Liberty University students watched their first all-school convocation of the semester one day after their high-profile president, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned amid personal scandals.
Then Jonathan Falwell, pastor of the Liberty-affiliated Thomas Road Baptist Church, spoke. He did not mention his brother by name. But he told his audience, in Lynchburg, Va., and around the globe: “So many times we see Christians that are more focused on building their own brand than they are about building the kingdom of God.”
There are a lot of universities out there, Jonathan Falwell said, but Liberty is different: It was built to change the world with the gospel. He urged students to be faithful, trust God and avoid temptation.
Some students who heard the two men said the convocation highlighted a key tension at their school. They felt that Prevo was elevating the former president because of his transformation of the university and that Jonathan Falwell was elevating the Christian values they shared.
“I thought Jonathan Falwell, without being too explicit about it … he definitely kind of took Jerry to task,” said Eli Best, a junior from Alexandria. “But he did it in a way that took us all to task. It was very relevant.”
Falwell’s departure leaves Liberty at a turning point: Will the school continue its huge success as measured by size, assets and political clout? Or will it return to the more rigorously religious priority of its revered televangelist founder, Jerry Falwell Sr.?
The question resonates far beyond campus. Some experts say it speaks to a challenge for religious schools as they seek to balance a highly competitive marketplace with their core values.
“It’s hard to overstate how significant and influential Liberty is,” said Ed Stetzer, who runs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “It’s so large and so engaged in the conversations of our day."
David French, a prominent evangelical writer and lawyer, said the choices Liberty makes “will say a lot about the evangelical movement more broadly."
“Liberty is trying to define what it means to educate Christian young people in the United States,” he said. "So it matters.”
‘Preserve those values’
Liberty was founded in 1971 as a small college with a clear mission: ″Training Champions for Christ.” At the convocation Wednesday, Jonathan Falwell shared his memory of watching as a small child as his father walked through the tall grass of a field, praying God would give them land for a university that could change the world.
In its early years, the school had a strict dress code, a ban on R-rated movies and convocation three times a week. The ties with Thomas Road Baptist Church, also founded by Falwell Sr., were tight. So were finances: In the 1990s, Liberty owed as much as $100 million. At times, faculty members went unpaid.
But Liberty has changed. It is not just its sheer growth — the school now has 85,000 students. After Falwell Sr. died in 2007, his lawyer-developer son took charge and oversaw the explosion of Liberty’s online program, a dramatic improvement in its finances, a Division I football team and a massive construction boom that beautified the campus. Falwell Jr. also offered a presidential endorsement in 2016 that recently has associated Liberty more in the public mind with Donald Trump and Republican politics than with Christian values.
Convocation was held less often. And the substance changed: Speakers increasingly included business leaders, sports figures or politicians, as well as religious figures. Some of the strict rules of conduct were relaxed, especially for online students. Most visibly, the school’s president was not a pastor. Especially in recent years, he made headlines with business disputes and allegations of inappropriate behavior.
“It’s very hard to preserve those values,” said Dirk Smillie, a financial journalist who spent a good deal of time with Falwells Jr. and Sr. for his book about their family, called “Falwell, Inc.”
‘The magic question’
That is a challenge many evangelical colleges face, with experts saying religious higher education has become much more professional and competitive in the past 50 years.
Perry Glanzer, a Baylor University education professor, said one of the big trends of this era is the rise of conservative, charismatic or fundamentalist schools that had been started by a pastor or personality and turned into something much bigger. Liberty is in this group, Glanzer wrote in an email, along with Oral Roberts University and Regent University. Many of their graduates have gone on to careers in the U.S. Capitol, on Wall Street or in the entertainment industry.
Albert Mohler, theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the business model that allowed Liberty to explode with growth could make it harder to preserve Falwell Sr.’s conservative-Christianity-first model. Although Liberty is a private university, it relies heavily on funding that flows through federal student aid programs, public money that comes with requirements to avoid discrimination. In the most recent school year, federal data shows, the government disbursed more than $750 million in grants and loans to help students pay to attend Liberty, putting the school ahead of most others in total government loan volume.
“One danger in becoming financially dependent on outside sources is they don’t care about our convictions,” Mohler said. “That’s the magic question about the future. If you become big and powerful and rich as an institution, it’s hard to make decisions that cost you status and wealth.”
Now many are watching for the board’s next move.
An alumni group called Save71 formed this summer and called for Falwell’s removal to restore what they see as the school’s evangelical mission. When he was placed on paid leave earlier this month — after posting a photo of himself with his arm around his wife’s young assistant with both of their zippers undone — Save71 leaders said they were pleased the board had taken action but worried that Prevo, who is close with the Falwell family, had taken over.
After Falwell resigned amid more allegations of impropriety — but with no finding of wrongdoing and an exit package of more than $10 million — the group said more change is needed.
For years, members wrote in a statement, Liberty’s board allowed Falwell to harm Liberty’s reputation, permitting him and his family to run the school like a personal business and sitting by “while Falwell’s words and deeds disgraced the name of the Lord again and again.”
When the school announced Falwell’s departure, it praised his contributions and pledged to focus on ensuring the school could remain true to its mission. “Our students are ready to be world changers as Champions for Christ,” Prevo said in the statement. "Their spirit is strong as they look to the future. I intend to do all I can to nurture their spiritual side as they grow academically and enjoy all our campus has to offer.”
In October, the board will select a search committee. School spokesman Scott Lamb said it is safe to assume they will launch a national search for the next president.
The board of trustees should examine its own failures, said Warren Smith, president of MinistryWatch, a watchdog group, and a Liberty parent. “They have not performed their fiduciary duties.”
Still, he said, Liberty’s strengths — its financial health, its large donor and alumni bases, its breadth of majors and opportunities — give it the opportunity to become an even better school.
“There’s a lot going on at Liberty that’s great; I wouldn’t send my own daughter there if I didn’t think so,” he said.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity in higher education. It’s a school with the budget to hire the best."
Tyler Lee, a graduate who worked closely with Jerry Falwell Jr. for several years, said the school’s financial strength will last long into the future and is his greatest legacy. “That’s going to far outpace any scandal,” he said. "They will continue to train champions for Christ.”
On campus, many students are not talking about the abrupt change in leadership and what is ahead, said Brooke Smoke, a 22-year-old student from Front Royal, Va. In classes, she said, prayers have been offered asking God to guide them through the uncertainty.
During convocation, she was troubled by the talk about Liberty’s financial success under Jerry Falwell Jr. But she appreciated that Jonathan Falwell read from the Bible and challenged students to avoid temptation, to keep their motives pure, to be faithful to God’s call.
“I think the campus needs to get back to the basics,” Smoke said. "I hope as we move forward as a campus we’ll focus more on the Christian roots of the school.”
Nick Anderson contributed to this report
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