Explaining an Exodus

High turnover at a Louisiana Baptist college leads to questions about how academic freedom and mission can co-exist.
April 25, 2007

Early this month, a group of faculty members at Louisiana College walked through the Martin Performing Arts Center and prayed. They prayed for the students and teachers there, people they hoped would see God's vision and glorify it through the arts.

Prayer walks at the small Baptist liberal arts college aren't unheard of. But participants in that walk believed God's vision did not include the use of beer bottles as theater props or pictures of scantily clad women on collages, which the students had used as aids for understanding their roles. "Every theater in America has beer bottles to use as props," said Courtney Conger, a senior who actively participates in theater on the Pineville, La., campus. The items were confiscated, sparking anger among students at the center as well as the artistic director of the college's theatrical productions.

The incident in the theater building is the latest in a series of flash points that have characterized a changing institution. Since the contentious appointment of its current president, Joe Aguillard, who took the reins in the midst of an accreditation fight in which the college was put on probation for a year, the institution has come under fire for supposedly attempting to regulate the books permissible in certain courses and infringing on academic freedom in other ways.

The outgrowth of these and other developments, interviews suggest, is that Louisiana College's drift toward an interpretation of its mission more in line with that of the state Baptist convention, which owns it, has contributed to the departure of at least two dozen faculty members, out of about 70, over the past two years.

The exact number is not certain: The college says that since the fall of 2005, 15 members of the faculty have left voluntarily, 10 have retired and none have been terminated. A comparison of different versions of the college's online faculty directory, however, suggests that 33 of 74 instructors have left since January 2005. An ongoing count by Bennett Strange, an associate professor of communication arts who has been affiliated with the college for some 53 years and is retiring at the end of this term, puts the tally at 49 who have left, for various reasons, out of 71 faculty members since the 2004-5 academic year -- over two-thirds of the total who were there just before Aguillard became president.

Not all of the faculty members who left necessarily did so as a result of Aguillard's presidency, his interpretation of the college's mission, or any new policies. "I'm pretty sure the vast majority of those left for the same reasons I did," said R. Thomas Howell, who was the chair of history and political science at Louisiana, where he taught for 40 years, and now serves as history chair at William Jewell College, in Missouri. Like him, a vocal contingent of former professors and mainstream Baptists has been monitoring the college and decrying what they see as an unwelcome move toward a more conservative orientation that has placed basic academic freedoms in jeopardy.

"Education has been replaced by indoctrination," Howell said. "They've made it very clear that you will do nothing but advocate the fundamentalist position, or you're not welcome there."

For Aguillard, a former member of the faculty, academic freedom has a specific meaning: It exists such that an institution determines who will teach, what will be taught, and who will be taught. "We had faculty teaching outside the institutional academic freedom policy," he said. Violating that policy, in other words, meant "teaching elements that didn't reflect that the Bible is truth without any mixture of error."

Rev. David W. Key, the director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that the changes at Louisiana College are similar to battles at other Baptist institutions across the country. But it is unique, he said, in that it is the only college in the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which controls the board of trustees. Meanwhile, flagships in other states have pulled themselves out of the conventions, he said. According to David E. Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana convention's executive board, the college is "a strategic component of the convention's mission."

"Ten years ago, fundamentalists took over the state convention, and they gradually have been taking over the board of trustees" of the college, Key said. "They hired a new president with the intention of changing the faculty at the school and making it a more conservative institution."

Robert C. Andringa, the former president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, added, "The state conventions in the Southern Baptist world own the colleges, and there's a sense of wanting them to adhere to the theological positions of the Baptist Church and not always understanding ... the meaning of liberal education."

Aguillard acknowledges that the direction of the college has changed -- but he says that he is returning it to its true principles. "The institution is firmly grounded in what it was born to be," Aguillard said. "We are affirming the roots of the institution, and there are those who would not affirm that ... but that's their choice. They've not been asked to leave; they've left on their own."

Louisiana College's mission statement was recently reworked to emphasize what Aguillard said is the key component of the institution's mission. It states, in part: "The Holy Bible is truth without any mixture of error. The college seeks to view all areas of knowledge from a distinctively Christian perspective and integrate Biblical truth thoroughly with each academic discipline. The college affirms that all truth is from God and recognizes that all knowledge is ultimately a product of divine revelation."

For Strange, the Louisiana professor who is retiring this year, the most painful aspect of the college's recent direction is the declining quality of his students. "I've always said that I was going to teach here until it wasn't fun any longer, and that point came last year. It just stopped being fun."

Strange is accepting an offer Aguillard's administration is making to older members of the faculty that allows them to continue to receive the college's generous health benefits -- free care for them as well as their spouses, for life -- that were bestowed upon those hired before 1998 who'd been at the college for at least 10 years. Financial realities have since nudged the board toward more modest offerings, but several older faculty members still benefiting from the original policy, like Strange, 70, are being forced to retire this year -- some early -- in order to keep the benefits.

The retirement of older faculty members as a result of health insurance costs is contributing to the high turnover, and it has been perceived by some former faculty as another convenient way to dismiss tenured professors not pleased with the recent direction of the college. Strange acknowledged that he didn't see anything overly sinister about the retirement offers, although "they’d be glad to get rid of us."

Rick Tetrault, the former technical director of the arts center, came to the college as someone who wasn't affiliated religiously but was simply looking for theater work. "I went up there expecting to be in a very oppressive, very conservative environment, but I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn't," he remembered, adding that there was a certain level of self-policing involved in the choice of plays to produce. "We were expecting that things would change, but no one expected the kind of purge that happened."

Given the sensibilities of many faculty members who were part of the recent exodus, perhaps it doesn't come as a surprise that Aguillard originally faced a vote of no confidence from the faculty before becoming president. Last year, however, he received 100 percent approval from the faculty -- a sign either that they're warming to their new leader, or that the character of the faculty has changed.

"From my perspective," said Jason Meyer, a relatively new instructor of religion, "I've been really impressed with the academic integrity and rigor they've brought to the department."

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