Regents chairman says ORU $55M in debt

Tulsa_Oral Roberts University, which has been engulfed in accusations of lavish spending by its president, faces a crippling debt load, the evangelical school's board of regents chairman disclosed Wednesday.

Regents Chairman George Pearsons told The Associated Press that ongoing maintenance costs and low financial support from donors have put Oral Roberts University $55 million in debt.

"Honestly, we've been struggling financially," Pearsons said. "Really my goal - and it's a big one - my goal is to obliterate the debt.

"It is the desire of the board to be able to manage our finances in such a way that we can start chopping off debt here and there."

University president Richard Roberts has taken a temporary leave of absence while fighting a lawsuit claiming out-of-control spending, and his father, Oral Roberts, has returned to Oklahoma from California to take a greater role in guiding the school he founded in 1963.

The 5,700-student university is a product of Oral Roberts' ministry, which grew from Southern tent revivals to one of the most successful evangelical empires in the country.

The university reported nearly $76 million in revenue in 2005, according to the Internal Revenue Service, and one former regent said its endowment once approached $60 million. The school did not respond to questions Wednesday about the exact size of its endowment, but published reports have estimated it at about $33 million.

At a chapel service on campus this week, Oral Roberts told students and faculty "the devil is not going to steal ORU."

Pearsons, pastor of Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, has been the regents chairman since June. He is overseeing an outside firm's investigation of the allegations documented in the lawsuit.

Last week, Pearsons promised nothing would be "swept under the rug" during the probe, but said Wednesday he could not guarantee that all of its findings would be made public.

"Certainly, we're not trying to hide things from people, but at the same time, there's a sense of sensitivity toward information that I have to walk a fine line on," Pearsons said. "To say after the investigation is over, are we going to sit down with you and have a complete story about it all, probably not."

Pearsons also acknowledged that mistakes were "probably" made and that he is trying to restore the community's trust in the university.

"I've made mistakes as a pastor, I've made mistakes as an executive director, who hasn't?" he said. "Maybe I'm making mistakes right now in what I'm doing, but the key here is if you're willing to learn from your mistakes, you can do better."

Pearsons said in his history with the university, he was not familiar with any past reports of excess spending, and says Oral and Richard Roberts do not have opulent lifestyles.

"It's a perception of a lifestyle that in my observation is just not true, it's not there," he said. "We're not talking about walls of gold and all that."

An Oct. 2 lawsuit filed by three former ORU professors says they were wrongfully dismissed accuses Richard Roberts of misspending at donors' expense.

Accusations include the university jet being used to take one daughter and several friends on a $29,411 senior trip to the Bahamas, the Roberts' university-owned home being remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years and a stable of horses provided for the Roberts' daughters.

"The smoke that we've seen in this city for so many years, we will continue to show the evidence that shows that there is a fire," said Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson, who is representing the dismissed professors.

The week the lawsuit was filed, Richard Roberts said at a chapel service that God told him to deny the allegations. He said God told him: "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."

Justin Juozapavicius, AP Writer © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.