Liberty after Falwell ‘struggling with diversity’

A model for conservative politics in US higher education, Virginia campus seen as reverting to intolerance

July 20, 2021
Large crowd of students singing for Liberty after Falwell struggling with diversity
Source: Getty

One year after scandal forced Jerry Falwell Jr’s departure from Liberty University, the institution that has long modelled conservative politics in US higher education is facing growing criticism over perceived resistance to diversity.

Changes under Mr Falwell’s successor, Jerry Prevo, have included several departures from leadership positions that appeared to reflect a stricter form of Christian practice, said several graduates who maintain ties with Liberty students and staff.

“They have two very different focuses,” said Calum Best, a 2020 Liberty graduate and critic of Mr Falwell’s leadership. “For Falwell, it was really: ‘Everything comes down to money,’” Mr Best said. With Mr Prevo, “he’s very clearly more like a hard-line fundamentalist”.

Liberty has long played an outsized role in US politics, as Jerry Falwell Sr helped create the right-wing Moral Majority and used that platform to elevate conservative Christians into a major political force in the 1980s.

His son, Jerry Falwell Jr, while leading Liberty, gave a major boost to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by endorsing him in early 2016 at a time when many evangelicals were wary of Mr Trump’s personal history.

Mr Falwell was forced from the Liberty presidency last August after a series of scandals involving sex and alcohol that amplified his disregard for the lifestyle rules that the university demands of its students.

During his 13 years running Liberty, his alumni critics said, Mr Falwell overlooked some forms of diversity and actively encouraged others, notably in his recruitment of black stars for university sports teams.

But that strategy appeared to be falling apart towards the end of Mr Falwell’s tenure, as black student athletes publicly complained of an unwelcoming atmosphere on campus. Mr Prevo has made new efforts, such as Liberty’s recent creation of an African American alumni group.

That, however, may not overcome the sense of racial exclusion being felt in other ways under Mr Prevo, said another Liberty graduate, Maina Mwaura, a former church pastor in Georgia.

Setbacks in that area under Mr Prevo’s leadership include Liberty’s firing of former professional football player Kelvin Edwards as its head of diversity initiatives, and the decision not to keep interim board chair Allen McFarland – the first black person to hold the post – in the role permanently. Meanwhile, David Nasser departed as campus pastor after he repeatedly brought a diversity of religious thought to students at their thrice-weekly campus-wide convocation assemblies, and was then forced by the board to obtain prior approval for the event speakers going forward.

A university spokesman said Liberty’s African American student intake was projected to increase by 32 per cent this autumn compared with last year, with a 23 per cent Latino intake. The institution’s leadership, he said, “works tirelessly to reverse prior unfortunate declines”.

In response to a lawsuit by Mr Edwards contesting his dismissal, the university said it was “fully committed to racial and ethnic inclusion and diversity”. The university spokesman told Times Higher Education that Dr McFarland had stepped down as interim chair at the end of his three-year term as board vice-chair, and that Mr Nasser had left “on good terms” to run a non-profit organisation in Tennessee.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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