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La. College releases report of accreditation agency’s inquiry

PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–Louisiana College has released a report by a fact-finding committee of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools addressing concerns about governance, administration and academic freedom at the Pineville, La., college which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

The report, released by the administration Oct. 20, said Louisiana College is non-compliant in three areas. SACS has made four recommendations to bring the school into compliance.

SACS is one of six regional accrediting organizations in the United States recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. A SACS committee visited the college Sept. 1-3, interviewing about 40 percent of the faculty and 35 percent of the trustees.

“After we received the report, we assembled a response team, and the team has been meeting this week to prepare our initial response to SACS,” John Traylor, interim president of Louisiana College, said in an Oct. 20 news release. “The team spent two days working through a variety of issues. The team worked harmoniously, diligently and constructively to address the four recommendations to ensure our continued accreditation.”

The college’s new president, Malcolm Yarnell, who assumes office in January, was not available for comment.

The committee, in its report, said, “Colleges and universities need to be able to function in an atmosphere free from undue influence from outside agencies…. The governing Board of a college like Louisiana College cannot operate in the best interest of the college if other organizations are in anyway [sic] controlling its activities including the oversight of its duties and responsibilities to the institution.”

Based on its interviews, the committee concluded that a “significant portion” of the college’s trustees are “influenced if not controlled by the agenda of the Louisiana Inerrancy Fellowship (LIFe) and the Louisiana Baptist Convention.”

“While it is difficult to determine, there is documented evidence that there has been a group both outside the Board and within who have been interpreting the will of LIFe and the Convention and presenting actions [sic] items to the Board as decisions that have already been made,” the report said.

The committee’s first recommendation is that the governing board “reconfirm its desire to be independent from outside entities and seek the counsel of an organization such as The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) to assist it in organizing and operating its business in such a way that will keep it free from undue influence of external bodies.”

Second, the SACS committee noted that the role of the governing board of a college is to set policy and the role of the administration and faculty is to implement that policy, thus displaying a “clear dividing line between governance and administration.”

Louisiana College’s board of trustees failed to adhere to that guideline, the report said. The most recent example the committee gave was one in which a grievance had been initiated by several faculty members against another.

“The grievance procedure was underway when members of the Board elected to review the matter, seek legal counsel independent from the administration and direct the administration, as a result of their legal counsel’s opinion, to withdraw or otherwise dismiss the grievance,” the report said. “The current president is attempting to reconcile the grieving parties and has held the Board at bay for the moment.

“This example stands as a clear departure from the ‘policy’ responsibilities of the Board v. the administration of an acceptable and established procedure of administration. What is additionally problematic in this example is that the faculty member against whom the complaint has been lodged appears to hold a close relationship with several influential Board members.”

In response, the committee recommended that the board require the administration and faculty to review all processes and procedures to ensure that they are following college policies as determined by the board. Trustees also are instructed to review the policies so that both parties will know their responsibilities.

Third, concerning academic freedom, the committee quoted the school’s identity and mission statement, which states, “The historic Baptist principles of freedom of conscience and religious liberty, as well as the democratic traditions of American higher education, provide the foundation for the college’s commitment to academic freedom.”

SACS found that the college’s stated traditional commitment to academic freedom was in jeopardy, stemming from recent actions by the board, which have created uncertainty for the faculty about what is acceptable behavior in the classroom, the report said.

“Faculty reported a pattern of requests from administrators that they cease use of certain materials due to Board or external pressures. According to the faculty, frequently the reported complaints were vague, inaccurate, or taken out of context,” the report said.

“Faculty also reported that in all such cases the academic freedom policy that provides a process for dealing with student or others’ complaints about course content or materials was not followed,” the report added. “This latter observation was verified by the past president in at least one case. Faculty expressed fear that they are being watched or that students have been planted in their classrooms to report on them.”

The committee recommended that Louisiana College “ensure adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.” A subsequent recommendation asked the trustees and administration to “work together with immediacy and the help of an independent consultant to address the problems identified.”

Accreditation is granted to learning institutions after they have met certain requirements, and it assures the public that a school has met various academic, administrative and financial standards. Louisiana College was first accredited in 1923, and its last reaffirmation by SACS was in 2001. Typically, SACS schools are evaluated every 10 years. If a school is found to be out of compliance, a warning is issued and the college may be placed on probation during a monitoring period.

SACS announced its plans to send a fact-finding committee to the school in July when Louisiana pastor Joe Nesom resigned as chairman of the trustees and voiced several concerns about the integrity of the board.

“We have received a number of statements from individuals, news clippings and documents forwarded to us,” James T. Rogers, executive director of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said at the time. “Some questions have been raised, and we need to determine if what has been reported is factual.”

Louisiana College’s initial response to the SACS report is due Nov. 16 after approval by the trustees. The school will have the opportunity to comply with suggested changes before accreditation is revoked. SACS will take final action, if needed, at its December meeting.

The trustees elected Yarnell, director of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Theological Research, as the college’s eighth president Sept. 24.

“Dr. Yarnell is a peacemaker,” said Ed Tarpley, head of the presidential search committee, according to the Baptist Message, the state convention’s newspaper. “He’s a consensus-builder. He’s going to be someone who’s going to come in and listen to everyone and do what is best for the students, the faculty and the entire Louisiana College community. He’s a great communicator. He’s a man of deep humility and someone who is easy to get to know. And I think, with all those characteristics, he’ll be able to come in and start the healing process and move Louisiana College forward.”
To read the full SACS report, visit http://www.lacollege.edu/news/2004/2004-10/sacs_report.rtf.

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  • Erin Curry