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Louisiana College President Resigns Amid Concerns Over Academic Freedom

Louisiana College’s president announced Monday he is stepping down, heightening tensions at a Baptist school already marred by a controversy over academic freedom.

Alumni and friends moved ahead with plans for a vigil Tuesday morning as trustees gathered to meet on campus. Monday’s announcement by President Rory Lee that he will resign at the end of the semester to run a children’s home in Mississippi–which followed by only a few days a resignation by another top administrator–made it “even more important” for alumni to let trustees show their support for faculty and students, vigil organizer Grace Beall said in a e-mail.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Lee, who has led <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Louisiana College seven years, declined to comment on his reasons for leaving, according to a Tuesday report in The Town Talk newspaper in Alexandria, La. He issued a statement expressing good will for the school on the Louisiana College Web site.
 
Lee has been at the center of a controversy over a vote last December by the college’s board of trustees revising the school’s policy on academic freedom. The change came in response to Lee’s earlier decision to remove two books from the campus bookstore after a student complained about profanity and a love scene in the books, which had in the past been used in a class.
 
The new policy requires that faculty, who previously selected their own textbooks, now submit them for approval by the department chairperson and vice president for academic affairs. That VP, Ben Hawkins, announced Thursday that he would leave after six years to become dean of Campbell University’s business school in June.
 
Hawkins told the local newspaper that his decision had nothing to do with his new responsibilities under the textbook-selection policy, and that the new job was “already in the works” prior to the change.
 
While viewing Hawkins as an open-minded administrator, moderate critics of the book-selection policy had worried openly about what might happen if he should ever leave and be replaced by someone more likely to advance the agenda of conservative trustees, who have gained power on the board in recent years by winning elections at the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
 
About 200 people gathered Dec. 12 to protest the textbook-screening policy, which the critics say violates the academic freedom of professors and threatens to limit educational opportunities for students.
 
“Louisiana College is today at the center of an education and cultural issue that is playing out across the land,” rally coordinator Vernon Beall said in a Tuesday e-mail. “It asks the question: How do conservative religious doctrine and the secular liberal arts accommodate each other in an institution of higher learning?”
 
Beall said the college “has done reasonably well in answering that question for quite a long time,” and in so doing has gained a reputation for “quality education” as a private, Christian college.
 
President Lee is leaving to become executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village, an agency of the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
 
“After serving three different colleges, I have now been offered the opportunity to use those wide-ranging experiences to administer the program which benefits the children under the care of Mississippi Baptists,” Lee said in a statement. “I look forward to returning to my home state and working in an environment that is exceptionally beneficial to young people at such a critical point in their lives.”
 
Lee is a former vice president for development at Mississippi College who served briefly as president of William Carey College before being elected as Louisiana College’s seventh president in 1997.
 
While Lee’s announcement did not mention controversy over academic freedom, he said in an open letter in December that the textbook-selection policy “has been misunderstood by many people.”
 
He said no books were “banned” by the policy, as some charged, and described it as being in keeping with the Baptist Faith & Message article on Christian education calling for “a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.