Fundamental Disagreements

Several years after a faculty exodus from Louisiana College, a professor's ouster leads to a lawsuit and more debate about dissent.
May 12, 2011

One Louisiana College faculty member's claim that he was intimidated into silence and then improperly fired when he criticized the administration has caused some old complaints against the campus's administration to resurface.

Rondall Reynoso, an art professor at Louisiana College, sued the college this week, claiming that administrators violated his legal rights when they terminated his contract after he distributed a letter to hundreds of Baptist and community leaders in March excoriating the college's administration. Louisiana College, a Baptist institution, is controlled by the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and religious leaders select the college's trustees. The letter argued that the college's president has not managed its finances well, has let academic quality deteriorate, and has left faculty members afraid to speak out. The letter has been praised by former faculty members and in anonymous comments on websites that follow the college's news.

Prior to writing the letter, Reynoso had spoken out on Web forums, both criticizing and defending various administrative decisions. He was told in February that his contract would not be renewed for the next academic year. A few weeks later he wrote the letter. Louisiana College administrators refused to comment on the allegations made by Reynoso or the litigation and are filing their legal response today.

Reynoso also declined to comment other than pointing to the lawsuit and letter.

The dispute comes several years after the contentious selection of the college's current president, Joe Aguillard, which many say capped the Baptist college's decades-long transition to a more fundamentalist direction. In the years after, dozens of the college's roughly 70 faculty members left the college. Many cited an increasingly restrictive academic climate.

But after the significant turnover, attitudes seemed to come around to the campus's new direction. Aguillard went from losing a vote of no confidence in his first year to garnering 100 percent support from the faculty two years later.

Reynoso's letter and lawsuit claim that -- while the administration has been able to hire faculty members who are more in line with the college's mission -- administrators are continuing to intimidate faculty members and that professors' jobs are contingent on support of the college.

"There is a spirit of fear among the faculty and students which is wholly inconsistent with our God," Reynoso wrote in his letter.

The college's reasons for deciding in February not to renew Reynoso's contract have not been made public in either the letter or the lawsuit, and administrators would not comment on the matter. But Reynoso's 2010-11 contract did contain several unusual clauses, such as a prohibition against posting messages about the college on public websites. Faculty members at Louisiana College work on one-year contracts. They are typically told in January whether those contracts will be renewed for the coming school year.

The lawsuit says that the university improperly terminated Reynoso's contract because of the letter. He claims that on April 5, several days after he published the letter, he received a note from the vice president for academic affairs saying his contract for the current year had been terminated.

That action violated college procedure, the suit says. According to the faculty governance manual, the vice president for academic affairs can notify a faculty member of a "proposed" dismissal, but cannot outright dismiss someone. A faculty member can then request a hearing. The manual does, however, say that the college president is the final arbiter on matters pertaining to faculty governance.

After Reynoso brought his complaint about the process to the administration's attention, the lawsuit claims, the college sent him another letter -- this one in line with the manual -- on April 13, and agreed to hold a hearing. But Reynoso says that his rights were further violated at the hearing on May 4. He filed the petition for relief after the first day of the hearing and was granted an injunction from the court that prohibits any further hearings through the end of his contract on May 16.

Aside from the legal dispute, Reynoso's complaints against the college, spelled out in the letter, are numerous. He alleges that administrators have ignored a report by Aramark that the campus needs about $35 million in renovations while they have pushed ahead with new athletic facilities, a new law school, and other new campus buildings. He also argues that the quality of the student body has declined, noting a drop in ACT scores from when he was hired in 2007. "When I interviewed with LC, we reported to U.S. News that the middle 50 percent of our student’s ACT scores fell within the 19-26 range," he said in the letter. "However, that quickly dropped to 17-24."

The idea that pervades the letter, and that he describes as most responsible for his dismissal, is that the administration has established a culture of silence and blind obedience to their plans.

"The rhetoric has reached such a pitch that dissenting opinions from faculty members have been called 'poison' and articles in The Town Talk which are not glowingly supportive of the College have been deemed 'evil' and 'attacks from Satan' by the President himself," he wrote.

The college's administration declined to comment on any of Reynoso's allegations, arguing that they pertain to the pending litigation. In a response article in the Baptist Message, administrators said the local newspaper used a draft copy of the report to make the college look bad.

"One portion of a project, commissioned by Louisiana College in 2010 to study the status of its infrastructure, was intercepted and stolen from the college," said Tim Johnson, the college's vice president for institutional advancement, in the article. "Evidently working with the person or persons who stole the ‘in process’ study, The Town Talk ran an article in an apparent effort to damage the college."

Reynoso is not alone in his complaints against the college. A vocal contingent of former faculty members and alumni run an online forum where they discuss the state of affairs on campus and advocate for a change in leadership. That forum was recently shut down and relocated. The group has created an extensive PowerPoint presentation detailing what it considers to be the college's financial problems.


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