Oklahoma Christian University’s president apologized and promised change after an admissions counselor representing the university at an area public school asked students to arrange themselves by skin tone and hair texture.
The since-fired counselor, Cedric Sunray, “led a racist activity that was offensive, harmful and inappropriate,” President John deSteiguer told about 60 students, faculty and community members Sunday afternoon (March 1).
The 2,200-student university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, convened the special weekend meeting to address Sunray’s actions.
“I’m embarrassed, and I’m ashamed, and I’m mad about what happened,” deSteiguer told those seated in church pews in Oklahoma Christian’s Scott Chapel during a meeting to discuss the incident. “I’m very, very sorry. … We’ve got to do better.”
Sunray said that his actions were well-intentioned and that he had done similar presentations in the past. He said that he regretted not taking enough time to explain the purpose of the activity.
“Nothing I spoke at Harding Charter Preparatory during an initial ‘ice-breaker’ session had any intention of promoting a racist agenda,” Sunray said in the statement. “My presentations are the opposite. They are intended to take a hard look at issues such as this. The most dangerous things in education are those we are unwilling to discuss.”
The incident happened on Feb. 24 at Harding Charter Preparatory High School in northeast Oklahoma City. Sunray, on a recruiting visit for Oklahoma Christian, began by initiating games with a group of high school juniors that quickly became uncomfortable, TV station KFOR reported.
“He was like, ‘Let’s play a little game,’” student Korey Todd told KFOR. “He said, ‘OK, everyone now line up from darkest to lightest skin complexion.’”
Then he shuffled the students again, student Rio Brown said.
“He told us, ‘Nappiest hair in the back and straighter hair in the front,’” Brown said. “Teachers left. They were crying, and they were offended.”
School officials took immediate action, said deSteiguer.
“Within an hour after the school visit, the admissions counselor was no longer employed by the university,” he said. “I believe that mistreating people, especially because of skin color, is a sin. What this recruiter did is not who Oklahoma Christian is, and it’s not what I want Oklahoma Christian to be.”
The university’s president visited Harding Prep Monday and apologized in person. The dismissal came in the midst of an investigation into a similar incident involving Sunray during a Future Teachers Day activity on the university’s campus Feb. 13, according to the school’s president.
Speaking to a group of visiting high school students, the admissions counselor asked them to quickly arrange themselves by skin tone and the width of their lips, Oklahoma Christian employees said.
The activities were short — perhaps 30 seconds — and resembled traditional “ice breakers” when students are asked to hurriedly arrange themselves by their birthdays or hometowns, one employee said. The theme of Sunray’s games seemed to be accepting and appreciating physical differences, the employee added, but Sunray didn’t make the point of the activities clear.
Sunray, 45, is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, a state-recognized tribe located in southwest Alabama, according to an online biography on the website of the University of Kansas, where he earned a master’s degree in indigenous studies. He also earned a Master of Legal Studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma.
He described Oklahoma Christian as “an open, inviting and supportive environment for people of many different races, ethnicities and nationalities.”
“This situation should not discredit the institution,” Sunray said. “My words are my own.”
During the meeting in Scott Chapel, deSteiguer said the university “failed miserably” by allowing Sunray to continue campus visits after the Feb. 13 incident. Since the incident at Harding Prep, the university has learned of a third incident involving Sunray at Hennessey High School in northwest Oklahoma.
University faculty members at the meeting stressed the need for cultural literacy training and raised concerns about the vetting of university employees.
African American church members who attended the meeting also talked about a culture — in neighborhoods, in schools and even on the campus of a Christian university — that allows for a kind of casual racism.
“We have a thing in society that’s called hidden racism,” said Gary Jones Sr., an elder and minister for the Eastside Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Jones, who is black, grew up among segregated congregations and said that many of the divisions experienced by Churches of Christ and American society in 2020 are linked to past mistakes.
“Don’t let that mess get into the Lord’s church,” Jones said of the racial division that still exists. “I thought we were making progress.”