WASHINGTON (AP) — Before House Speaker Mike Johnson was elected to public office, he was the dean of a small Baptist law school that didn't exist.
The establishment of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law was supposed to be a capstone achievement for Louisiana College, which administrators boasted would “unashamedly embrace” a “biblical worldview.” Instead, it collapsed roughly a decade ago without enrolling students or opening its doors amid infighting by officials, accusations of financial impropriety and difficulty obtaining accreditation, which frightened away would-be donors.
There is no indication that Johnson engaged in wrongdoing while employed by the private college, now known as Louisiana Christian University. But as a virtually unknown player in Washington, the episode offers insight into how Johnson navigated leadership challenges that echo the chaos, feuding and hard-right politics that have come to define the Republican House majority he now leads.
The chapter is just the latest to surface since the four-term congressman's improbable election as speaker last week following the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a reminder of his longstanding ties to the Christian right, which is now a dominant force in GOP politics.
It's also a milestone that he does not typically mention when discussing a pre-Congress resume that includes work as litigator for conservative Christian groups that fiercely opposed gay rights and abortion, as well as his brief tenure as a Louisiana lawmaker who pushed legislation that sanctioned discrimination for religious reasons.
Johnson's office did not offer comment for this story and declined to make him available for an interview.
“The law school deal was really an anomaly. It was a great idea,” said Gene Mills, a longtime friend of Johnson's. “But due to issues that were out of Mike's hands that came unraveled.”
J. Michael Johnson Esq., as he was then known professionally, was hired in the summer of 2010 to be the "inaugural dean" of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law, named for a Southern Baptist Convention luminary who was instrumental in the faith group's turn to the political right in the 1980s. The board of trustees who brought Johnson onboard included Tony Perkins, a longtime mentor who is now the president of the Family Research Council in Washington, a powerhouse Christian lobbying organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-gay “hate group.”
In early public remarks, Johnson predicted a bright future for the school, and college officials hoped it would someday rival the law school at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
“From a pure feasibility standpoint," Johnson said, “I’m not sure how this can fail." According to the Daily Town Talk, a newspaper in Alexandria, Louisiana, he added that it looked "like the perfect storm for our law school.”
Reality soon intruded.
For several years before Johnson's arrival, the college had been in a state of turmoil following a board takeover by conservatives who felt the school had become too liberal. They implemented policies that restricted academic freedoms, including the potential firing of instructors whose curriculum touched upon sexual morality or anything contradictory to the Bible.
The school’s president and other faculty resigned, and the college was placed on probation by an accreditation agency.
But a shale oil boom in the area also brought a wave of prosperity from newly enriched donors. And the school officials, led by president Joe Aguillard, had grand ambitions beyond just the law school that included opening a medical school, a film school and making a movie adaptation of the 1960s pastoral comedy TV show “Green Acres.”
Bringing Johnson into the school's leadership helped further those ambitions. As dean of the proposed law school, Johnson embarked on a major fundraising campaign and described a big-dollar event in Houston with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Pressler, according to an account Johnson wrote in a 2011 alumni magazine.