By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
SHREVEPORT – Building trust with Louisiana College alumni and other Louisiana Baptists is key for the state’s only Southern Baptist college to move forward, Louisiana College Executive Vice President Argile Smith recently said.
“We’re not going to be able to do much of this in the interim but if we pray together for God to bring a president who will understand the value of trust and nurturing relationships, eye to eye conversation, who can move on beyond that, that will be most helpful as the school moves on,” Smith told a group of around 50 Louisiana College alumni meeting at the LSU-Shreveport Baptist Collegiate Ministry building.
Smith joined other school administration officials at an April 29 meeting of the Louisiana College ArkLaTex alumni which included a meal, music by the Voices of LC student music group and updates from LC administrators. The other administrators present were Michael Shamblin, Byron McGee, Philip Caples and Rod Masteller.
Smith will become president pro tempore June 1 and then interim president Aug. 1 when current LC President Joe Aguillard becomes president emeritus of LC. Aguillard is scheduled to then take a one-year sabbatical on June 1 before returning to campus as a tenured professor in the education department.
Moving forward, Smith said that sharing good news about LC will be important.
“I think that sharing the good news of the school is going to be the best way for us to overcome the silence of the past crisis that we are trying to endure,” he said. “… As an outsider looking in at the future of the school, I anticipate for the next couple of years the school is going to have to work really hard to continue to tell the good news for a long period of time in a consistent way.”
Question and answer time
Throughout the course of the meeting, many of the alumni voiced their displeasure about the direction the school has taken since Aguillard became president in 2005.
During a question and answer time, two alumni asked Smith separate questions about the makeup of the president search committee. One asked Smith why the search committee did not include any students, faculty, alumni, community members or board members who are perceived as in the voting minority. Another voiced frustration about the committee resembling exclusivity that has evolved as the years have passed.
“It’s a good question and I think it’s one that deserves to be put to the board chair as they get to work in framing up how the committee is going to work,” he said. “And thanks for your insight too about how long you think this evolution has taken place.
“As you remember I went to this school in 2011,” he continued. “I’ve only been here four years. So I am having to learn from people like you and others about how the school is perceived and sitting in the back of the room listening to the questions that you have raised has given me a great deal of insight as to the perception of the school absent from the folks who I consider to be the major stakeholders.”
Another question asked was if Smith would ask the board to rescind a confidentiality agreement passed during its April 15 board meeting. Early in the April 15 meeting it was reported by anonymous sources that board chairman Tommy French told board members that LC had received a letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) indicating the trustees should sign new confidentially agreements.
The Baptist Message asked two trustees about the aforementioned reports and said the newly signed confidentiality agreement would not allow them to comment on any specifics. All they would say is the reports were not accurate. According to those same sources previously mentioned, some trustees asked to view the SACS letter but they were denied. A vote was taken and LC trustees voted 18-14 to accept the new confidentially agreements.
In response to the question during the alumni meeting, Smith said he would be glad to pass along to French a request to place that on the agenda for the next board meeting in August.
He then explained what happened regarding the confidentiality agreements signed on April 15.
“There is a lot about it I can’t go into because it does have to do with a letter that we got from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The letter was directed to some information from trustees that had been dispersed and found its way into newspaper and blogs and things like that. And what I have come to learn is that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools apparently tracks things that has their name on it. So they saw that this stuff was out there, so they contacted us and said this is not the way you need to do board business. And it isn’t. Taking confidential matters and putting them out there for everbody to see. That’s not good business. I was on the LifeWay Christian Resources (board) and they hammered into us the reality that when you are into executive session you cannot say anything about anything that is in there. Out of that observation they sent us a letter and said you are going to have to do something about that because there seems to be a problem here. That effort to try to solve that problem turned into the perception that SACS was making us take this specific step and that’s not the way it was. But what SACS was saying was you guys are going to have to show that you are meeting the standard for Southern Association of Colleges and Schools when it comes to governance of your institution.”
A follow-up question asked why the letter was not shared with every board member.
“We had run into a problem when we got the letter from SACS that said we had been reaffirmed and a quote was taken from that letter and it was used to talk about Dr. Aguillard’s exoneration from the charges that were against him,” Smith said. “And SACS came to us and said now that’s a confidential letter, it’s not for public consumption. So the board chair and Dr. Aguillard had to say if it’s confidential, we have to be careful about who we give it out to on the board.”
Later in the meeting, Smith addressed a question regarding a March 24 prayer gathering of LC students, alumni, two trustees and members of the community in front of Guinn Auditorium. The group that organized the prayer event – Prayers for Progress – was calling for LC President Joe Aguillard to resign or be removed by the school’s board of trustees. However, after school administration issued a notice the Friday before the event that any strike would be a violation of university policy and could end in severe sanctions, the event was changed to a prayer event.
“Through the day when I walked by there, I would see folks on the walkway there, I would see students sort of walk around the other side,” he said. “There were some students who were there praying with alumni and friends and that seemed to be all together appropriate. But I did notice on the part of some of the students who walked around on the other side kind of a fear, not knowing exactly what was going on, and that is where I go to when I think about the conversation I had with that young student so that we can prevent that kind of thing from ever happening on our campus and when we have people come we will all assume they’re friends, that we’re in this together.”
Moving forward, Smith told the alumni that he is praying for the new president, whoever that person may be.
“As we pray for a president, I am asking God to give us a person who is characterized by two traits,” he said. “Number one, wisdom, and the other is kindness.”
Interim a familiar role for Smith
During the meeting, Smith shared with the alumni the story of his life.
A Poplarville, Miss., native, Smith began working as an interim pastor while serving as a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“That’s where the word interim became one of my favorite words because as an interim you have the privilege to say ‘you know when your pastor gets here I am sure he’s gonna want to fix that.’ And that’s sort of the way I feel about Louisiana College. When your president gets here, I am sure he’s gonna want to fix that.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Smith left New Orleans Seminary to help William Carey University President Larry Kennedy turn around two of its three campuses that were underwater.
It was here that Smith said he learned how to become successful in nurturing relationships with alumni. One night a week Kennedy tasked Smith with calling alumni to build relationships.
“He said ‘call them, get to know them. Of course we want to ask them for money.’ But he said ultimately what you want to do is understand who these people are and help them know they belong to the William Carey College community.”
Eight months after arriving at the school, Kennedy passed away from complications with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a new president was hired and Smith was called to become pastor of First Baptist Church of Biloxi, Miss., which was in a transition because Katrina had affected the area. Smith worked with members who were trying to get over the horrors of losing loved ones and personal belongings in the storm.
Still, Smith said God continued nudging him about Christian higher education.
He remained as pastor until 2011, when Louisiana College invited him to join the staff at the Caskey School of Divinity.
Smith says he has no plans to become president of LC.
“My role is very simple,” he said. “I don’t have a vision for a long-term future.
“I have a mandate to make sure we get ready for the arrival of the new president,” he continued. “That’s my mandate and that’s what I want to try do to.”
Near the end of the meeting, LC alum Margaret Seabaugh voiced her support for Smith. After she spoke, her comment was followed by applause from the group.
“These problems did not happen overnight. They will not be solved overnight. Thank you for what you are willing to do in a difficult situation. You have my prayers and my support.”