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College trustees revise textbook selection policy

PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–Louisiana College trustees have approved a policy change designed to establish accountability regarding selection of classroom textbooks and other instructional materials.

The action has been reported in newspapers across the state, defended in an open letter to Louisiana Baptists by the college’s president and criticized via a faculty vote.

As approved, all materials used at the school now must be approved by department coordinators or chairs and the vice president of academic affairs. Previously, faculty members had complete control over selection of materials.

The action came after prolonged discussion in executive session during the scheduled trustee meeting in late November.

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Except for that action, the meeting was fairly routine, with trustees receiving various reports, including a positive report from President Rory Lee on the college’s finances.

However, it is the policy change on textbook and materials that is generating the most attention. In addition to the statewide news coverage, at least one newspaper has editorialized on the action and the nearby Alexandria newspaper has published several letters critical of the action.

However, in presenting their action, trustees were clear in insisting they simply were trying to provide accountability to a process that had given too much authority to faculty members for selection of materials.

Trustees presented the policy change following a two-hour executive session. Consideration of the issue also came after Lee ordered two books removed from the college bookstore storage area recently.

Responding to the complaints of a student and at least one observer, Lee ordered the removal of “A Road Less Traveled” by Scott Peck and “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines, which had been used in past semesters in a college values class.

Following the action, Lee acknowledged that he ordered the removal without following established procedure. That procedure provides an opportunity for students who find materials objectionable to be assigned other sources. It also establishes a process for handling disputes about materials.

In addition to causing some concern among faculty members, Lee’s action also prompted trustees to review current policy on selection of materials, which they found wanting.

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As written, the previous policy states:

“The individual teacher is the only one in the institution assigned the responsibility for developing course content, selecting textbooks and reading material and determining other requirements for a particular course. (Where there are multiple sections of the same course, departmental decisions about these matters are appropriate.) Nothing in this policy shall be taken to abrogate the principle acknowledged in this first guideline.”

In proposing a change, trustee Fred Malone noted the existing policy provides “absolute responsibility” to faculty and provides no accountability. Students who have an objection to materials have a recourse only “on the back end of the policy,” he said.

“There is literally no academic governance or oversight [for selection of materials],” he maintained.

As established, faculty members do not have to submit textbooks or materials for review by anyone, Malone said.

He proposed changes that he said still would provide “primary” responsibility to faculty members but would require materials to gain additional approval farther up the academic and administrative ladder.

Malone said the new policy falls in line with the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message because it provides the balance of academic freedom and academic responsibility called for in the Southern Baptist faith document.

He also said the policy brings Louisiana College in line with other schools and provides accountability “at the beginning and at the end” of the selection process.

Following Malone’s comments, trustees approved the policy without dissent.

The approved policy not only addresses the process for selecting textbooks and materials but also establishes guidelines for those materials. It reads:

“Individual instructors bear the primary responsibility for the selection of teaching materials and preparation of course syllabi. It is important, however, that all teaching materials and assignments, including textbooks and outside reading assignments, be reviewed and approved by the department coordinator and/or department chair and the vice president of academic affairs.

“A variety of matters should be considered when selecting and reviewing course materials and syllabi. All teaching materials and assignments must be relevant to the subject matter, appropriate in content and purpose, not inordinately expensive or difficult to obtain and recognized by others in the discipline as appropriate for the subject matter.

“The administrative process for the selection and review of course materials shall be determined by the vice president for academic affairs.

“This policy replaces guideline number one of the policy on academic freedom. It shall be effective December 2, 2003.”

Making the new policy effective immediately adds pressure to administrators, since textbook selection is underway for the 2004 spring semester at this time.

When asked if that meant spring materials must fall in line with the policy, Malone said trustees realized there would be a transition time and deferred response on the question to Lee. When asked, Lee responded that the new policy would be followed.

Following the meeting, outside response followed quickly. By and large, it was negative in the first days after the action. However, Lee issued an open letter to Louisiana Baptists just three days after the trustee meeting in which he stated: “On Tuesday, December 2, the Louisiana College Board of Trustees passed a revision of the college policy on academic freedom. This change has been misunderstood by many people.

“The board created a list of guidelines which should be considered when selecting and reviewing course materials.

“The policy does not dictate the type of materials which are acceptable or unacceptable; it merely offers guidelines to consider. The policy does require that all teaching materials be reviewed and approved by the department chair and the vice president of academic affairs. The revised policy gives the vice president for academic affairs authority to determine the administrative process.

“Under the language of the policy, individual instructors bear the primary responsibility for the selection of teaching materials. The four guidelines for choosing course materials and textbooks are:

“All teaching materials and assignments must be relevant to the subject matter, appropriate in content and purpose, not inordinately expensive or difficult to obtain, and recognized by others in the discipline as appropriate for the subject matter.

“The policy was developed in response to questions about the content of textbooks and class materials in several Louisiana College courses. No books are banned under the new policy, as reported. The review and approval of course materials for the spring semester will begin as soon as the procedures for implementing the policy have been finalized by the vice president of academic affairs.

“Reports regarding my recent actions requesting that two books be removed from the bookstore have been particularly incomplete. The books in question were not in use in any class during the current semester. In fact, the books were not even on the shelves of the bookstore. The books were stored in boxes inside the storeroom.

“The revised policy will be implemented with particular regard to issues of academic freedom and academic responsibility as found in the Baptist Faith and Message, the longstanding doctrinal statement of Louisiana College.

“Louisiana College is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention and with Southern Baptist churches across the nation. The language of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which was retained in the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message, is instructive. It states:

“‘In Christian education there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute. The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the preeminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the scriptures and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists.’

“Louisiana College has a distinctive purpose within higher education. It is our mission to prepare students for a changing world by offering an educational program grounded in the liberal arts tradition, informed by the Christian faith, and committed to academic excellence.

“The misunderstandings that have arisen in response to the actions of the board of trustees have been troubling for Louisiana College. It is our hope and prayer that this letter will help clarify the actions taken both by the board of trustees and by me. Continued support by our friends is essential for the future development of Louisiana College.”

In addition to Lee’s statement, school faculty members also adopted a response to the trustee action. Their statement was approved on a vote of 48-8. It reads:

“We regret and disagree with the recent effort by the board of trustees to establish a policy of censorship of the Louisiana College faculty. Such a practice violates the current college policy of academic freedom, limits the education of students, damages the reputation of the institution, hinders recruitment efforts, undercuts efforts to obtain badly needed financial support, devalues degree programs, inhibits the ability of the college to function, demeans the faculty, students, and the administration, and is inconsistent with the American tradition of higher education. The faculty at Louisiana College affirm their commitment to excellence in Christian higher education.”
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C. Lacy Thompson is associate editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message newsjournal.