By Kelly Boggs, Message Editor
PINEVILLE – The Louisiana College Board of Trustees gathered for a special called meeting on Feb. 25. The purpose of the meeting, which was conducted in Executive Session with only trustees in attendance, was never disclosed.
Convened in Granberry Hall on the campus of LC, the meeting, according to a variety of observers, lasted more than four-and-a-half hours. When the meeting adjourned, no statement was issued by the Board explaining the nature of the meeting.
With a regularly scheduled meeting of the LC Board on the calendar for March 18, social media was abuzz with conjecture concerning the special called session. The overwhelming speculation was the meeting was called to address a controversy that had emerged as the result of three professors not having their contracts renewed.
Additional speculation suggested three students whose weblog postings helped to stir up the controversy might also be a part of the closed-door discussion. Adding to the conjecture was the fact that when media representatives arrived at LC seeking comment, the day of the Feb. 25 meeting they were told the campus was closed to all news media.
When it became known that Jason Hiles, Kevin McFadden and Ryan Lister, three LC theology professors, were told they would not be returning to teach at LC and the Caskey Divinity School, a few students took to social media to express displeasure of the action taken by LC President Joe Aguillard.
Hiles, who serves as associate Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, has been at LC for six years. McFadden, an assistant professor in the Christian Studies Department, has taught since 2010, and Lister, an assistant professor of systematic theology, has been at LC since 2011.
The timing of the cancelation of the professors’ contracts came at about the same time Aguillard released a statement in a “President’s Pen’ column that said, “My love for all Baptists, including Calvinists, does not constitute our approval of its being advocated at Louisiana College.”
The juxtaposition of Aguillard’s statement on Calvinism with that of the professor’s contracts not being renewed led some to conclude the two issues were related. Thus, some students took to the Internet via weblogs and social media to articulate their disagreement with not only Aguillard’s statement, but also the circumstance of the professors.
As a result of some weblog posts, three Caskey Divinity School students reported via social media they were to be investigated for possibly violating LC’s student handbook by making “disparaging” remarks about the school, faculty and/or administration. Drew Wales, one of the students, preempted the investigation by choosing to withdraw from school.
Joshua Breland and Ken Fryer (staff member at Heritage Baptist, Shreveport and former LBC second vice president), the two students who were investigated, indicated they were informed they had, according to the administration, violated the student handbook. Both announced via social media they were to attend a resolution meeting concerning their alleged transgressions. Thus far neither has publicly indicated the results of the meetings.
The Baptist Message sought to speak with all the aforementioned parties and, thus far, only Dr. Aguillard has spoken on the record.
Few would dispute the observation that social media has played a significant role in fanning the flames of the LC controversy and causing it to spread beyond the confines of the school’s Pineville campus. The result is individuals from across the Unites States have weighed in via the Internet with opinions on the situation.
In Louisiana, supporters of the professors and blogging students as well as those affirming President Aguillard have had their voice duly noted in blogs and blog comments as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Trey Cowell, pastor of Livingston’s Faith Baptist Church and a Caskey Divinity School student, wrote in the comment section of one Caskey student’s blog, “I personally stand behind Dr. Aguillard and his actions to stop the influence of Calvinism at LC.”
Those who support LC’s president has also pointed to the fact the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which owns the college, is not particularly enamored by the doctrines developed in the 1500s by the French theologian and pastor John Calvin.
Tim Norris, pastor of First Baptist Church Livingston, responded in the comment section of one of the student’s blog posts, “I want to get along with you and other Calvinists, but not at the expense of a Calvinist agenda designed to take over La. College, or any other L.B.C., or S.B.C. entity or institution.”
Norris added, “If you meant what you said, that you love and respect Dr. Aguillard, & you care about La. College, why not admit that not only Dr. Aguillard, but a majority of La. Baptists do not want La. College to become a Calvinist‘s school …”
A case in point that seems to illustrate Norris’ position occurred at the most recent LBC annual meeting, which took place in November at First Baptist West Monroe, where messengers approved a resolution “On The ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’”
Similar to a resolution offered at the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans, the LBC version of the “Sinner’s Prayer” resolution was stronger in its emphasis that every person is the object of God’s grace and able to respond to the Gospel, which runs counter to the Calvinist belief that salvation is only for those whom the Lord has granted election.
Those who support the professors and the students contend Calvinism is not a contentious issue on the campus and have even suggested an ulterior motive for the president’s action. There have been calls on Aguillard to reverse his decision concerning the professors and to allow the students unfettered freedom to broadcast their protestations.
A former trustee and a former professor have even utilized the Internet to call for Aguillard to be dismissed.
Shawn Thomas, a former LC Board member, posted on Facebook that he was withdrawing his support for Aguillard. He added, “I call upon the Board of Trustees of Louisiana College to forego half measures, and to take decisive action to ‘right the ship’ and restore integrity to the office of President of the College we love.”
Due to health reasons Thomas recently resigned not only from the LC Board but also as pastor of First Baptist Moss Bluff. His son-in-law is one of the previously mentioned bloggers, Joshua Breland. Thomas also recently relocated to Norman, Okla.
Scott Culpepper, a 1996 alumnus of LC and professor at the school from 2007 to 2012, posted an “open letter” to the LC trustees via a blog. In the lengthy letter, Culpepper shares what he maintains were some very negative personal experiences with Aguillard.
In Culpepper’s letter he wrote, “I urge you to take decisive action to restore the academic and spiritual integrity of our college by immediately terminating the employment of Joe Aguillard.” Culpepper currently serves as associate professor of history at Drodt College in Iowa.
According to that school’s web site, Drodt is, “associated with the Christian Reformed Church” and “the curriculum is designed to give each student a complete comprehensive education from a solid, Reformed, Christian perspective.”
The controversy currently occurring at LC comes at what could be described as the best of times as well as the worst of times.
In recent years the administration has repeatedly announced record enrollments and impressively large freshman classes. Additionally, graduate programs have been added that have proven to be successful. One example is the Master of Arts in Teaching.
The Caskey School of Divinity is certainly indicative of good times. Financed by an anonymous endowment, the theological school specializes in providing training for bivocational pastors. Caskey opened its doors in the fall of 2011 and currently has approximately 100 students enrolled.
The announcement of a capital campaign aimed at raising $50 million could also be considered as indicative of good times. The money is specifically for needs on the Pineville campus, with approximately one-fifth of the cost being earmarked for infrastructure needs.
But if the controversy is occurring during the best of times at LC, it is also taking place during the worst of times. This last December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) announced the school would remain on warning status, a status the accrediting organization placed LC on a year earlier, in December 2011.
Travis Wright, LC’s vice president of academic affairs, recently addressed the SACS situation via an interview that appeared on Wildcats Media, the Internet site maintained by the LC journalism department.
“We’ve gone from 13 standards that we had non-compliance issues with down to six, and actually, we’ve already taken care of another one of those so we’re really down to five at this point,” Wright said in the interview.
The area that has been corrected, according to the vice president, is in the area of faculty competency. According to the SACS web site, the areas still in need of attention are in Institutional Effectiveness, Educational Programs, Administrative Support Services and Academic and Student Support Services and General Education Competencies.
Wright augmented the interview by providing additional information on the Wildcat Media site, which included the following: “Accreditation is essential to the intrinsic value of a college education. Louisiana College seeks to ensure that its students receive a high-quality college education in an environment marked by conservative Christian values. To achieve this, Louisiana College is addressing all of the issues identified by SACS in a timely manner.”
“The warning status does not impact the validity or quality of the education received by currently enrolled students or recent graduates.”
It has been asserted by some that LC’s accreditation hangs by a thread. According to information on the SACS web site that is not accurate. The accrediting agency says warning status is “less serious of the two sanctions” (the other being probation) and is usually “levied at the earlier stages of institutional review.”
If LC is unable to meet SACS standards concerning the current warning status, probation seems likely 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.”
LC was placed on probation by SACS in December 2004. The school was given three recommendations to work on, which included necessary input from faculty, staff and the LC Board of Trustees. Louisiana College was removed from probation in December of 2005.
“Louisiana College faculty, staff and administration are all working very diligently to take care of the issues we have with the SACS accreditation,” Wright said during the interview with Wildcats Media. He also made it very clear that currently, “Louisiana College is as accredited as any other school.”
When the LC Board meets during its scheduled March 18 meeting, it will have a lot to consider, especially with controversy occurring at this time.