OBU continues mission to hold in-person classes

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News-Star
Raley Chapel at OBU.

This week, Dr. Heath Thomas, president of Oklahoma Baptist University, came before Shawnee City Commissioners, offering a peek into how the pandemic has affected operation of the institution, how it is adjusting, and also what the school is planning in the future.

“OBU continues to fulfill our grand purpose of transforming and equipping students to be positive change agents in our communities,” he said. “And this is true, even amidst the challenges we faced associated with COVID-19; we continue to make a difference.”

Thomas said 99 percent of OBU's graduating class in the spring gained employment or matriculated into graduate school.

“This is despite the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic, as well as economic challenges,” he said. “That bodes well for OBU and, indeed, for this community.”

The fall semester followed pandemic precautions.

“This fall, 87 percent of our classes met face-to-face, rather than online,” Thomas said. “We were physically distanced all throughout the campus, with masks and regular sanitization processes in all our public spaces.”

In-person classes are a real gift and a great accomplishment during these challenging times, he said.

“Right now, we're planning for the Spring to meet on campus face to face, physically distanced, with masks, (and) committed to our Christ-centered, world-class transformational education,” he said.

Thomas said the university is constantly watching the environmental changes.

“We continue our physically distanced, mask, sanitization procedures into 2021, and yet we're adding some additional protocols,” he said, “not only to promoting a healthy campus community, but also a healthy community and neighbor, here in Shawnee.”

He said OBU is introducing a baseline COVID-19 testing policy before students return to campus.

“And then weekly sample testing for the 2020-21 academic year,” he said.

The reason, Thomas said, is from consultation received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We were on a Zoom call with Deborah Birx; she recommended this,” he said. “There's some studies out of Duke University that indicate this process of weekly sample testing lowers incidence of spread significantly.”

He said he believes it will be a help, not only to OBU, but to the community, as well.

“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.

“This Fall, we equipped 417 new Freshmen and 1,763 total students amidst all the challenges of our COVID-19 world,” he said. “We work toward a fresh articulation of OBU's mission, vision and values, as well as OBU's purpose so others can catch the vision of a university that asks a very basic question … How can we help?”

More than 110 years ago, OBU's forbearers asked a similar question.

“(They) determined a great need of their day,” Thomas said. “Their answer to that question created the Baptist University of Oklahoma in 1910.”

He said in light of the times, OBU is tightening its belt and refining its programs, and preparing for the future.

“We are leveraging all that we are to indeed serve our Lord, serve our churches, … and to serve our community,” he said.

Despite the challenges, moving forward, OBU has remained on track by focusing on some longterm plans.

One of the things he said the school has been looking at entering some educational areas perceived as a need, both in terms of employment for the region and in the state.

“One of those areas is engineering,” he said. “Faculty has already approved a program for aerospace engineering, with applications in mechanical systems and electrical engineering,” he said. “We believe this would add value because there's a lot of jobs that need to be filled in our area.”

Thomas said the former St. Gregory's University site — now owned by OBU — could potentially become a space to house such a program.

“We're working very hard to create and forge strong industry and community partnerships,” he said. “We've already got good headway there.”

He said the goal is to bring some training labs and classroom space and lab space to the Green Campus, if at all possible.

“That's what we're exploring at this time,” he said. “Our hope is that by 2022 to have that engineering program launched; it's been a few years in the making.”