Cheryl Moses said she found herself "straying from my Christian beliefs" during her freshman year at Mount Holyoke College, so when her mother heard evangelist Jerry Falwell talk about his Liberty Baptist College on television, Moses and her mother visited the campus here.
"It clicked," said Moses, 23, who transferred from the highly rated Massachusetts women's school in 1982 and today was one of 668 to graduate from the school, which today was renamed Liberty University. "I've loved every minute of it."
Enrollment at Liberty, where student conduct is regulated by a thick book of do's and don'ts (mostly don'ts), has risen dramatically since its founding in 1971, and by next fall is expected to be about 6,000.
Liberty is part of a religiously oriented empire that has grown out of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church here. It also includes "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," an internationally syndicated television and radio program; Moral Majority Inc., a political lobbying arm; elementary and secondary schools, a seminary, home Bible study course, summer camp and a home for unwed mothers.
Falwell, well known for his mail and broadcast fund-raising appeals, said his various enterprises will gross about $200 million this year. And Liberty will get a sizable chunk of it, including a subsidy of about $2,000 for each student.
"It's our goal," Falwell said in an interview last week at Thomas Road, "to be the Harvard of academics, the Notre Dame of athletics and the Brigham Young of religious schools to evangelical and fundamentalist boys and girls.
"We have not arrived in any area," he said, "but we're making more progress than our friends or critics believed possible 14 years ago."
His dream is a 25-year plan that calls for 50,000 students in a school with law, medicine and other professional divisions. Already, the school has grown far beyond the "Jerry Falwell U" that some critics dubbed it. Incidentally, Falwell said, he has asked that the school never be named for him.
Falwell says the school's rules of conduct "might trouble some students -- they wouldn't tell me, of course -- but Liberty admittedly is not for every student. Every student comes here by choice, stays by choice. They pay about $6,000 a year for tuition and room and board for the education they get here."
Prospective students are given a handbook, "The Liberty Way," that promises a campus life devoid of single dating (for freshmen and sophomores), smoking, drinking, rock music and most movies and television (such popular programs as "Dynasty" and "Dallas" are among those banned). "The Liberty Way" also requires twice-weekly church attendance, curfews and room inspections.
"The student who is interested in 'doing his own thing' will not be happy" at Liberty, the handbook warns, but for those who accept the program, it promises that graduates will "look back on four profitable years . . . and in the years to come will thank God for the opportunity."
Students, many of whom have a scrubbed Debbie (or Pat) Boone look, often say they were reared in uncompromisingly fundamentalist homes. Some even think the school may be becoming too liberal.
One of today's graduates, Jeff Mazanec, 21, a political science major from Chicago who will attend William & Mary law school in the fall, said he came from a fundamentalist home and had little difficulty adjusting to Liberty. "You perform the way you dress," he said of the dress code. "Most students choose to follow the rules," he said, although "I've heard of a few sneaking a drink or smoking pot."
But many students expressed satisfaction with the regulations, some of which they suggested.
Doris Gaffney, 22, from Spartansburg, S.C., who transferred to Liberty from Tennessee Temple University, also a fundamentalist school, said her new school "tries to make you excel at what you are best at. They don't try to make you into a Jerry Falwell."
Students said some rules have been relaxed from early days, when only Disney movies were shown and interracial dating was banned.
Dawn Simms, 22, a prenursing sophomore from Levittown, Pa., who is black, said that when mixed couples want to date, "the school calls both sets of parents to see if they know about it." That's all right with her, she said. "Parents should be a part of what you do."
"Christians are supposed to be different," added Michelle Brown, 18, a freshman from Chesapeake, Va.
The lure of Falwell's television program, shown on more than 500 stations, has attracted students from all 50 states and 30 foreign countries.
Maureen Crum, 18, is a sophomore biology major from Wasilla, Alaska, who opted for Liberty after attending revival services conducted by Falwell.
Crum said she was attracted to Liberty because it teaches both evolution and creationism. The biology major was certified last year only after the Virginia Board of Higher Education questioned whether evolution was being taught at all at Liberty.
As of May 1, Liberty had received 2,186 applications from would-be freshmen, compared to 1,135 at the same time last year. All applicants who are high school graduates will be accepted if they agree to sign a pledge that they are born-again Christians and will follow "The Liberty Way."
"It's not good enough that someone sprinkled water on your head when you were three," said admissions director Tom Diggs. "You must be born again."
Liberty's students reflect a wide range of abilities. Last year's 1,600 freshmen scored an average of 415 in mathematics and 389 on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitute Test. The national SAT average was 426 on verbal and 471 on math. As class valedictorians or salutatorians, 350 of them qualified for chancellor's scholarships, but one-fourth were required to enroll in one of five remedial courses.
The push for academic excellence is beginning to pay off. Among next year's freshmen will be the school's first National Merit Scholars. And Falwell announced at last Wednesday's prayer service that senior math major Russel Wolfinger, from Mansfield, Ohio, had scored a perfect 800 on the Graduate Record Exam.
Pressure on the faculty for academic achievement has prompted a number of young professors to drive the 65 miles to Charlottesville after classes to earn graduate credits at the University of Virginia.
Forty of the school's 190 full-time professors have earned doctorates, and the president, A. Pierre Guillermin, expects that will increase to 60 to 70 percent in the next several years.
Guillermin holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Bob Jones University, a rigidly fundamentalist school in South Carolina. For several years, his biography listed a PhD from the University of London, but Guillermin said last week that had been "an error. We had been talking about it, and someone reported that I had the degree . I've been correcting that ever since 1970."
In the early days of the school, its brochure depicted the chapel at Washington and Lee University as its own, and a bank building in downtown Lynchburg as its business school.
"The chapel was intended to be a symbolic picture of our religious orientation," Guillermin said, and the bank building was meant to depict "shots of the city. When it was brought to our attention, we changed it," he said. "There was no hidden agenda."
Visible proof of progress in athletics came last week when receiver Fred Banks became the first Liberty player selected in a National Football League draft (eighth round by the Cleveland Browns). Quarterback Phil Bosso signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts. Baseball coach Al Worthington expects his first graduates to reach the majors later this season.
While watching his Flames battle Virginia Tech the other day, Worthington said he had always been a Christian, "but I had never heard about being 'born again' until I went to a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco."
So when Worthington's career as a pitcher for the New York/San Francisco Giants and Minnesota Twins was winding down in 1973, he called Falwell and asked if he could be the school's baseball coach.
"I had never seen him Falwell ," Worthington said, "but I heard that he was a Christian, and I figured if the school had any talent at all, I could help them." Worthington's teams have posted 11 straight 20-plus victory seasons.
A 10,000-seat basketball arena is part of ambitious expansion plans on Liberty Mountain, to which the college moved from the church in 1977. Liberty has built 33 buildings, at a cost of $30 million, on a 250-acre campus, which is part of 4,400 acres it owns at the edge of Lynchburg. Another $10 million worth of buildings are under construction.
The change from college to university, approved by the board of directors this morning, is largely symbolic. Liberty Baptist was fully accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges in 1980 and will seek full university status when it comes up for reaccreditation in 1987.
New graduate Cheryl Moses believes Christ led her to transfer to Liberty, from which she graduated cum laude. "The Lord gave me a brain, but I wasn't using it at Mount Holyoke. I was following the wrong crowd. Now I'm using it the way he wanted me to."