A week before his college’s spring break vacation, Michael O’Keefe — a tenured graphic design professor who taught at Oklahoma Christian University for 41 years — was called before the university’s administration and fired for gross misconduct after a guest speaker delivered a presentation in O’Keefe’s class which the university deemed “inappropriate and graphic.”
Now, O’Keefe, represented by Kevin Jacobs, attorney and former president of OC, say they have no choice but to pursue legal action against the university. O’Keefe has said he believes the fact his guest speaker is a gay man played a role in his termination.
“We are planning our litigation strategy now,” Jacobs said. “Based on what we know and believe, I think litigation is going to be our only recourse.”
Stephen Eck, chief legal counsel at OC, emailed university faculty and staff March 16 about O’Keefe’s firing.
“The employment termination process was prompted by multiple complaints from eyewitnesses or others aware of the inappropriate and graphic language of a sexual nature, and stories shared in O’Keefe’s class a couple of weeks ago, by a guest speaker O’Keefe invited and arranged to speak,” Eck wrote. “Some of the speaker’s remarks included 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.’ 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 calls Eck statement ‘homophobic’
O’Keefe said Eck’s statement is inaccurate and discriminatory and that the speaker in question was an Oklahoma Christian University alumnus and a former adjunct professor who taught courses at OC for 20 years.
“That idea that you would say that the speaker had a set history of showing his genitalia (…) is not only false, but it’s homophobic,” O’Keefe said. “This is the kind of thing where you objectify the speaker because he’s not heterosexual. That’s what it is.”
O’Keefe also said that Eck’s email claimed the speaker “encouraged students to play ‘truth or dick,'” but that is not what Eck stated in his email.
O’Keefe claimed the speaker’s reference to “truth or dick” was limited to a three-minute portion of his 45-minute presentation, where the speaker told the class that at 10-years old, he was forced to expose himself in front of a group of 10-year-old boys at a slumber party during a game of truth or dare, which the speaker called a “traumatic experience.”
“And so he said, ‘With 10-year-old boys that are adolescents, when you play truth or dare, it eventually becomes truth or dick,” O’Keefe said the speaker told the class.
O’Keefe said the topic of the speaker’s presentation involved his resilience through personal trauma. Each semester, O’Keefe said he typically brought in four speakers to present to his Business of Branding Yourself class in an effort to prepare students for different experiences they will face in the post-graduate world. O’Keefe said all the stories revolve around persevering through personal hardship.
O’Keefe said he did not look over speakers’ presentations before they were delivered, but he said the speaker in question gave students a preview of his presentation and the opportunity to leave if they felt the content would make them uncomfortable.
“I don’t review everything that they say or they’re about to say. This is a bridge between being a student and an adult, and going into the workforce. You cannot put a wall between the two of those. It has to be a bridge,” O’Keefe said. “You have to bring in professionals’ real-life stories to these students. This cannot be filtered, or it defeats the purpose.”
One speaker O’Keefe brought in was an 80-year-old woman who married a mobster while she was working as a showgirl. She spoke to the class about her experience suffering from domestic violence before separating from her husband and working to become a successful businesswoman. Another speaker was a Vietnam veteran who spoke about dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after leading a platoon of 19-year-olds into battle, while he was only 20. That speaker also told the class about a near death experience, where he was stabbed by a bayonet, but was able to shoot his attacker before being killed.
The third speaker was a woman whose husband died in a plane crash. Twenty-four hours after her husband was buried, she gave birth to her second child. She later married another man, and both worked to become attorneys.
Jacobs said Eck’s email to Oklahoma Christian employees did not accurately portray the presentation’s intent.
“We just find it to be a total mischaracterization of what the presentation was and the purpose for the presentation,” Jacobs said. “And then the statements that were made, especially this ‘history of exposing his genitals and leading others to participate in the game he called truth or dick,’ is defamatory and really puts him and Professor O’Keefe in a false light.”
Michael O’Keefe denies that he tried to block complaints
Eck’s email also claimed that O’Keefe attempted to dissuade students from complaining to university officials about the guest speaker’s presentation.
“In the aftermath of the class in question, 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. Further, according to witness claims, O’Keefe attempted to discourage students from officially complaining about the guest speaker and class by claiming that he had a special relationship with university leadership and he used that special relationship to his advantage,” Eck wrote. “In our review process, additional details were identified that were further alarming. 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.”
O’Keefe said Eck’s statement was false, claiming that he was “shocked” that he was fired.
Additionally, O’Keefe took offense to a prior statement from Eck, which said that the decision to fire him was decided after “a thorough review process.”
O’Keefe said the team that conducted the investigation did not ask him, the dean, an associate dean, the department chair or a full-time faculty member who witnessed the presentation about their perceptions. He also said the investigation only took six days.
“So there was no thorough investigation by any stretch of the imagination,” O’Keefe said.
Osley: ‘I do know the power of social media now’
Lori Osley, O’Keefe’s wife, posted March 12 on Facebook about his firing. In the subsequent days, Oklahoma Christian alumni and current students began posting their own statements about the situation, and several privately showed support for O’Keefe, Osley said.
“Let’s put it this way, I do know the power of social media now,” Osley said.
Jacobs said that beyond alumni and current students, several current faculty members have reached out privately to O’Keefe to show support. But Jacobs said they are “fearful of repercussion if they are vocal.”
Thursday, Talon News, Oklahoma Christian’s student newspaper, reported that OC librarian Dara Tinius had resigned Feb. 14 after being asked to rescind her application for tenure because she broke faculty social media policy.
The alleged violation of the university’s social media policy was a private Instagram story Tinius posted Jan. 19 after attending a “safe at home town hall meeting” that discussed the university’s December decision to discontinue its Ethos program and “small chapels” on campus.
Tinius’ Jan. 19 post read:
Tonight I sat in a space provided by Dayspring Church for LGBTQ students at OC to share the impact of losing what many of them called the first place they’d been allowed to worship God as themselves. They wept as they spoke of their anguish at lost family members and friends. Feeling afraid and alone. Their anger at once again feeling like something their school has to hide. These kids are kind and generous and brave and any decisions made that cause them more harm are shameful. They have my support forever.
On March 17, Tinius posted on Facebook that the university has rejected the assertion that her Instagram post prompted the request that she rescind her application for tenure. In the post, Tinius claims she began working at Oklahoma Christian University in 2004.
“The school denies it has anything to do with my support of LGBTQ students. I no longer have interest in arguing about what I know to be true,” Tinius said in the Facebook post.
Tinius’ Facebook is private, but her full March 17 Facebook post is located at the bottom of Talon News’ article.
Jacobs said OC faculty members told him that, at a faculty meeting Friday, many attendees voiced concern for their own jobs.
“I guess the faculty were expressing, ‘Hey, if this could happen to Michael, and if this could happen to our friend Dara Tinius, where is my security? And what does tenure really mean at Oklahoma Christian?'” Jacobs said. “I think there’s a cloud of fear that’s moved in over that campus, and I don’t think that’s an irrational belief on their part. I think that’s probably a pretty valid question that they are asking.”
Eck did not respond to an email seeking comment prior to the publication of this story.