The board of trustees of Liberty University announced on Friday that the president and chancellor of the university, Jerry Falwell Jr., had assented to the board’s request to take “an indefinite leave of absence” from both positions, “effective immediately.” The board’s request followed several days in which Falwell had been widely criticized in the news and on social media.
By now you have probably seen the vacation picture that Falwell posted to Instagram earlier in the week standing next to his wife’s assistant, a young woman, with his pants unzipped (with underwear visible) and his arm around her waist. Nobody really knows why he did it. Maybe parodies of the show Trailer Park Boys are excused from the normal rules of decency, maybe he was trying to empathize with a pregnant woman, or maybe Falwell was under the influence of the mysterious “black water” (as he called it) that he was holding.
Liberty students have performed excellent research calculating the fines that the university would have slapped on Falwell’s picture had it been posted by a student. Others have discussed the absurdity of Falwell’s refusal to live by his own school’s code of conduct. As a recent Liberty graduate, I am frustrated beyond words. That these things need to be said at all shows that Falwell has sunk pretty far.
The decision by the board to ask Falwell to take a leave comes as a pleasant surprise: It’s nice to know that he’s finally facing consequences, however lenient and temporary, for his actions. The outcome is especially surprising because neither the board nor members of Liberty’s administrative and student leadership (many of whom, to be fair, live in fear of social exile and job loss) have historically shown backbone in standing up to Falwell.
Let’s be clear: The problem with Jerry Falwell Jr. isn’t that he occasionally makes clownishly inept, crude posts on social media. It’s bigger than that. Falwell’s zipper has been down for years.
The Liberty community has always looked at Falwell and seen things that made us uncomfortable. He’s always shown us too much. For instance, Falwell has explicitly said that he takes no responsibility for the spiritual growth of Liberty students, even though the school is a Christian university. A loyal supporter of Donald Trump, Falwell has openly said that his political activities are not influenced at all by his faith. He called a Liberty parent—which is to say, someone who helps pay his salary—a “dummy.” He told one well-known evangelical pastor to “grow a pair,” and chided another for being unqualified to speak “on any subject.” Falwell even told Liberty students to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” then threw his support behind a bizarre plan for Virginia counties to secede from the state and join West Virginia.
“But he’s been really good for the school!” Falwell’s defenders stammer. “Enrollment has gone up every year!” That’s a ridiculous metric: As long as a college has the unused space to take more students, the school can arbitrarily increase enrollment year by year without that number meaning anything about educational standards or the number of applicants to the school. In fact, since 2015 (the year Falwell became nationally famous for his support of Trump and a comment about shooting Muslims), freshman applications to Liberty have dropped by a whopping 60 percent. Transfer applications have declined too, by 30 percent. If you’re following the math, this means that higher enrollment reflects higher acceptance rates, not some kind of Falwell-induced higher interest in Liberty University. L.U. has an online school too, where enrollment has trended down over the last five years (there was an anomalous spike last year that allowed Falwell to boast about record-setting enrollment, and we’ll likely see another spike this year because of COVID-19).
Last year, Falwell made deep cuts to the School of Divinity (supposedly because of money); this year, he eliminated Liberty’s philosophy department (money again). He received pushback about the online school’s academic degradation, but not to worry, he says he won a “big victory” by figuring out how to “tame the faculty.” Liberty spends far less than peer schools on student instruction, while Liberty professors have no tenure and are employed on one-year contracts. It’s widely known that school’s faculty is overworked and underpaid, but Falwell doesn’t prioritize them: Two years ago, he said online teaching compensation (a vital source of income for many faculty members) would “soon” go up by 30 percent. That never happened, according to the latest faculty pay schedule. But along the way, Falwell has been really great at growing the endowment, and that’s awesome, because money means power.
Money and power, by the way, are the two things Falwell really cares about. He constantly brags about his access to President Trump, Kanye West, and others. You should see what he thinks of poor people. In his pursuit of status and material well-being, Falwell has done catastrophic damage to my school’s image. People are starting to notice: It’s now not uncommon, despite a culture of fear that is still present at the school, to see students, faculty, and in one case, a group of 30-plus black alumni leaders—including pastors—speak out against Falwell. This is good and necessary.
Until now, board members have stayed largely silent, apparently thinking that Falwell Jr. is the right person to carry out the vision his father had in founding the university. Student leaders, who get special treatment (parking passes, perks from athletics) and perceive themselves as having access and influence as a result of their proximity to administration officials, also rationalize their silence about Falwell. (As a student government leader for four years, I did, too, for a while.) And disturbingly, the school’s spiritual leaders, many of them privately opposed to Falwell, persuade students that their moral convictions aren’t worth pursuing—a worrying indicator of how Falwell’s presence is having a chilling effect on the moral formation of Liberty’s students. Mounting a sincere defense of Falwell is virtually impossible, so the culture that supports him is constructed with layers of flimsy, culturally accepted truths about faith, politics, media bias, and loyalty that make Falwell out to be the hero, the victim, and an unassailable authority figure all rolled into one.
Really, the only unassailably true things about Falwell are that he dismisses his faith at every turn, disavows his spiritual responsibility, and finds great fulfillment in the pursuit of political influence and prosperity. Just watch Convocation (the twice-weekly event required for all LU students) and note how Falwell is ever-absent for the sermons but ever-present for the politics. Beyond the spiritual dimensions of Falwell’s failure, it’s worth noting that an average person would be fired if they damaged the reputation of their employer half as much as Falwell has.
To my fellow members of the Liberty community: If anyone tries to downplay this latest incident to you (and they will; take my word for it), you should gently remind them that Falwell’s recent public indecency isn’t just a one-off parody but part of a long pattern. According to Falwell, his Instagram post was embarrassing to the young woman he was pictured with, but not to Falwell himself. And why would he be embarrassed? After all, Falwell’s zipper has been down for a long time. We’ve seen everything, and it’s too disturbing to stay quiet.