A Fight Over Fundamentalism
An ugly situation at Louisiana College is about to get uglier -- the latest in an ever-growing set of conflicts at Baptist institutions over the drift toward fundamentalism.
By the middle of this week, a group of disaffected alumni and former officials of the Baptist college in Pineville, La., plan to file a lawsuit to stop the Board of Trustees from selecting a new president. The critics contend that the trustees violated their own bylaws by reconfiguring the presidential search committee midstream -- a change that resulted in the new panel nominating a candidate who had been dismissed as underqualified by the original search committee.
The dispute has unfolded amid a larger, decade-long conflict over intensifying fundamentalism at the college. The last president, Rory Lee, retired last March, a few months after the trustees imposed new policies, for hiring faculty members and selecting textbooks, that were widely seen as restricting academic freedom. To replace Lee, the board appointed a search committee made up of the members of the trustees' executive committee plus one representative each of the faculty and the student body.
In September, the committee selected Malcolm Yarnell, an administrator at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But in late November, days before taking office, he withdrew, citing "governance issues which would significantly impact my ability to lead the school," which he said emerged during contract negotiations with the trustees.
At a meeting in early December, the board elected a new executive committee and promptly added the new members of that panel to the search committee, expanding its membership to 17 from 9. The newly reconstituted search committee decided to reconsider the candidacy of Joe Aguillard, chairman of the college's Division of Education, who is considered to be one of the institution's most conservative faculty members.
In mid-December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed Louisiana College on probation, citing violations of the accreditor's rules concerning the role of the governing board. While the accreditor, as is its practice, declined to cite specific findings, it had been asked to investigate charges that some trustees were micromanaging in admininstrative and faculty affairs and limiting academic freedom.
The trustee chairman, Tim Johnson, a pastor in Choudrant, La., announced in December that the expanded search committee would meet January 3 to nominate a new president. In advance of that meeting, the nine members of the original search panel recommended that the board hire Stan Norman, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, who had been the panel's second choice after Yarnell.
Seven of the nine members of the original panel also decided to boycott the January 3 meeting, at which the members of the reconstituted search committee voted to recommend Aguillard. The trustees plan to vote on his candidacy on January 17.
Last Thursday, the Louisiana College faculty voted 53-12 to oppose Aguillard's nomination. That followed a vote of no confidence in the board.
Stanley G. Lott, who was vice president for academic affairs at Louisiana College in the early 1990s and president of Chowan College, a Baptist institution in North Carolina, until 2003, says the lawsuit is the only recourse left to stop what he calls "the implosion of this institution." The trustees, he says, have "thumbed their nose" at the actions of the Southern association, even though the revocation of accreditation, which could come as soon as next year, would be a "huge disaster."
"There has to be some other recourse to try to throw obstacles in the way of these wild guys," Lott says. The lawsuit contends that the trustees violated their bylaws by changing the composition of the search committee in the midst of the search. The bylaws mandate that the originally appointed members of a presidential search committee "shall serve on said committee until said position is filled." Because Yarnell never signed a contract to be president of Louisiana College, Lott and others say, the original panel should not have been scuttled.
Johnson, who was elected chairman of the trustees in December, says that he solicited advice from the board's lawyer and from the parliamentarian of the Louisiana Baptist Convention that persuaded him the trustees were on solid ground in revamping the search committee. He declined to share the contents of those opinions, but says he would not have let the new panel proceed in nominating Aguillard unless he was confident the search would pass muster.
"I didn't want to taint the process or [Aguillard's] selection," says Johnson, who describes the prospective president as a "top-notch educator, yet he is theologically sound."
It appears that a judge will have to assess the validity of the search. But in the meantime, the actions of the Southern association (which Johnson says the trustees are working to respond to) and the bad publicity generated by the controversy are already leading alumni to withhold contributions and students to consider leaving the college -- fallout that may outlast any legal resolution.
In addition to weighing in on the situation at Louisiana College, the Southern association took several other actions involving small private colleges at its meeting in December. It revoked the accreditation of two institutions, Edward Waters and Hiwassee Colleges -- Edward Waters for submitting a document in the accrediting process that had been largely plagiarized from another college's submission, and Hiwassee because of its longstanding financial problems.
In addition to Louisiana College, the Southern association placed Chipola College, Huntingdon College, Talladega College, and Wingate University on probation.