On Monday, however, the university released a statement from Falwell saying that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency ban on gatherings of 100 people made it necessary to move to online-only classes.
“We originally believed it was safest to return our students following their spring break instead of having them return following greater exposure opportunities from leaving them in different parts of the country for longer periods,” Falwell said in the statement. “But, the Governor’s recent decision to limit certain gatherings has left us no practical choice because we have so many classes of more than 100 students. We want to provide for the continuity of our students’ education while doing what makes sense to help slow the spread of the coronavirus to our university family and local community.”
Scott Lamb, a spokesman for Falwell, did not respond to a request to interview Falwell for this report.
Liberty’s original decision to have students return for in-person classes roiled faculty, staff and the school’s 16,000 students who use the Lynchburg campus.
Falwell took to Twitter on Sunday to reiterate his reasons for having students return.
Falwell tweeted that the school was developing a plan to keep at-risk individuals isolated and to move classes to larger rooms and even outside so “students won’t be sitting elbow to elbow.” Falwell said the school “will become the model for others to follow in the future.”
Jeff Brittain, the father of three Liberty students, questioned Falwell’s decision-making, tweeting, “I’m as right wing as they get, bud. But as a parent of three of your students, I think this is crazy, irresponsible and seems like a money grab.”
Falwell responded by calling Brittain a “dummy.”
In response to questions from a Washington Post reporter, Brittain said he contacted Liberty staff via email to talk further but hadn’t heard back from anyone Monday. He declined to answer additional questions.
At a school where dissent from leadership decrees is rarely heard, students and professors were beginning to make public their objections. They said they thought the decision ignored guidance from health professionals and was at odds with most of the region’s other major colleges and universities, which have opted to move to online-only classes.
David Baggett, a longtime professor in the university’s divinity school, took aim at the school’s administration on Facebook, writing, “You guys don’t have permission to risk people’s lives. Do the right thing. Take off your bureaucratic hat and think for yourself.”
In an interview Monday morning, Baggett said he felt free to speak up because he and his wife, Marybeth Baggett, an English professor, are leaving the school at the end of the year. Between them, they have 31 years of teaching at Liberty.
Falwell “is entitled to his crazy views, but making it a policy is another matter,” Baggett said.
Esther Candari, who is finishing a master’s in studio art, was relieved after Falwell made the decision to go with online instruction. She said that like a lot of students, she thought the spread of the coronavirus would be contained, but once other major schools shut down, she knew it was becoming serious.
“There’s a strong culture at Liberty of wanting to be different,” she said. “They take great pride in being not the typical ‘liberal’ higher education. If Yale’s doing it, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
She said no amount of dissent from students was going to make a difference without intervention from government for Falwell to change his mind.
“It went from him endangering our careers to him endangering people’s lives,” she said. “It was a new level of crazy.”
An online petition begun by a Liberty student calling on Falwell and the university to commit to online-only classes after spring break was signed by more than 11,000 people by Monday afternoon, although it was unclear how many of those who signed were Liberty students.
The student who started the petition spoke on the condition of anonymity because she said she feared Falwell could retaliate against her and damage the rest of her educational opportunities, including an upcoming internship and possible enrollment in graduate school.
She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer two years ago and is in remission but also has asthma issues. While she is concerned about her own health, she is especially worried about what a spread of the coronavirus could mean for the Lynchburg community.
Students are on spring break, at home all over the country and even around the world. Next week, she said, students are supposed to descend on campus.
“I’m a conservative, and I’m a Christian,” she said. “People are going to die if he doesn’t do something.”
Alexis Valle, an 18-year-old freshman from the Blue Ridge area of Virginia who lives in Lynchburg, said she signed the petition because she has relatives with cancer, and she’s worried that if she returns home, she could spread the virus to them.
“It shows where his priorities really lie,” she said. “I get that he wants to put his faith in God, but at the same time, he could take precautions to make sure nothing does happen.”
Lauren Lynch, a Lynchburg resident and graduate student at Liberty, said she was happy about the online-only decision but angry that Falwell treated the issue the way he did.
“I’m honestly ashamed to call him the president of my university,” she said.