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Christian University denies due process to longtime professor fired for gay guest speaker’s story about resilience and authenticity
Last month, reports emerged that Oklahoma Christian University fired a tenured professor who invited a gay guest speaker to class. FIRE’s investigation of the matter confirms that not only did OC fire professor Michael O’Keefe after 41 years of service for exercising the academic freedom promised to him by the university — it did so before even giving him a chance to defend himself.
FIRE wrote to OC’s administration this week, calling on the university to immediately reinstate O’Keefe and to ensure any investigation of alleged wrongdoing complies with its commitments to due process and academic freedom.
On March 1, O’Keefe’s class, “The Business of Branding Yourself,” featured guest speaker Scott Hale, who discussed his experience growing up in Oklahoma, touching on themes of authenticity, resilience, and coming to terms with his identity as a gay man. One small part of the talk in particular irked OC’s administration, in which Hale recounted playing “truth or dare” as a young boy to illustrate the peer pressure he experienced. He said the game eventually degraded into “truth or dick” once another boy dared Hale to expose himself, which he felt compelled to do.
Less than one week after that class session, O’Keefe, who started teaching at OC in 1981, received a letter immediately terminating his employment based on “gross misconduct” and “conduct contrary to the mission and values of Oklahoma Christian University.” He was ordered to “leave campus immediately.”
The letter gave no further explanation for why O’Keefe was fired.
It’s almost as if the university believes its assertions about O’Keefe would not survive the scrutiny that due process would provide.
After the controversy went public, OC’s chief legal counsel said the university fired O’Keefe because of complaints about the guest speaker’s stories and inappropriate language, including “telling the class about his history of exposing his genitals to others and leading others to participate in a game he called ‘truth or dick’”—a misleading description of the Hale’s remarks, to say the least.
The chief legal counsel also claimed that, after the class, “it appeared that O’Keefe attempted to squelch students’ reporting or complaining about the content by intimidating a student and dismissing rather than addressing student concerns” (emphasis added). Counsel also claimed that O’Keefe discouraged complaints by claiming he had a “special relationship with university leadership and he used that special relationship to his advantage.”
What that email failed to mention is that OC gave O’Keefe no prior notice of these allegations, let alone an opportunity to contest them before the university abruptly terminated him.
O’Keefe denies the allegations that he tried to stop students from complaining about the guest speaker, underscoring the need for a fair truth-finding process that allows him to tell his side of the story. The chief legal counsel’s use of the word “appeared” when recounting these allegations reveals OC’s own uncertainty about their veracity. It’s almost as if the university believes its assertions about O’Keefe would not survive the scrutiny that due process would provide.
Notably, OC changed its Academic Policy Manual this year to provide less process to faculty members facing the most serious charges. In the 2021 version, faculty committee review is no longer available for charges of “gross misconduct,” “moral turpitude,” or “conduct contrary to the mission and purposes of the University.” But OC’s application of this watered-down provision to faculty like O’Keefe, who received tenure before OC revised its manual, unjustly pulls the rug out from under them.
The manual still appears to entitle tenured faculty to the other procedures from the 2020 version, now listed as numbered items under the “no faculty committee review” provision. The language is ambiguous and confusing. For instance, the accused faculty member “may speak on her or his own behalf before all bodies or individuals reviewing the [chief academic officer’s] decision,” but it is unclear what body or individual would review the decision if not the aforementioned faculty committee. If OC intended to strip tenured faculty of all of the prior procedures, it failed to do so clearly and unambiguously, so it had no grounds to give O’Keefe zero process before firing him.
The change to OC’s adjudication process is perplexing — the most serious charges should receive more process, not less. That’s a basic principle of due process. But OC apparently wants the power to make a reckless rush to judgment, giving tenured faculty with decades of service no chance to even respond to the worst charges of misconduct before kicking them to the curb.
Firing a tenured professor without process defeats the purpose of tenure: to protect faculty from summary dismissal for exercising their academic freedom. As FIRE told OC:
By arrogating to itself a new authority to fire a tenured professor without any process whatsoever, simply by labeling something he allegedly said or did as “gross misconduct” or “conduct contrary to the mission and purposes of the University” (offenses OC does not define), OC does an end-run around tenure protections and effectively nullifies its promises of academic freedom.
Although O’Keefe has an opportunity to appeal his dismissal, that does not make up for the egregious lack of process that preceded it. Not only must O’Keefe now start from a presumption of guilt, reversing the burden of proof that is OC’s to bear, there is also no indication he will receive a hearing or any other procedural safeguards.
We previously explained that O’Keefe’s decision to host a guest speaker is protected by OC’s promises of academic freedom. Although OC is a private religious university, it guarantees faculty the right to “invite speakers of all political ideologies to speak in their classes” and to “discuss controversial subjects and viewpoints relevant to their academic area without undue restriction or fear of reprisal from sources inside the University.”
The university must reinstate O’Keefe and ensure any investigation of alleged misconduct respects his rights under OC policy.
Hale’s talk was relevant to O’Keefe’s course. O’Keefe says he has invited multiple guest speakers like Hale to class to tell stories about “persevering through personal hardship.” His attorney, Kevin Jacobs, explained that O’Keefe’s goal was to teach his students two significant lessons about “branding yourself.” One was to impart to students the importance of knowing yourself — who you are and what you stand for — before you brand yourself, and not letting external pressures or circumstances wholly define you. O’Keefe also sought to help his students develop the skill of empathy and to think about how to relate to a wide variety of people and their unique stories.
While OC reserves the authority to limit academic freedom “when behavior or expression seriously and adversely affects the University mission,” it states that this limit is to be “narrowly construed so as not to impede the interchange of ideas.” As FIRE’s letter points out:
Whatever expressive limits such a vague carveout purports to create, it cannot reasonably be understood to cancel the explicitly enumerated academic freedom rights guaranteed to OC faculty, including the right to host controversial speakers and to discuss controversial subjects without “fear of reprisal.” It is nonsensical for OC to declare its mission “demands” these freedoms and then, when a faculty member like O’Keefe exercises them, fire him for “conduct contrary to the mission and values” of the university.
Unfortunately, this affair may be part of a developing trend at OC. The university’s student newspaper, Talon News, recently reported that OC librarian Dara Tinius resigned in February after administrators confronted her over her social media post criticizing OC’s decision to discontinue “small chapels” and the impact it had on LGBTQ students. Tinius claims administrators called her into a meeting and ordered her to rescind her faculty-approved tenure application and submit to one year of probation — or the president would deny the application.
We hope OC’s administration does not also think, incorrectly, that any speech critical of its decisions is “gross misconduct.”
FIRE urges OC to take its promises of academic freedom and due process seriously. The university must reinstate O’Keefe and ensure any investigation of alleged misconduct respects his rights under OC policy.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).
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