. My mother was elated.”
Although adjusting to collegiate life in America was not without its challenges, Ryan recalls the ORU campus was a friendly place for a person of color to be in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“I did not sense racial bias from the administration or the students,” he says.
By 1969, Ryan met his future wife, Sharon, (another ORU graduate) and began to make a name for himself as a professional pianist. Whether he recognized it at the time, moving from Trinidad to Tulsa was a transformative experience.
“I learned to pursue musical excellence while I was at ORU,” he says, “and I have never stopped pursuing that.”
The next decade was a golden one for ORU. Roberts was at the height of his popularity, hosting the quarterly television broadcast “Contact” that featured celebrity and student performers, including his son Richard.
As donations poured in to Roberts’ ministry, the campus expanded to make room for more students and cutting-edge technology.
The Higher Learning Commission accredited the university in 1971. That fall, David Dyson stepped onto campus as a transfer student from Rice University. Dyson remembers Roberts coming to the cafeteria to talk with students.
“At that time,” Dyson says, “the student body was small, but because of Oral’s vision, people thought big. It was like, ‘What can stop us?’”
In 1973, the university added the 105,000-square-foot Mabee Center to host basketball games and other events.
The ORU athletic department rose with the new arena. In 1977, Anthony Roberts made history, scoring 66 points in one basketball game for the Titans, ORU’s former team name. In 1978, the ORU baseball team advanced to the College World Series, and six players were selected in that year’s Major League Baseball draft.
At the time, the ORU campus was the No. 1 tourist attraction in Oklahoma, according to the university. Students were told to act as ambassadors to visitors, providing directions to the Prayer Tower or taking photos in front of ORU’s gleaming golden buildings.
In 1977, a plane crash took the lives of Oral and Evelyn Roberts’ oldest daughter, Rebecca Roberts Nash, and her husband. In the aftermath, Roberts said he had a vision of a “900-foot Jesus” who instructed him to build a Christian medical center. Later that year, Roberts announced plans to build the City of Faith. Another fundraising effort funded the $250 million, three-building endeavor.
As the first classes of undergraduate students received degrees, ORU expanded its graduate level offerings to include business and theology in 1976, dentistry in 1977 and law in 1979.
Dyson joined the second class of students in ORU’s Master of Business program. By the end of the decade, he joined the university’s staff as registrar.
In the 1980s, the Mabee Center hosted musical acts including James Taylor, Tina Turner and The Beach Boys. The men’s golf team finished second in the NCAA tournament in 1981. On campus, Ryan, who joined the faculty in 1980, remembers, “The music department was vibrant because Richard and Oral were featuring it on their television programs instead of using musicians from Burbank.” The school celebrated its 10,000th graduate in 1988.
In 1981, the City of Faith — with its hospital, clinic and research facility, all built debt-free — was dedicated across the street from the ORU campus.
But within the first year, it became clear that opponents of the project had been correct when they pointed out that Tulsa already had enough hospital beds. According to an article published at the time, City of Faith CEO Dr. James E. Winslow Jr. said the hospital was operating at “a considerable loss.”
In an effort to address mounting debt, ORU’s dental school closed in 1985. Additionally, the American Bar Association took issue with ORU’s Code of Honor pledge in 1979. After a costly court battle, it won accreditation, but in 1986 the law school was transferred to CBN University (now Regent University) in Virginia.
According to Dyson’s memory of the event, “Oral gave the law school to CBN. He didn’t charge them a penny for it even though we had our own financial need.”
In 1986, Roberts put ORU in the national spotlight when he said he believed God would “call him home” if he didn’t raise $8 million for the medical center within one year. The accompanying media storm was swift and violent.
“Many people didn’t know how to interpret Oral,” Dyson recalls. “Oral said basically, ‘There would be no purpose for me to remain if we can’t do this.’ People interpreted that to mean God was going to kill him, but Oral always thought of God as a good God. He never thought God was going to strike him down.”
Scandals surrounding other well-known televangelists of the time like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker did not aid the reputation of the school, or of Roberts himself, in the public eye. Ryan, who was on the Alumni Association Board at the time, calls it a “dark time.”
“It was difficult for alumni to know what was real and what to believe,” Dyson says.
Although the $8 million was received through a series of pleas from Oral and Richard Roberts, the City of Faith closed in 1989. The university still owns the buildings, now named CityPlex Towers, which is rented as “Oklahoma’s largest office center.”
By the beginning of the next decade, Oral Roberts was ready to pass his presidency on to his heir, Richard. Video of the latter’s 1993 inauguration shows Oral Roberts telling his son, “Your mother and I … believe that you are anointed by God … to be the second president.” The crowd laughs when Roberts adds, “And I’m just delighted that the mantle is on you and now off of me. Praise the Lord.”
At the time, Dyson was an associate professor in the School of Business. Recalling the early years of Richard’s presidency, Dyson says, “Richard was stepping up to a situation that was very difficult. He had to take on the debt that was left behind.”
The year 1993 marked another big change at ORU. Since the university’s founding, the school’s mascot had been the Titan. But some alumni and students had become uneasy about the Titan’s origins in Greek mythology. In celebration of the school’s return to NCAA competition, ORU took on a new persona. Eli the Golden Eagle was hatched out of a papier-mâché egg before the first regular season basketball game.
The Golden Eagle proved to be good luck. Bill Self was hired as the men’s basketball coach in 1993. Two years later, the ORU volleyball team advanced to the “Elite 8” in NCAA competition. Mike Carter was hired as athletic director in 1994 and has since spent 21 seasons with the Golden Eagles.
The earliest years of the 21st century passed relatively uneventfully at ORU. Scott Sutton became the men’s basketball coach and took his team to three NCAA tournaments. A new, slightly relaxed student dress code was adopted.
But debts and financial concerns persisted, and the campus became dilapidated.
Almost overnight in 2007, ORU was back in the spotlight. Three former professors filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging a variety of financial and moral misdeeds by Richard Roberts and his family.
Dyson and Ryan both remember a sense of discouragement that covered the campus at that time.
“It felt like there was so much to fight through,” Ryan says.
On Nov. 13, 2007, seven weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the tenured faculty approved a vote of “no confidence” in Richard Roberts. Ten days later, he resigned.
“Often for family businesses or nonprofits, when the founder dies, the business dies,” Dyson says. “Richard struggled … but he kept ORU alive long enough to get to the next generation of leadership.”
In 2008, ORU received its biggest gift ever providing a way to ameliorate its financial problems. Mart Green, heir to the Hobby Lobby family of companies and founder of Mardel Christian and Educational Supply, pledged a $70 million gift to ORU. Green was named chairman of the board and helped usher in a new season of economic accountability and governance.
In January 2009, Green announced the board of trustees had voted Mark Rutland the third president of the university. Days before his inauguration, the university made a jubilant announcement: ORU had no more debt.
According to Ryan, “The morale took a tremendous boost after Rutland came. He knew what was needed, academically as well as spiritually. The alumni were convinced there were brighter times ahead.”
The ORU campus received a facelift for the first time in many years. Public spaces were repaired and artfully landscaped; a gleaming new student center opened, featuring state-of-the-art technology and public study spaces; and existing structures were updated and reimagined for modern university life.
In December 2009, at the dawn of a new chapter for ORU, Oral Roberts died at 91. Thousands attended his public memorial service at the Mabee Center.
Rutland likened his term as president of ORU to a “housekeeper” in a hotel.
“I felt that my job was to … come in, tidy up and leave,” he said in his final address at chapel services. In 2013, Dr. William Wilson was inaugurated as ORU’s fourth president. He has turned his focus to the university’s reach around the world.
“We envision that within the next 10 years we will have a viable, sustainable presence on every inhabited continent in the world,” Wilson says. In the meantime, Wilson says ORU is increasing its global reach by building a Global Learning Center where students will be able to “immediately connect with the world online.” He says the university also is becoming more intentional about helping international students make the transition to life in Tulsa.
In spite of far-reaching goals, ORU remains committed to its “spiritual roots” and to Oral Roberts’ initial vision for a “whole person education.”
“Our students are serious about their studies and their spiritual life,” Wilson says. “ORU is a place they can pursue both.”
As the school prepares for its 50th birthday celebration this month, Wilson looks back on the past decade.
“Out of our crisis,” he says, “ORU emerged healthier. We learned a lot of lessons that made us stronger, and now we have the opportunity to dream again.”
Frequently asked questions about ORU
Can non-Christians attend? Over the past 50 years, ORU has enrolled students of various faiths. Students are required to sign ORU’s “Honor Code,” which restricts signers from drinking alcohol, using tobacco, participating in any sexual act outside of a “traditional” marriage and cursing, according the ORU communications department.
What are some common misconceptions about ORU? According to ORU President Dr. William Wilson, “ORU is not a Bible school. We teach the Bible, but most of our graduates are not in theology or ministry. Our most sought after programs are nursing and business administration.”
What are the origins of the “Praying Hands” sculpture? The Praying Hands were sculpted by Leonard McMurry and cast in Mexico as part of the original design for the City of Faith. Ed Bates, now of Bates LZW Architects, worked with Oral Roberts’ nephew, Bill Roberts, to manage the relocation of the Praying Hands from the City of Faith to the ORU campus.
The sculpture weighs 31 tons and was once the largest casting in the world.
“The magnitude of the sculpture is quite an awesome thing,” Bates says. “The relocation required cutting the hands into three pieces that were moved by truck.”
The hands, which are 60 feet long, now sit atop a granite base that makes the entire statue reach 90 feet into the air.
Did John Lennon really write to Oral Roberts? According to the ORU Oracle, in 1972, Oral Roberts received a letter that was signed by “Ex-Beatle John Lennon.” The letter included confessions of drug use, past regrets and spiritual questions. Beatle memorabilia specialists have dismissed the three-page letter as a fake. But according to Steve Turner, author of “The Gospel According to the Beatles,” Lennon frequently tuned in to the programs of America’s famed televangelists, including Oral Roberts.
How many countries and states do ORU students represent? In the fall of 2014, ORU welcomed students from 84 countries and all 50 states.
What inspired ORU’s architecture? Architect Frank Wallace worked closely with Oral Roberts to design the campus’ unique architecture. Spiritual symbolism played a defining role in the style and design of each building. For example, the shape of the Chapel building is modeled after the “Christian shield of faith,” and its pointed arches indicate hands joined in prayer, according to the ORU Oracle.
Is someone praying in the prayer tower 24/7? No. The Prayer Tower is open from 7 a.m.-midnight, Monday-Saturday to to students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is open to the public noon-5 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Inside the Prayer Tower are individual rooms for private prayer, a larger area for groups and a chapel on the second floor. The university receives prayer requests from individuals around the world. Spiritual formation staff pray for submitted needs and host daily corporate prayer and worship gatherings, according to the ORU communications department.
10 notable ORU students and alumni
- Clifton Taulbert, author
- Jim Stovall, author; founder and president of Narrative Television Network
- LeAnne Taylor, KOTV anchor
- Madeline Manning Mims, founder and president of the U.S. Council for Sports Chaplaincy; 1968 Olympic gold medalist
- Kari Jobe, singer/songwriter
- Michele Bachmann, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives; former Minnesota State Senator
- David Osborne, “Pianist to the Presidents”
- Andretti Bain, 2008 Olympic silver medalist
- Tim Lyons, president and CEO of Tulsa Teachers Credit Union
- Kelly Wright, FOXNews reporter; America’s News Headquarters
Visit 50.oru.edu for anniversary event information.
Photos courtesy ORU unless otherwise noted