Liberty University: A Cautionary Tale

A recent cascade of investigative reporting on the shady business dealings of Jerry Falwell Jr. has raised some troubling questions about the controversial evangelical figure and his vision for Liberty University, the conservative Christian institution he has led for more than a decade.

Reports from Politico and Reuters, with university staff and administrators as sources, allege that Falwell has repeatedly used university assets to enrich family and friends—and created a campus culture of fear where he holds unbridled authority.

While Liberty has long been presented as an alternative to mainstream liberal academia, the university offers a useful case study in how higher education institutions that pursue unique missions can also be susceptible to unique governance pitfalls.

When the late Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty University in 1971, he laid out a vision that was markedly different from those of other Bible colleges and private schools. The university website features this quote from Falwell:

From the beginning, the goal was not to create another Bible college. The vision was to create academic excellence, world-class facilities, NCAA Division I Athletics, and student activities, and to provide it all with a distinctively Christian environment.

Falwell’s central role in forming the Moral Majority—which mobilized large groups of conservative religious voters for decades—has always featured Liberty as an essential piece of that mission. He wanted to build an institution that could compete with the programs of other large university systems while also producing future generations of reliably pro-life, traditional values evangelicals who would influence communities across the nation.

As the university grew steadily throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Falwell was pushing to expand the scale of Liberty rather than maintaining a small Christian liberal arts college. Additionally, Falwell’s public profile as a close confidant of U.S. presidents and a leading evangelical figure put Liberty in the sights of many young Christians who hoped to get into places of local and national influence.

Though supporters and detractors differ on Liberty’s benefits, it is indisputable that the university has succeeded in building its national influence.

After his death in 2007, Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr, assumed power at Liberty and ushered in a new era for the university.

During his tenure, Falwell has dramatically grown university assets—from $259 million in 2007 to more than $3 billion by 2018. But as this financial growth occurred, Politico reports that Falwell also significantly consolidated power over university administration in a way that has led many who work closely with him to question his leadership.

Critics argue that Falwell has created a culture of fear where people are unable to speak out. They point to examples such as how faculty outside of the law school cannot obtain tenure and the routine use of non-disclosure agreements that stop current and former staff and board members from discussing sensitive matters around Falwell’s leadership.

Documented incidents of retaliatory firings when staff criticize university leadership make this fear a legitimate reality.

Students live under scrutiny and fear along with the staff. Other stories from students and alumni detail his micro-management of the campus newspaper—claiming that he reserves the right to edit or reject any columns of which he disapproves. The school newspaper isn’t even student-run anymore. Other accounts note incidents like the university’s past “derecognition” of Campus Democrats, Falwell’s forced removal of an anti-Trump pastor, and when campus shut down a student booth where libertarian students tried to discuss legalizing marijuana.

Other highlights of malfeasance include making loans to friends contrary to the school’s financial interests, signing massive construction contracts with personal associates, and investing in real estate that’s owned by friends and family. The reports from Politico and Reuters also question Liberty-sponsored political activity—like selling merchandise that features both the Liberty and Trump brand—as potential violations of IRS rules governing nonprofits.

In fact, many of the shady financial practices documented in those reports are legally questionable actions for nonprofits, according to University of Pittsburgh law professor Phillip Hackney, who specializes in tax law.

Since faculty have little job security and students are limited in their ability to voice their dissent, it’s unlikely anyone on campus will stand up to Falwell.

What makes all these accounts more concerning is that Liberty receives a majority of its revenues—more than $770 million annually—from government sources. In contrast to other schools like Hillsdale College or Grove City College, which don’t accept federal funds, students pay for Liberty with federal aid and federal loans. While the university shouldn’t have to compromise on its mission in order to receive these dollars, it is deeply troubling when taxpayer money goes toward supporting business ventures that have no academic mission.

While it’s hard to verify the true extent to which all these problematic practices are a divergence from those used under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Sr., the recent reports suggest that Falwell Jr. has significantly changed Liberty’s trajectory since his father’s death.

Falwell’s response has been to boast of Liberty’s tremendous financial success and growing public influence under his leadership. But whether those successes are truly in keeping with the original mission of the university is the key question. While it’s true that the goal for Liberty was always to become a large university with far-reaching influence, it’s hard to see how things like personal profiteering at the expense of taxpayers and students—and stifling the independence of staff, faculty, and students—advance this goal.

To be clear, the problem with Liberty’s governance isn’t endemic to the mission itself. It’s easy to imagine an alternative timeline where Jerry Falwell Sr.’s successor avoids all these pitfalls. In fact, under this alternative trajectory, the university mission would have been better served.

But there are far too few checks on Falwell’s power. His own board of trustees can face serious consequences when they don’t fall in line. Longtime trustee Mark DeMoss was ousted from his role on the board when he disagreed with Falwell’s endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016. Since Politico released its report, Falwell has responded by calling for an FBI investigation into former board members for criminally conspiring against him.

Since faculty have little job security and students are limited in their ability to voice their dissent, it’s unlikely anyone on campus will stand up to Falwell. He simply isn’t being held accountable by a governance model that placed too much power in the hands of one person.

Schools struggling with their own governance problems should keep Liberty in mind when they manage their leadership. Liberty’s leaders are in a difficult situation because they’ve prioritized growth and the school’s national reputation over checks on the power accumulated by its president. The campus community has placed too much faith in a single leader, to the point where they’ve been unwilling or unable to speak out when the balance of power becomes too lopsided.

Reforming Liberty doesn’t mean compromising its mission. Nobody is demanding that Liberty become a Christian liberal arts school in the mold of Wheaton College or Hillsdale, or a carbon copy of a secular state school. In fact, Liberty is uniquely positioned as a popular university that could be a bona fide alternative to the overwhelmingly progressive status quo in academia.

There are many factors coming together to make Liberty’s governance problems unique. The distinct religious and political vision, the influence over the community in which it resides and the leadership style of the man at the helm all combine to form a distinct challenge. If the university is going to change course and live up to its own standards, the campus dissenters need to make a bold move and speak truth to power.

Christian Barnard is a Young Voices contributor and an education policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.