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Oklahoma Christian University’s firing of longtime professor sparks controversy

The Christian university blames Michael O’Keefe’s dismissal on ‘gross misconduct,’ but he cites his invitation of an openly gay guest speaker.

On March 7, Oklahoma Christian University fired Michael O’Keefe, a tenured graphic design professor who taught at the university for 41 years.

O’Keefe and his attorney, Kevin Jacobs, a former Oklahoma Christian president, claim the firing was the result of the longtime professor including an openly gay guest speaker in his senior-level “Business of Branding” course.

Michael O'Keefe

Michael O’Keefe

“I thought it went well,” O’Keefe told The Christian Chronicle. “The next thing I knew, six days later, I was pulled into the office of chief academic officer and legal counsel. I was told I was fired, and my jaw hit the floor.”

The university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, asserts that O’Keefe’s termination stemmed from the content of the speaker’s presentation — and the professor’s alleged subsequent effort to squelch student complaints.

The controversy has moved beyond the Oklahoma City campus to the front page of the local newspaper The Oklahoman and become the lead story on TV newcasts. O’Keefe’s dismissal has even drawn attention from national media, ranging from the Daily Beast to NBC News.

O’Keefe, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, said the speaker was one of four individuals invited to discuss “resilience, compassion and love.”

Oklahoma Christian maintains the speaker’s “inappropriate and graphic language of a sexual nature” crossed the line. In its letter of termination, the university said the dismissal was based on “gross misconduct, conduct contrary to the mission and values of Oklahoma Christian University, and disregard of the policies and values of the university.”

In a March 16 email to employees, Stephen Eck, Oklahoma Christian’s chief legal counsel, said, “Let me be clear: the university does not terminate employment, nor did we terminate employment, of a professor for inviting a speaker to appropriately share a perspective related to course content.”

Stephen Eck

Stephen Eck

Eck also said, “The unchallenged language used and content shared with students is unacceptable in any class at OC no matter who says it or the speaker’s orientation.” O’Keefe disputes Eck’s characterization of the speaker’s comments. The termination letter did not enumerate specific misconduct. The Chronicle is not identifying the speaker because the newspaper has been unable to reach him for comment.

According to Philip Patterson, a distinguished professor of mass communication at Oklahoma Christian, tenured faculty for the past several years have been required to sign annual contracts that include an arbitration clause. The clause would apply to any dispute, controversy or claimed breach of the contract.

The contract also attaches a copy of the university covenant and specifies that signing the contract indicates agreement to “abide by the tenets articulated therein.”

The covenant includes adherence to a traditional view of marriage: “We strive to treat our bodies with the honor due the temple of the Holy Spirit — honoring God’s plan that sexual relations be a part of a marriage between a man and a woman, dressing modestly and avoiding any self-destructive practices (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”

The covenant also states, “By choosing to be a part of the Oklahoma Christian University community, every member of the student body, staff, faculty, and Board of Trustees affirms his or her understanding of, respect for, and commitment to abide by the principles, and standards of conduct set forth in this covenant.”

O’Keefe was the only graphic design faculty member in a program with 50 student majors, according to Amy Beauchamp, program chair for art and design. Beauchamp said she was not consulted about the firing and was surprised by it.

“Anybody is surprised when you don’t have knowledge of any investigation going on of that sort of thing,” said Beauchamp, who learned of the decision from chief academic officer Jeff McCormack on the same day O’Keefe was informed.

John Fletcher, divisional chair for fine and performing arts, also said he had no role in any investigation or decision in the matter.

“It was above the level of dean of our college,” Fletcher said. Charles Rix, dean of the College of Humanities and Bible, is in Vienna, Austria, this semester with Oklahoma Christian’s study abroad program.

“I can’t speak historically for the university,” Fletcher added, “but in my personal experience this is unusual that someone in my position, or dean’s or program chair role, would not be involved. In my experience that is atypical.” Fletcher has been a faculty member or administrator at Oklahoma Christian for 35 years.

Banners seen on the Oklahoma Christian University campus.

Banners seen on the Oklahoma Christian University campus.

Fletcher described O’Keefe as “a highly successful faculty member, driven to develop an excellent program,” and added that O’Keefe has been “highly respected in the wider artistic community in addition to on our campus.”

Beauchamp said a search will begin for a new graphic design faculty member. Meanwhile, she is teaching one of O’Keefe’s courses for the balance of the semester. Another is being covered by alumni guest speakers, and an adjunct professor has been hired to finish the “Business of Branding” course.

O’Keefe said the other speakers in that course were a woman who had been physically abused by her first husband and later lost the love of her life to Alzheimer’s, a Vietnam veteran who overcame PTSD and a woman whose husband was killed in a plane crash 24 hours before she gave birth to their second child.

The gay man who spoke is an alumnus of Oklahoma Christian’s graphic design program and taught in it as a regular adjunct for about 20 years, though not for the past several years,  according to Fletcher.

“I emphasize that, as Christians, we should listen to others, whether we agree with them or not.”

O’Keefe said he did receive approval just a year ago to use the man as an adjunct for a three-week basic photography course. The fired professor said he had not previously been cautioned against having the man as a speaker.

“These are adults about to graduate,” O’Keefe said of the students in the class, describing the unit as emphasizing overcoming challenges. “I emphasize that, as Christians, we should listen to others, whether we agree with them or not.”

However, Eck’s email said the speaker told the class about his history of exposing his genitals to others and leading others to participate in a game he called “truth or dick.”

O’Keefe said he did not recall the speaker referring to the game by that name, but the speaker did discuss a traumatic experience involving a game with a group of boys when he was a young boy.

“He explained to students that this was a pivotal experience when he was 10 years old,” O’Keefe said. “He felt it was critical because it was a turning point. … He told students up front if they didn’t feel comfortable to feel free to leave.”

O’Keefe said the story was only a brief portion of a 40-minute talk to the class, which is composed of “adults 21 to 26 years old who are about to graduate.”

Eck’s letter to faculty and staff also accused O’Keefe of trying to squelch student concerns and  intimidate students who might complain, an accusation the professor flatly denies.

Related: Christian universities put on ‘shame list’

Jacobs, O’Keefe’s attorney, served as president of Oklahoma Christian from 1996 to 2001. Jacobs told The Oklahoman that Eck’s letter “misquotes both my client and the guest speaker and puts them in a defamatory and false light.”

Jacobs issued a press release that stated in part:

“While this issue is polarizing within the religious community, it is certainly a reality within our world and nothing to shy away from discussing within the context of an academic institution, especially … one bold enough to call itself a Christian one. Letting students expect a world where you may be different is the message Mr. O’Keefe wanted his students to hear. That’s the message this speaker delivered, not an advocacy of gay rights.”

The Chronicle made interview requests of Oklahoma Christian’s chief academic officer and the university’s counsel and emailed questions concerning O’Keefe’s firing. Kelly Hughes, who is handling media inquiries for the university, replied, “At this time because of the possibility of a lawsuit, the university cannot provide details on these matters.”

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].

Filed under: Christian universities homosexuality Kevin Jacobs Memorial Road Church of Christ Michael O'Keefe National News Oklahoma Christian University Top Stories

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