SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 07, 2022

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Oklahoma Christian University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 7, 2022, the administration of Oklahoma Christian University (OC) fired graphic design professor Michael O’Keefe after Scott Hale— a former OC professor and alumnus who is openly gay  — spoke to one of O’Keefe’s classes.

Prior to his dismissal from the private Christian college, O’Keefe was a tenured member of the faculty and had worked at OC for over 40 years. According to his lawyer, who sent a statement to local news station KFOR, OC allegedly fired O’Keefe for “gross misconduct, conduct contrary to the mission and values of [OKC] and disregard for the policies and values of the university.” He and his lawyer assert that the dismissal is the result of O’Keefe inviting an openly gay OC alumnus and former adjunct professor to discuss overcoming challenges in life as part of a speaker series for his senior-level course “The Business of Branding Yourself.”

When KFOR inquired about the allegations with the university, OC’s Chief Legal Counsel, Stephen Eck, responded by stating that the dismissal followed a “thorough review process” and that the university prioritizes the students’ “wellbeing” in all its decisions. News 9 later published a letter Eck sent to OC’s staff and faculty, which further alleges that the dismissal was due to the speaker’s “inappropriate and graphic language of a sexual nature,” including a description of “his history of exposing his genitals to others;” O’Keefe’s failure to intervene when such language was used; and apparent efforts by O’Keefe to dissuade student complaints about the presentation. According to O’Keefe and sources in contact with him, students were warned that such language would be used and told that they could leave if they became uncomfortable. 

O’Keefe’s lawyer said that he was aware of Eck’s statement and that it misquotes O’Keefe and the speaker, putting them in a “defamatory and false light.” O’Keefe also told News 9 that the university’s supposed investigation into the incident was unfair and incomprehensive, explaining that no one interviewed him, nor his department’s dean, associate dean, and chair. John Fletcher, the division chair for fine and performing arts, confirmed that he was not involved in the investigation and dismissal, which he felt was unusual. According to The Christian Chronicle, he described Fletcher as “a highly successful faculty member, driven to develop an excellent program.”

Some former OC students have expressed concern over the dismissal and the negative impact it could have on LGBTQ+ students on OC’s campus.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the dismissal of a professor, apparently due to ideological considerations (rather than academic ones), and an apparent lack of a proper investigation and due process. University leadership has an obligation to refrain from coercive actions intended to punish, restrict, or chill academic activity. In addition to harm to the immediate victim, ideologically motivated dismissals of academics undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.