Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared last month at Virginia’s Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college, in a visit that surprised many people who wouldn’t have expected the school to invite someone with Sanders’ political views. As it turns out, the school is broadening its Convocation speaker schedule, and has also relaxed some rules that affect the lives of students. This post explains what’s happening. It was written by Alexandra Markovich, a 20-year-old student at Princeton University who is a member of the University Press Club, a group of undergraduate students who freelance for regional and national publications. Markovich is a politics major.
By Alexandra Markovich
Change is in the air at Liberty University: couples can now do more than hold hands in public without fear of fine, men can wear ponytails, and students can watch R-rated movies (with “caution”). Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, has relaxed its rules this semester to give its students more freedom.
The university has simplified the Liberty Way, its code of conduct, dropping outdated rules. Witchcraft, for instance, “or other satanic or demonic activity,” no longer risks a $500 fine and possible administrative withdrawal, a change from the 2014 edition of the Liberty Way.
The university has also cut a full page from the document’s dress code description, essentially leaving the students to decide what they mean by “Hairstyles and fashion should avoid extremes.” However, shorts are still not permitted in class and women’s’ skirts may not be shorter than two inches above the knee.
Liberty has also made changes to its convocation policy, allowing students one unexcused absence per semester and increasing the diversity of speakers. Liberty’s previously fully mandatory attendance policy sparked a media firestorm in March when students were ‘forced’ to attend Ted Cruz’ presidential campaign announcement. Along with the Liberty Way, convocation, North America’s largest weekly gathering of Christian students, makes Liberty University distinctive.
Dean of Students Robert Mullen said that the revisions to the code of conduct are not a massive change, merely an update to match what things already looked like in practice. “Liberty’s code of conduct has undergone some revisions to reflect more accurately the campus environment and the way in which Liberty students are conducting themselves,” Mullen said.
Though Mullen insists the changes are not big ones at Liberty, the school’s thorough rulebook has been part of Liberty’s reputation in the media for years. Liberty University presented itself as an object of such fascination that Kevin Roose, now a writer for New York Magazine, transferred from Brown University as an undergrad to Liberty for a semester and wrote a book about the experience called, “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.” In a 2009 article in The Washington Post, Roose wrote that almost all he knew of Liberty before attending came from the Liberty Way: R-rated movies and hugs that lasted longer than three seconds were not permitted at the time.
David Nassar, the senior vice president for spiritual development, said the changes do not mean Liberty’s vision or commitment is changing. “We’re two things. We’re distinctively an institute for higher learning, and a really good one. And at the same time, we’re distinctively Christian,” Nassar said. “We’ve never given up our convictions as a school. but the strategy or the methodology might change from here to there.”
The changes to the code of conduct and to convocation policy are an intentional move to give students more freedom of choice, Mullen said. “It’s an effort to get our students to think for themselves and evaluate and make good decisions,” Mullen said.
In the 2014 Liberty way, “personal contact beyond hand-holding” would get a student four “points” and a $10 fine (22 points is disciplinary probation and any student with 30+ points could be asked not to return). Now it says “inappropriate personal contact” but doesn’t say “beyond hand-holding.
Still, the Liberty Way maintains a few more strict, traditionally Christian regulations: “Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural born woman are not permissible,” the document reads. Attendance at a dance risks a $20 fine, and “visiting alone with the opposite sex at an off-campus residence” could leave a student $50 short.
Though the relaxed rules have been positively received on campus, Liberty students still can’t catch a break, Shelby Livingston, a sophomore at Liberty, said. Some on the right think the changes toward a more open campus mean Liberty is moving away from its evangelical foundation, she said. “People think it’s watering down our Christianity and giving us more opportunity to sin or something,” Livingston said.
The spotlight on Liberty University has turned the school into a symbol of conservative, Christian youth, a precarious position which attracts criticism from both sides. “I think it’s become a natural association, that people will use a specific instance at Liberty to categorize an entire generation of young Christians,” said junior Luke Wittel. “I don’t think it should surprise anyone that the media uses and even abuses the Liberty stage for its own purposes.”
“No matter what we do, we’re always the butt of some joke,” said Nastasia Pretzlaf, a sophomore at Liberty.
Nothing makes the double standard that some Liberty students feel clear like the visit by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, to the university in September. In a blog post, Pretzlaf wrote:
“Last year Ted Cruz, a conservative, christian (sic) presidential candidate, was invited to our University to speak at convocation. And guess what happened? We got destroyed for it. Bernie sanders (sic), a liberal, atheistic presidential candidate, is invited to speak at convocation. And guess what happened? We got destroyed for it.”
Pretzlaf’s blog post responded to Joshua Feuerstein, an evangelical Internet personality who has made headlines more than once for his views. Feuerstein criticized Liberty in a video, which has since been taken down, for inviting evil into God’s house by inviting Sanders to speak at Convocation, Pretzlaf said. Though Sanders’ speech did not receive the same fervent response from the national media as Cruz’ speech, Liberty students find themselves under a different kind of pressure from individuals like Feuerstein.
“When we invited Sanders to speak, people thought we were conforming, that we weren’t following the Lord’s doctrine,” Pretzlaf said. The move to make the Convocation speaker schedule more diverse has left Liberty in a tough spot, according to some students.
When Liberty students gave Sanders a warm welcome, the national media cast them as surprisingly tolerant, Livingston said. At liberal universities, conservative speakers don’t always enjoy the same treatment. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescinded her invitation to speak at Rutgers’ commencement after student and faculty protests, and Christina Hoff Sommers was greeted by protests when she spoke at Oberlin College. “I think the left might be surprised [that we invited Bernie Sanders] because the left doesn’t tend to invite conservatives, and hear the conservative point of view,” Mullen said.
To Nassar, the campus pastor, holding fast to Liberty’s vision as a Christian university means being able to engage with speakers who hold different beliefs. “The lost are not the enemy. They’re the prize. For us, I don’t see someone who’s not a Christian as the enemy. I see them as the prize of God,” Nassar said. “So I don’t think our students see someone who is not a Christian as the opposition. We see them as the opportunity to love.”
Mullen has not felt the conservative push-back against these policies that these students are talking about. “We’ve gotten a lot of applause from conservative folk,” Mullen said. They think it’s a good thing for Liberty students to develop their own worldview, he said.
Mullen said that inviting Bernie Sanders and relaxing the code of conduct are part of a broader shift in the climate at Liberty. “[The changes] are all involved in setting the tone of the University culture,” Mullen said. At Liberty, a climate of greater openness means giving the students more freedom to choose. “We teach our students truth and we allow our students to test it in the marketplace of ideas,” Mullen said.
(Correction: Fixing author’s bio)