Louisiana College probation lifted after controversial policies reversed

PINEVILLE, La. (ABP) -- Louisiana College will remain fully accredited, school officials learned recently, after the Baptist school rescinded several policies critics said impinged on academic freedom.

The Pineville school had been on probation since December 2004 following a visit by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, during which association leaders cited concerns about academic freedom and governance at the school.

Since that time, the school has worked to address concerns and has involved administrators, faculty and trustees in the process. A decision on whether to lift the school's probation or take other action was made at the association's meeting Dec. 6 in Atlanta.

If SACS had not removed the college from probation, the school would have either undergone another year of probation or had its accreditation removed.

Joe Aguillard called the announcement "miraculous," since most schools endure a 24-month probation period.

"The fact that we got off in 11 months is, in our estimation, miraculous, but the diligence that we used to attack the issues were recognized as being so appropriately handled that they found us in compliance," said the president. "Our procedures, policies and the path we followed has proven to be the correct path."

"Today, we have emerged as an institution very much aware of our roles in that there is a wall of separation between the role of the board, administration and faculty," he continued. "We have affirmed each of those roles and are fulfilling those now. We're not bleeding over into one another's responsibilities."

During the past year, Aguillard said steps were taken that resulted in the college's removal from probation.

-- Trustees rescinded a hiring policy, adopted in September 2004, that allowed trustees early involvement in the hiring process for new faculty members. Some saw the policy as trustee encroachment on the responsibility of the school president to hire faculty members.

-- Trustees rescinded a textbook-screening policy, adopted in December 2003, that required all classroom materials to be approved by department chairs and the vice president for academic affairs. Previous policy had given responsibility for selection of classroom materials to faculty members. The change elicited protest from faculty members and others.

-- Task forces were established to address the areas of academic freedom, the faculty handbook and the selection of textbooks and curriculum materials.

-- Trustees approved resolutions on the board's commitment regarding accreditation findings, on undue influence of the board, on the faculty handbook, on textbook policy and on academic freedom.

-- A faculty workshop was held under the guidance of a national consultant regarding the role of the faculty, board and administration in the accreditation process. A particular focus was academic freedom within a Christian institution.

-- The Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Board adopted a resolution spelling out the relationship between the convention and the college.

Aguillard, who was not president when the school attracted SACS criticism, said he believes the institution will be much healthier, stronger and focused as a result of the probation. "The SACS committee has recognized that we have acted appropriately," he said. "We need to continue on that path.

"There can be no influence from outside groups, including the convention or other groups," he added. "And the walls of separation between those groups have been established."

The action by the accrediting agency comes at the end of a tumultuous 28 months for the school.

During the fall of 2003, school trustees approved changes in the faculty hiring process to ensure the Christian character of the school and adopted a tightening of the selection process for classroom materials.

Then in the spring of 2004, trustees began searching for a new school leader after then-president Rory Lee announced his resignation to become executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Children's Home.

As the presidential search committee reduced its field of candidates, SACS announced plans for a team to visit the campus to investigate concerns. The team traveled to campus in September 2004.

While awaiting the team's report, trustees elected a new school president, Malcolm Yarnell, professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Meanwhile, SACS issued its report in November 2004, citing concerns about academic freedom and school governance. School leaders responded with a plan that outlined how the school intended to address the concerns. School administrators, trustees and faculty members all signed off on the plan, which was forwarded to SACS.

Within days of the report's submission, Yarnell withdrew his name for consideration as the school's new president. He noted contract negotiations between himself and trustee leaders had been unsuccessful, citing governance issues that would affect his ability to lead the college.

At their December 2004 meeting, trustees re-launched their search for a new college president, this time with a blended search committee that included the original members as well as new committee members. Board members instructed the search committee to consider Aguillard first as a nominee and bring his name to the board for action.

All but one of the original search committee members protested the moves, noting they went outside established procedure.

In the end, however, Aguillard was elected the school's president.

In March 2005, several alumni and friends of Louisiana College filed a lawsuit challenging the election of Aguillard. The judge validated the election.

"And now that the cloud of probation has dissipated, we believe our enrollment is going to be exponential," Aguillard said. "We're the only Baptist college in the state and we're perfectly situated for growth.