Shortly after beginning his new job as president of Oral Roberts University in July, Dr. Mark Rutland came to a surprising conclusion about the school, its alumni, and its faculty, staff members and students.
"I've done a lot of consulting work over the years, and I've never encountered a university where the sense of mission and purpose was as engraved in the DNA as it is here," he said. "It makes it very easy to work up from that. I would hazard to say that there are freshmen at ORU who understand this university's mission better than faculty members at some schools."
Rutland describes that mission as "going forward as the embodiment of a university that produces professional graduates in a variety of disciplines to achieve success and impact the world for God and good."
Rutland--who came to ORU from Southeastern University in Florida--credits the articulation of that mission to the university's founder, the late Oral Roberts, who died in December at the age of 91. By laying out ORU's mission in terms that came to be so widely and passionately embraced, Rutland believes Roberts created an enduring legacy at the 45-year-old university that bears his name.
Unlike other schools, ORU will never question its purpose, he believes.
"It's there, and it's clear," Rutland said. "There doesn't seem to be any argument like there is at some schools: Are we a technical institute, or are we a liberal arts university?"
Rutland insisted that won't change, even with Roberts' death. What is changing, he said, is the university's ability to plan for the future, which in recent years was hampered by scandal, layoffs, lawsuits by faculty members alleging wrongful termination, and severe financial problems that were decades in the making.
Only in the recent past has ORU begun to move out from under that cloud. After allegations that he had misused university funds, Roberts' son Richard--who had taken over as ORU's president in 1993--resigned in 2007, leading to Rutland's eventual hiring last January and move into the president's office in July. In September, Rutland made the announcement that the university's long-term debt of more than $50 million had been resolved.
"It's huge, of course," Rutland said of that step. "On one hand, it's important from a financial standpoint. It was another rock we didn't have to carry on our back.
"It was also important from an interior and exterior standpoint. The public relations bounce we got was pretty substantial," he said, adding that alumni and donors are always looking for assurances that the school is moving in the right direction.
Perhaps most important, he said, was that it made it possible for ORU officials to begin casting their attention forward rather than backward.
"It releases you to concentrate your efforts on another direction," Rutland said. "As Forrest Gump said, 'One less thing to worry about.' "
Rutland doesn't take credit for the resolution of that long-term debt.
A $70 million donation from an Oklahoma businessman started ORU on the road to economic recovery, and a corresponding fundraising campaign by the university that began in February 2008 generated another $22 million, taking care of the rest.
Still, it was a big day when Rutland was able to announce the long-term debt had been resolved.
"I think by the time I arrived, there was already a sense of momentum and expectancy," he said of the debt resolution. "But people were waiting to see it in print. When it does happen, it's like so many things in life--you want to really see it parked in the driveway. Morale on this campus is now very high. There's a tremendous sense of uplift."
Despite the good feeling that change has engendered on the campus, Rutland is the first to admit ORU isn't out of the woods financially. When he talks about the challenges facing his university, he acknowledges that money problems remain.
"Number one is to bring our annual budget in line with current reality," he said. "That is something we are chopping at with an ax in both hands, although we are trying to avoid chopping into bone."
That deficit spending is one of four main problems Rutland identified at ORU when he came on board. He said the school has eliminated or made substantial progress on the other three--the long-term debt has been addressed, $20 million in deferred maintenance has been performed recently and declining enrollment figures have been reversed. But if the deficit spending can't be brought under control, the other three difficulties will re-emerge, more challenging than ever, he said.
According to Rutland, the second challenge facing ORU is to foster an environment in which growth not only can occur but be sustained.
"I'm an old athlete and coach," he said. "And I believe momentum is almost like another person in our life. We need to create that momentum for growth. Once we have it, we can begin to grow exponentially."
One of the factors contributing to the building of that momentum will be the increase in enrollment Rutland referenced earlier.
The problems of the past contributed to many years of declining enrollment, a trend that didn't change until last fall. Rutland said ORU's fall enrollment in 2008 was approximately 3,020, a figure that increased to 3,140 in fall 2009. And the projections for fall 2010--based on early applications--are so rosy that Rutland finds himself in the unusual position of having to manage expectations.
"That kind of surge looks unrealistic," he said. "I think that as we're drawing better and better students, they tend to be better organized. So I think a lot of those may be early applications."
But Rutland would love to be proven wrong. Regrowing the size of the student body means an increase from revenue generated by tuition, and that's one way to get the university back on track financially.
"We want to move from economic sustainability to economic vitality," he said. "We want to create movement where you can try things and not fear failure, reach certain levels of manageable risk where you can not succeed at something and still not sink your whole university."
ORU's goal in the short term is to reach a student body of 4,500 students, Rutland said, something he believes can be accomplished within six years.
"If we do it any faster than that, I think we can clearly say miracles do happen at ORU," he said.
Throughout the long term, Rutland would like to see enrollment climb even higher, though he believes that is years in the future.
But those positive developments have been somewhat offset by the sense of loss the university community feels over Roberts' death, Rutland said, adding that ORU's founder remained an energizing presence for the school despite his advanced age and the fact that he lived in California.
"He was a part of every gathering or event we planned, whether it was homecoming or an alumni gathering," Rutland said. "There was just a sense of his ubiquity at a spiritual level."
Rutland recalled one of the final encounters he had with Roberts, a telephone conversation between the two that occurred after the ORU men's basketball team upset Missouri 60-59 on Dec. 9 at the Mabee Center.
"He loved basketball, and he had all these questions about the final score, how it happened, the paid attendance," Rutland said. "He said, 'Tell me about the excitement level.' It was fun to be able to do those things. I miss that.
"He was also very affirming to me personally," Rutland said, adding that when the presidency of the university opened, Roberts himself chose Rutland for the job, an indication of how much sway Roberts continued to wield over the school in his final years.
The strength of his personality never faded, Rutland said.
"His age and ever failing health and vitality didn't seem to diminish our students' affection for him," he said. "You might think some 17-year-old freshman from New Jersey might not even be aware of who (Roberts) was, but he could still electrify a room when he came here."
Rutland said he regretted not having the opportunity to get to know Roberts better, but he values the time he spent with him and the influence Roberts had on his own life.
"I'll tell you something about Oral Roberts that a lot of people don't know," he said. "When you spent time with him, you always felt better about how God is and better about who you are."
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