Campaigners hope for change as Liberty places Falwell on leave

Scandal-driven ousting brings reflection to campus steeped in partisanship and power

August 10, 2020
Liberty University
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Liberty University’s ejection of its founder’s son from its presidency threatens an end to the Trump-aligned campus’ decades-old primacy in fusing religion, higher education and partisan US politics.

The devoutly Christian institution acted against Jerry Falwell Jr after a mounting series of behavioural complaints, most recently his Instagram posting of a photo of himself on a yacht holding a drink with his arm around his wife’s assistant and his trousers unzipped.

Liberty’s board said Mr Falwell was asked to “take an indefinite leave of absence”, attributing his behaviour to the stress of ballooning the Virginia-based university to 120,000 students through a major online expansion.

“Unfortunately, with this success and the burdens of leading a large and growing organisation comes substantial pressure,” the board’s chairman, Jerry Prevo, a retired Baptist church pastor in Alaska, said in announcing the decision.

Emboldened coalitions of Liberty students, alumni and faculty, however, are seizing the moment, saying the 49-year-old campus never should have grown so militantly partisan and now must fully reverse course.

“My hope,” said one organiser, Liberty graduate Dustin Wahl, “would be that Liberty recognises the depths of the depravity of the last several years of Falwell’s leadership and runs in the opposite direction.”

“My hope,” said another, Calum Best, “is that we get a leader who is sincerely and carefully focused on our academics.”

Mr Falwell’s father co-founded Liberty in 1971 as part of a religious-political empire that included Moral Majority, a leading force for encouraging conservative Christians to elect Republican politicians in the 1980s.

He died in 2007, and his son had led the university since then, riding Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to a period of renewed political prominence. Mr Falwell was ahead of most evangelical leaders in endorsing Mr Trump even as the future US president spoke approvingly of groping women, and in joining him in expressing threatening attitudes towards immigrants.

Mr Falwell basked in the ensuing spotlight, saying Mr Trump even offered him the job of US education secretary. “There’s nothing he loves more than access to Trump,” said Mr Wahl, a media analyst and 2018 Liberty graduate who created a Liberty United Against Trump group.

In line with Mr Trump’s minimisation of the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Falwell urged students back to campus and disparaged a parent who questioned the move. Only about 2,000 of its 15,000 residential students returned.

While Mr Falwell and Mr Trump represent a tradition of Republican politicians making common cause with evangelical Christian leaders, religious universities in the US are typically far more circumspect.

Mr Falwell’s expansion into online education – adding some 100,000 virtual students to the 15,000 on-campus – also suggests a prioritisation of revenue over both Christian and academic integrity, said Mr Best, a high school mathematics teacher.

Before graduating from Liberty this past May, Mr Best said that he encountered numerous examples of on-campus students choosing online options because viewing lectures was not required and tests could be taken without supervision.

“The online classes have a reputation of being incredibly easy and a joke basically,” he said.

All on-campus instruction, meanwhile, involves heavy religious content, Mr Best said. One introductory course required performing evangelical duties in the community, while a higher-level course demanded forcefully rebutting Christians who acknowledged the science of evolution, he said.

“No subject is too out of left field,” Mr Best said. “I was a finance and accounting major, I would write papers on valuing deferred tax assets, and would have to put biblical integration into it.”

Mr Falwell’s Instagram post followed a string of scandals and demands for Liberty’s board to take action. They include evidence by a Liberty graduate writing in Politico that Mr Falwell partied at nightclubs, graphically discussed his sex life with employees and made extensive personal use of university funds.

In June, the university had him apologise for a Twitter posting that included a face mask with a Ku Klux Klan depiction.

His behaviour on the yacht, as shown in his own Instagram photo, would have earned a Liberty student more than $9,000 (£7,000) in school fines and possible expulsion, according to one compilation of offences posted to Reddit.

A separate posting on Twitter by Andrew Bradley, a writer for the satirical Christian character Mrs Betty Bowers, identified the yacht as one regularly made available for Mr Falwell’s personal use as part of Liberty’s $12.5 million sponsorship of Nascar auto racing.

Mr Bradley, while declining to identify his sources within Liberty, said the extent of such relationships suggests Mr Falwell eventually will regain control of the university.

Neither Mr Wahl nor Mr Best would dispute such a prediction. But they held out hope for change, saying the yacht episode appears to have seized the attention of Mr Falwell’s loyalists on the university board in a way that other scandals had not.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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