Louisiana College: When Despots Win

To be honest, I’ve been trying to step away from the issues at Louisiana College. I am now two years removed from my affiliation with LC and while I have tried to be a voice for honesty, integrity, and transparency, I am now 2,000 miles away from LC working on a PhD in California. Further, the Board has spoken. They have chosen to back Joe Aguillard despite his numerous moral and leadership failures. There is certainly the temptation to shake the dust from my feet. Some others have done that and I fully support them in moving on. Others, like Trustee Jay Adkins, have chosen to stay in the fight despite the obstacles. I admire his commitment to not be weary in well doing! I must admit I am weary. But, in my time at Louisiana College I also met many good people who are still on campus and I feel for the students there. I have sen first hand the harm that LC does to the faith of some students and it breaks my heart. So, for me I will not be completely shaking the dust from my sandals.  I will make occasional posts when it is merited. But, I am also anxious to get back to my passions. I very much enjoyed my my recent blog series on Five Evangelical Christs which I am currently adapting to a paper.

President Joe Aguillard

President Joe Aguillard

So what does all this have to do with Despotism? Over the last three weeks I have been quietly watching the considerable fall-out from Aguillard’s victory. In many ways it has been predictable. There have been two main strategies. First, there has been an attempt to control the narrative. Secondly, Aguillard has sought to re-assert his authority.

Controlling the Narrative

Every regime needs a Ministry of Disinformation. At one point the PR department at Louisiana College served that role. But, as the issues at LC have spiraled out of control and expanded to indicate serious leadership deficits in the Louisiana Baptist Convention (LBC), the role of controlling the narrative has expanded to the Baptist Message. The Message is the state Baptist paper in Louisiana and as such carries some authority in the state. But, it must be known that the Message is not an independent newspaper. It is wholly owned by the LBC. So what we really have is one branch of the LBC seeking to control the public narrative for another branch of the LBC. While there is inherently a conflict of interest in such an endeavor it may be possible to walk that line with integrity.

However, Kelly Boggs, Editor of the Baptist Message, made two main arguments in his editorial on the subject. First, he argues that the law firm which investigated the whistle blower allegation chose to “ignore’ the “28 Exhibits” of  “exculpatory evidence” which “at the very least, cast doubts on the law firm’s conclusions.” Secondly, he argues that the Trustees who leaked information to the press leaked only partial information for the purpose of damaging Aguillard and implies that their behavior was immoral. Kelly argues:

It is hard to conclude the motive of leaking only partial information other than it was to not only smear Aguillard, but an attempt to paint some of the board into a corner by making it appear only a sycophant would vote to exonerate the president.

Boggs completely mischaracterizes the situation with the “28 exhibits.” He further implies petty behavior on the behalf of the law firm when he states, “The firm’s dismissal of those items seems to be based on the fact Aguillard refused to submit to an interview as part of the firm’s investigation.” This narrative certainly is one that the administration would like the public to believe. however, it is clear even from what Boggs writes that it is little more than spin. The facts are that the law firm had the exhibits, or at least 26 of the 28. But, they did not choose to “ignore” or “dismiss” the documents out of hand. They examined them and determined that they were almost exclusively “hearsay” and “self-serving denials.” That is to say that they concluded that the “28 Exhibits” did not exonerate Aguillard as he claims. Further, the fact that the law firm examined these documents puts serious doubt on Boggs’ thrice stated claim that the documents “at the very least, cast doubts on the law firm’s conclusions.” The reality is not that the law firm ignored or dismissed the documents but that they examined them and found them unconvincing and “self-serving.”

In his editorial Boggs also attacks the Trustees who leaked information to the media as partaking in a very serious “breach of trust.” He further, as quoted above, argues that the trustees intentionally leaked only partial information to manipulate public opinion and smear Aguillard. However, this claim relies on Boggs’ specious conclusion that the law firm ignored and dismissed the “28 exhibits.” Since the law firm examined the “28 exhibits” their conclusion took them into account. While they did not deem the exhibits reliable one cannot reasonably argue that the release of the law firm’s report was partial. The law firms report was based on a full examination of the evidence. The issue of trust is a little more complicated. It is true that information that was intended to be private and confidential was released. And, under normal circumstances that would clearly be wrong. However, the board members in this situation have conflicting commitments. On the one hand, they (or at least most of them) have signed confidentiality agreements and have a general commitment to keep matters of the board appropriately confidential. On the other hand, they have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to the college and its faculty and students. Some board members concluded that figures such as Aguillard and Hankins were more concerned about the politics than the health of the college. Further, board members such as Tommy French had reportedly been telling people that the purpose of the April 30th meeting was to exonerate Aguillard. Other reports indicate that Hankins was putting significant pressure on the pastors on the board to exonerate Aguillard. Additionally, when the special committee that looked into the charges against Aguillard released their findings the leadership attempted to do so in a way that implied the decision in favor of Aguillard was unanimous not deeply divided (4-3). All this lead to the conclusion that powerful political forces were seeking to obfuscate the truth. If this is true then there existed a tension between honoring the confidentiality agreement and honoring their moral and fiduciary responsibility to the college. In that case to argue against this “breach of trust” is akin to arguing that Deepthroat breached the trust of the Nixon administration. There is no doubt that he did. But, there is also no doubt that he did what was right. I think the same argument can be made for the trustees who released documents to the press.

 

Asserting Authority

I have discussed previously the vindictive tendencies of Dr. Aguillard. These tendencies have lead in the past to Aguillard behaving as his own worst enemy. I had a conversation yesterday where the person stated, “He can’t even win gracefully.” No doubt this is true but this behavior should be expected. In Aguillard’s mind he must now re-assert his authority. The wise thing to do would be to gracefully win and let the criticisms against him fade into the fog of time. But instead, when Aguillard first met with faculty and staff after his victory he reminded them about the need for loyalty. Further, he has put a stop-payment on the check that the college wrote to the law firm which investigated him. It seems he is claiming that despite a unanimous vote from the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees,  the Chairman (and compliance officer for the whistle-blower allegations) exceeded his authority when he hired a law firm. This is patently silly and if challenged by the law firm he will certainly lose but what is important to Aguillard at this point seems to be him demonstrating his absolute power.

Aguillard has also taken personal vindictive action against individuals on campus. A student who was a part of the divinity program and is now transferring was told by housing staff that he could stay in his on campus housing until left for his new institution. However, Aguillard got involved and gave him two weeks to get out. Chuck Quarles, outgoing Dean of the Divinity School and whistle-blower, was told that he could keep him belongings in his office until he left for his new post at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. But instead, Aguillard had the locks on Quarles’ office door changed while his belongings were still in the office. Apparently, Chuck was told that he would have to meet with Aguillard to gain access to his office and belongings. The person that told me about this started the conversation by saying that “Chuck got Rondall-ed.” Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with these sort of tactics by Aguillard. He acted in the same way with me. He ultimately lost the conflict with me, and I wonder, why would anyone expect him to be any more graceful in victory.

A despot relies on control and fear. Clearly, if two Vice Presidents were willing to file whistle-blower charges he was not feared enough, in his own mind. And since 13 board members were willing to vote for his removal he was not in sufficient control to suit him. While many, including me, interpret the inaction by the board as a sign that Aguillard can get away with almost anything, I also believe that at the heart of a controlling personality is insecurity. One of the most frightening things to contemplate is an almost omnipotent yet deeply insecure dictator. Such an individual can ruin lives through silly and petty actions which serve no function than bolstering his lagging ego.

It is interesting. My father has been a lawyer for almost 60 years. He has had a rather distinguished career, including serving as the first Hispanic on the California State Supreme Court and many other influential positions such as serving on the U.S Civil Rights Commission. He has been an invaluable resource during my struggles with LC. I can’t even imagine going through what I did with LC two years ago without being able to talk to him and having his insight to help guide me. But, there has been a turn in my discussions with him. Invariably when we talk he has transitioned from being shocked by the unethical behaviors of Aguillard to a kind of disbelieving recognition that the Board of Trustees and the Louisiana Baptist Convention have gotten precisely what they want.

 

Rondall Reynoso

Rondall is an artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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