La. College trustees release no report

PINEVILLE, La. (BP) -- Louisiana College's trustees met for their regularly scheduled meeting March 18-19, the second day of which was in executive session for nearly six hours. The only information released afterward was that Joe Aguillard, president of the Baptist-affiliated college, remains in his post and the board will meet again April 30 to address the budget and other items of business.

The two-day meeting followed a special called meeting Feb. 25 which also was in executive session with only trustees in attendance. When the session adjourned after four and a half hours, no statement was issued on the nature of the meeting.

Controversy at the 1,300-student college began to emerge in January when:

-- It became known that three professors in LC's Caskey School of Divinity were informed they that their contracts would not be renewed. Asked by the Louisiana Baptist Message about the status of the professors on Feb. 4, Aguillard told the newsjournal that college personnel policies prohibit him from making any comments about the status of any employee.

-- Aguillard released a statement about the same time via a "President's Pen" article on the LC website stating in part, "My love for all Baptists, including Calvinists, does not constitute our approval of its being advocated at Louisiana College."

Public calls surfaced -- primarily, though not exclusively, via social media sites -- for LC trustees to dismiss Aguillard, while others publicly defended LC's president, who has led the college since 2005.

Among those publicly supporting Aguillard are two former presidents of the Louisiana Baptist Convention; a former trustee; and a pastor. Among Aguillard's critics have been a former trustee chairman and LC alumnus; a former trustee; a former faculty member and alum; and three students in the school of divinity. Two of the students have since left the school; the third is a former Louisiana Baptist Convention second vice president and a church staff member.

The controversy at LC comes at what could be a decisive time for the Pineville campus.

LC is in the midst of a $50 million capital campaign to address needs on the campus, $12 million of which is earmarked to address much-needed and overdue maintenance. At the same time, the college is in its second year of warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, its regional accrediting agency.

This past December, SACS announced LC would remain on warning status, which the accrediting organization enacted in December 2011.

Travis Wright, LC's vice president of academic affairs, addressed the SACS situation in an interview on Wildcats Media, the website maintained by the LC journalism department.

"The warning status does not impact the validity or quality of the education received by currently enrolled students or recent graduates," Wright said.

While some have asserted through social media sites that LC's accreditation hangs by a thread, information on the accrediting agency's website states that warning status is the "less serious of the two sanctions" (the other being probation) and is usually "levied at the earlier stages of institutional review."

If LC does not meet SACS standards, probation would seem to be the next step. According to information on the SACS website, "Probation is a more serious sanction than Warning and is usually, but not necessarily, invoked as the last step before an institution is removed from membership.... The maximum consecutive time that an institution may be on Probation is two years."

"We've gone from 13 standards that we had non-compliance issues with down to six," Wright said in the Wildcats Media interview, "and actually, we've already taken care of another one of those so we're really down to five at this point."

Wright said the area most recently corrected is faculty competency. According to SACS, areas still in need of attention are institutional effectiveness; educational programs; administrative support services; academic and student support services; and general education competencies.

Wright told Wildcats Media that LC faculty, staff and administration are "all working very diligently to take care of the issues we have with the SACS accreditation." He also made clear that currently "Louisiana College is as accredited as any other school."

Among positive developments at the college in recent years: The administration has announced record enrollments and impressive freshman classes. Graduate programs have been added, including a master of arts in teaching.

The Caskey School of Divinity is viewed by many as a recent positive development. Financed by an anonymous endowment, the theological school specializes in providing low-cost training for bivocational pastors. Caskey, which opened in the fall of 2011, now has an enrollment of about 100 students.

The divinity school professors whose contracts were not extended are associate dean Jason Hiles, who has been at LC six years; Kevin McFadden, an assistant professor in the Christian studies department since 2010; and Ryan Lister, an assistant professor of systematic theology at LC since 2011.

Jonathan Forester, former trustee chairman and LC alum who is a medical doctor in Pineville, wrote in a letter to the editor to the Baptist Message of his disappointment that the professors' contracts were not renewed and that announced schools of medicine, law and film at the college had thus far only produced "disillusionment."

Forester did not mention Aguillard's name, but he wrote, "Questions have been raised among students and alumni, puzzled at these happenings." He closed his letter by calling for prayer and fasting for LC. "It is God's ministry, not ours," he wrote. "And we dare not offend Him."

Mike Holloway, one of two former Louisiana Baptist Convention presidents publicly supporting Aguillard, said, "As someone who has been blessed to serve alongside Dr. Joe Aguillard for two years ('07-'09), while filling the office of LBC President, I have found him to be a man of courage, holiness and integrity."

Holloway, senior pastor of Cook Baptist Church in Ruston, La., continued, "As a lifelong resident of Louisiana I have never been more proud of the advancements and the theological direction of the college. I am proud to stand beside Dr. Aguillard and hold up his arms in the midst of these struggles."

Aguillard, asked about the timing of his President's Pen statement about Calvinism, told the Baptist Message, "I chose the current timing because with the growing narrative at the Southern Baptist Convention level, and I believe at the Louisiana Baptist Convention level, it has given me, as president, time to reflect upon what is being said, and also upon positions being taken by people I have the greatest respect for.

"It has also given me an opportunity to reflect very seriously where I stand and how I can articulate that stance as president of Louisiana College," Aguillard continued. "This is with regard to the mission of Louisiana College, the policies of Louisiana College and the agreement with the board of trustees when I was hired January 17, 2005.

"Given that, it is important this institution understand with great clarity where I stand ... that hyper-Calvinism is not a position this college has ever supported. And I don't believe our board will ever advocate the teaching of hyper-Calvinism, and that is exactly where I stand as president.

"Finally, due to the number of students who have very recently expressed to me a 'very oppressive discomfort' that they have felt with regard to the advocating of Calvinistic tenets with which they [these students] do not agree, I realized that we had a problem," Aguillard said. "I knew that a clear statement of our position on the subject was needed at this time."

Aguillard's comments about Calvinism have been countered by critics such as Scott Culpepper, an LC alum and a faculty member at the college from 2007-12. "This debate over Calvinism," Culpepper wrote in a Baptist Message letter to the editor, "is a ridiculous sideshow distracting from more important issues that should concern us all." Culpepper, who claimed Aguillard's leadership threatens "the academic and spiritual integrity of our college," now is a faculty member at Dordt College, an Iowa school affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Regarding Calvinism, Culpepper maintained that, "It is impossible for me to state in quantifiable measures how little I care about seeing Reformed theology become dominant in any Baptist school, including Louisiana College."

The Baptist Message, seeking to ascertain if theological concerns were part of the reason for the non-renewal of the three professors' contracts, contacted the professors via email for comment. In replies, each deferred to Aguillard for comment. LC policy states the president is the "sole authorized spokesperson to make public statements defining the official position of the College on any issue of public interest." Thus, "No faculty member or other administrative official shall make such statements without the expressed approval of the President of the College." The professors indicated they planned to follow what they understand to be college protocol and seek permission from the administration to speak to the Baptist Message. Thus far, no meeting has taken place.

One of the former divinity school students, Joshua Breland, wrote in an exchange on his weblog, "I am calling for non-Calvinists and Calvinists to keep their positions at Louisiana College. If this is 'divisive' and 'dividing the school,' well, I fail to see how."

Breland and another former divinity school student, launched a website that listed various concerns about the college, including the non-renewal of the three professors' contracts and LC's "recent lack of support for theological diversity within the limits of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000."

The college administration, in response to criticism by the two students and a third student, initiated disciplinary action over some of their postings deemed "disparaging" and in violation of the school's student handbook. Two of the students subsequently withdrew from the college.

The Baptist Message, in emails to the students, has sought to speak with them on the record as well as off (meaning, no reporting on any aspect of any conversation). To date, none of the students have spoken on the record.


Kelly Boggs is editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. This report is adapted from articles posted at the Baptist Message website on March 28, March 12 and Feb. 8.