EDITOR’S NOTE — MARCH 25 12:14 p.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said O’Keefe’s classes did not meet from March 8-11. The story has been corrected to reflect Beauchamp taught his classes on those days.
On March 7, Oklahoma Christian University fired graphic design professor of 41 years, Michael O’Keefe. His termination was effective immediately, leaving 47 students without a professor mid-semester.
Students heard rumors of O’Keefe’s termination in the days following his departure; however, the news was confirmed for the department in a meeting on March 9 hosted by Chief Academic Officer, Jeff McCormack. At the meeting, a plan had not yet been established to cover O’Keefe’s classes.
Jessica Longley, a senior graphic design student, said she first heard the news of O’Keefe’s termination from a friend.
“I was initially shocked and devastated because O’Keefe is our connection to the industry; he knows people all across the country and in Oklahoma City especially,” Longley said. “This whole industry is very much about who you know, and we just lost our source.”
O’Keefe was teaching three classes: Elements of Visual Thinking, Business of Branding Yourself and Integrated Marketing Design (the graphic design senior capstone course).
“We immediately had to start working—how are we going to fill those spots? We reached out to alumni and some alumni reached out to us and said ‘How can we help?’” Amy Beauchamp, Art and Design Program Chair said.
Beauchamp covered O’Keefe’s classes from March 8-11. The following week, classes resumed with a group of temporary adjunct professors who will teach for the remaining spring semester.
Elements of Visual Thinking will be taught by Art and Design Program Chair, Amy Beauchamp; Business of Branding Yourself will be taught by Tim Watson, a former Oklahoma Christian adjunct professor and current senior designer for YouVersion; Integrated Marketing Design will be taught by a team of three graphic design alumni: Canaan Burkett, Levi Burkett and Judson Copeland.
Beauchamp said Watson, the acting adjunct for Business of Branding Yourself, knows O’Keefe and the program well.
“Change is hard, and it’s messy sometimes. But, I appreciate that he is willing to come and step into the mess to speak truth and confidence into our students,” Beauchamp said. “That means more than anything to me right now.”
Integrated Marketing Design is a senior capstone course required for graphic design students to graduate. In the class, students complete a semester-long branding campaign project, which they present to design professionals at the end of the semester.
Michael Fitch, a senior graphic design student, is enrolled in the capstone course.
“It’s pretty frustrating because we’re well into our projects, so O’Keefe knew where we were at,” Fitch said. “It kind of pulled the rug out from under us, and we’re just doing whatever we can to finish it up.”
Canaan Burkett, a 2021 graphic design graduate and one of the acting adjuncts for Integrated Marketing Design, said she is focusing on providing encouragement and concise critique to students.
“One of the biggest challenges is having to play catch up,” Burkett said. “Imagine someone asking you to fill in for their spot playing a board game, but while they were up from the table, one of the players ripped up the rulebook to the game.”
Burkett said the Art and Design Program faculty have also stepped up to help fill the gaps.
“The design professors have put in tremendous amounts of work you wouldn’t believe and have been crucial for these seniors to finish out the year,” Burkett said.
Longley said she thinks the program is doing the best they can given the circumstances.
“They’ve handled it very carefully and with a lot of care for the students,” Longley said. (David) Crismon is a great teacher and a great mentor, and Amy (Beauchamp) has taken over in a way that is putting a lot of weight on her, but she’s taking time for every student who wants to talk to her. They’re doing the best they can.”
O’Keefe was scheduled to teach two courses over the summer: Photography and Graphic Arts Production. An adjunct has been hired to teach the Photography course.
Beauchamp said the department is still trying to fill holes in the Graphic Arts Production course in which students are typically assigned an internship experience.
“We’re running into some potential challenges because the internships are (with) some of our alumni, and they’re frustrated by the situation,” Beauchamp said. “I want our students to have the best opportunities, so I would like to think our alumni would help take care of our current student body.”
The department has begun the process of initiating a faculty search to permanently fill O’Keefe’s position. However, it is a more intensive process, and it is unclear how long the search will take.
“I think a lot of students feel lost. We lost our professor, advisor, mentor—and now we don’t have that sense of direction. So it’s just a hard time to show up and do your work,” Longley said.
Beauchamp said she is impressed by how students have handled the uncertainty of the situation.
“They have responded very professionally. I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Beauchamp said. “Even though this is a weird and messy situation, I just want them (the students) to feel like they can be who they need to be.”