This February, three days after a contentious, accusation-filled meeting with Louisiana College President Rick Brewer, Vice President of Academic Affairs Cheryl Clark, and Vice President of Integration and Learning Philip Caples, Assistant Professor Dr. Russell Meek abruptly resigned from the school, where he had taught Hebrew and the Old Testament for the past four years.
Meek had urged administrators to officially distance the school from a string of bizarre, misogynistic comments made by Joshua Joy Dara, a well-known local Baptist pastor and erstwhile Republican candidate for the Louisiana state Senate. However, school officials were instead primarily concerned about mitigating any potential public relations fall-out and shielding Dara from criticism.
“You’re taking on the most powerful or one of the top five most powerful people in Central Louisiana,” Brewer told Meek, referring to Dara. Listen to the full audio here.
Meek first contacted the Bayou Brief in April, and during the past month, we have reviewed multiple documents and internal emails concerning the events leading to his resignation. We were also provided a full-length audio recording of his meeting with school officials, which we were able to independently authenticate. Before Southern Baptist blogger Wade Burleson posted about Meek’s resignation on May 18th, these events had been largely unknown outside of the school’s Pineville campus.
The Bayou Brief is the only publication in Louisiana to report on the controversy. This report includes several details previously unknown to the public, including the extensive pressure exerted by LC President Brewer and Vice President Clark to conceal information and insulate Dara from criticism. At the time of publication, Norman Miller, LC’s Vice President of Communications and Integrated Marketing, has not yet responded to a request for comment.
LC hired Dara last September as its new Dean of Human Behavior. On Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day, Dara spoke at the school’s mandatory chapel services about female sexuality, comparing a woman’s body to a house in order to lecture young women about their grooming habits and the importance of chastity.
According to those present, Dara argued women who have had multiple sexual partners have turned their bodies into a “crackhouse.” He also advised women to “mow their lawns,” a reference to pubic hair, as a way of keeping their partners sexually satisfied. His remarks were met with awkward laughter, but afterward, multiple students told professors and administrators they found Dara’s comments to be grossly inappropriate and misogynistic. Brewer later claimed to have heard criticism from at least five different individuals and stated that he would have responded differently if the remarks had been made by someone not affiliated with the LC “family.”
The next day, Meek shared his own concerns and those privately expressed by a colleague and by at least one of his students to Vice President Caples. Additionally, multiple students shared their criticism of Dara’s remarks during one of Meek’s classes. He later sent an email to Caples “so there is a record of the concerns.”
Dara, notably, issued a terse statement to school administrators expressing his regret for offending anyone, which was later truncated and forwarded to students in a defensive email by Norm Miller, LC’s communications director. Miller argued that Dara’s remarks were merely “evidence of differences in cultural perceptions and nomenclatures,” calling him “the highly respected Dr. Joshua Joy Dara.” Dara, who is a native of Nigeria and who earned his law degree from Southern University, refers to himself as “Dr. Dara” on his church’s website. In most states, it is considered unethical for a lawyer to use the title “doctor,” and Dara has never earned a Ph.D. or M.D. or any other doctoral degree conventionally associated with the honorific.
It is unclear how, exactly, Dara’s remarks were, in any way, reflective of cultural differences, and for many, including Meek, the email only reinforced the perception that LC officials were flippantly dismissive of legitimate concerns about crude sexism and the objectification of women.
Although the school had previously uploaded videos of its chapel services to an official account on YouTube, Dara’s sermon was never published, and the entire account, along with its archives, has subsequently been deleted.
A Culture of Cover-Ups:
Only days before, in a blockbuster report titled “Abuse of Faith,” The Houston Chronicle revealed that during the previous twenty years, nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have been either “convicted (or) credibly accused” of or “successfully sued” for sexual abuse; this number also includes those who have either confessed or resigned after being accused. Thus far, more than 700 victims have come forward. Despite that, “leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches” had failed to take action against “congregations that harbored or concealed abusers.” The SBC subsequently outlined a number of actions in response.
Louisiana College is controlled by the Louisiana Baptist Convention, an affiliation of the SBC. In September 2010, the college announced the founding of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law, to be located in downtown Shreveport and led by now-U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson. Judge Pressler was one of the 400 Baptist leaders revealed by the Chronicle to have been accused by three different men of sexual abuse. In 2004, according to the report, Pressler paid one of these men, who alleged Pressler began raping him when he was a teenager, $450,000 for “physical assault.”
Because of financial difficulties, Louisiana College’s Judge Paul Pressler School of Law never opened its doors.
At least two others identified by the Chronicle as alleged sexual abusers are graduates of Louisiana College. To Meek and others, the timing of the Chronicle’s exposé is important in understanding the school’s response to Dara’s inappropriate comments.
Later that month, on Feb. 20th and only twenty-two minutes after Miller forwarded students Dara’s brief note expressing regret to those who were offended by his “tone,” LC President Brewer sent a campus-wide email to all students and faculty members urging them to heed the instructions of Matthew 18:15-17, which commands church members to attempt to resolve disputes internally before involving outside authorities. “If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector,” the passage concludes. (During the meeting with Meek, President Brewer claimed the timing of his email was coincidental and falsely asserted he had only sent it to faculty members).
In recent years, LC’s reputation has been significantly damaged by a series of controversial actions undertaken by its previous president, Joe Aguillard, who was forced to resign in 2014. When Brewer was hired the following year, many believed he would be capable of repairing the damage Aguillard had inflicted and restoring the school’s academic credibility.
However, thus far, Brewer’s track record has been uneven. The school is currently being sued by a man who applied for a coaching job with its football team and was later told he was not hired because Brewer expressed concerns about the man’s “Jewish blood.” Only a day before Dara spoke at the school’s chapel services, Brewer announced LC was severing all ties with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) after the organization adopted a “Fairness for All” plan, which recognized the rights of LGBT students.
“If this gets on the internet, it’s viral.” – LC President Rick Brewer.
Eleven days after Dara made the controversial comments, Meek met privately with Brewer and two other top LC administrators, Cheryl Clark and Philip Caples, in order to address the concerns he had outlined in an email to Brewer the previous week. In his email, Meek attached a draft of an op-ed he had written titled “No Woman Is a Crackhouse,” which refuted Dara’s remarks and raised questions about LC’s tepid response.
Almost immediately, Brewer and Clark both became hostile toward Meek. Clark was particularly combative, asking, in exasperation, how such criticism would help the school while also asserting herself to be a feminist who, puzzlingly, agreed with Dara. She ridiculed Meek for previously complaining about his salary, suggesting that his concerns about Dara, if they were ever to be made public, would undermine the school’s ability to raise money that could be used to increase faculty pay.
Brewer, while more soft-spoken, was also more threatening and direct. He told Meek that the school’s attorney and the chairman of its board both concluded that the draft op-ed Meek had sent him was “libelous, slanderous, defamatory, and inflammatory.” Based on the Bayou Brief’s review of the document, however, it contains nothing that comes even remotely close to rising to the standard of defamation and merely articulates Meek’s differences of opinions with a public figure, which is, definitively, considered to be protected speech.
“If you publish this,” Brewer told Meek, “you will be disciplined for insubordination.” Later, he warned, “If this gets on the internet, it’s viral,” as a way of emphasizing the damage he believed the op-ed could inflict on the school.
Brewer also touted Dara as a powerful man, as previously mentioned, and suggested that Dara, a lawyer himself, may be inclined to take action against Meek. He briefly suggested setting up a private meeting between Dara and Meek, though the proposal was never presented seriously. He also rejected requests for Dara’s sermon to be posted online, speculating that “skeptics” at the school would parse through his words and upload the most incendiary clips to Twitter in order to “make fun” of the pastor.
Notably, both Brewer and Caples stated they were “uncomfortable” with what Dara had said, while, at the same time, refusing to take any type of action that would clarify the school’s official position on fostering a climate of respect for women.
Blessed Are the Meek:
By all accounts, Russell Meek was a widely-respected professor during his four years at Louisiana College. During their meeting, Brewer repeatedly stated that Meek was a “great professor” and a “great writer” who earned high marks from his students and colleagues.
For his part, Meek asserts that he “loved” the school, his students, and his colleagues and had merely hoped that the school’s administration would affirm the dignity of women who were offended by Dara’s comments and make it clear they disagreed with his commentary. Meek also tells the Bayou Brief that he had always respected LC President Brewer and credits him with significantly improving the “quality of the student body” by imposing more stringent admission standards.
Indeed, Meek arrived at LC in 2015 as one of Brewer’s first hires as the school’s new president. At the time, Meek, now 36, had just earned a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, where he wrote his dissertation, “The Meaning of Hebel in Ecclesiastes in Light of Qohelet’s Inner-Biblical Use of Genesis.”
He acknowledges that he was largely unfamiliar with the school’s recent past under former President Joe Aguillard and had never been under the impression that Joshua Joy Dara was a “powerful” man until Brewer made the assertion. To Meek’s credit, Dara may be a locally familiar name because of his relationship with KALB, the local NBC and CBS affiliate on which Dara frequently pays to advertise his church, Zion Hill Baptist, but there is scant evidence of his “power.” Four years ago, when he campaigned for state Senate, Dara, a Republican, lost in a nearly-19 point landslide to Democrat Jay Luneau, running a lackluster operation that had effectively halted to a stop weeks before Election Day. Privately, many had expressed concern about accusations that Dara had been attempting to raise money for his campaign from the pulpit, though evidence of such efforts never publicly materialized.
Meek says he enjoyed his four years at LC, but ultimately, he concluded he could no longer remain with the school.
“It would have compromised my integrity to have stayed,” he told the Bayou Brief, noting that he was, in no way, forced to submit his resignation and that his decision likely took the administration by surprise. “I would have loved to have stayed, but I couldn’t.”