Cover Story

Advancing Liberty

"Advancing Liberty" Continued...

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

It also had a succession strategy. Jerry Falwell Jr. had been a friend and classmate of Mark DeMoss in the last graduating class before Liberty Baptist College changed its name to Liberty University. Falwell Jr. then went to the elite University of Virginia law school and became general counsel for Liberty. DeMoss saw both Falwells almost daily during these years and recalls the father/son differences in style were stark. The father came into the building and made everyone aware of his presence. The son would come in the back door, go into his office, and shut the door. “He might work all day in his office, and then quietly leave,” DeMoss said. “You’d never know he was there.”

But behind that door Falwell Jr. poured himself into contracts and financial statements, mastering the mechanics of the school. When Jerry Falwell Sr. died on May 15, 2007, son Jonathan became pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Jerry Jr. became president of Liberty. The introverted Falwell became a major presence at student events and, according to Mark DeMoss, “grew into the job, exceeding everyone’s expectations.”

He has also shrunk into the job: Falwell Sr.’s rotundity contributed to his health problems and sudden death, so when Falwell Jr. looked in the mirror a couple of years ago and saw he looked more like his father every day, he lost 60 pounds over the next 18 months. He now weighs 175, about the same as when he graduated from Liberty. It was an act of methodical disciple typical of the son, but hard to imagine of the father.

Jerry Falwell Jr., will need that discipline in the years ahead, as he, Liberty, and colleges generally face pressures.  

First, what lives by federal funds can also die that way. Falwell Jr. defends the use of federal dollars: “Our default rates are well below the national average,” he told me. That’s true. The national default rate in 2010 was 5.2 percent. That year, Liberty’s default rate was 4.1 percent. Falwell Jr. also claims, “We have so far had no interference in our curriculum from the federal government.” But how long that will last no one knows. Colleges are under increasing pressure to treat homosexuality like race: no discrimination allowed. Falwell Jr. said if that happened, Liberty would simply stop participating in the program: “We’re now in a financial position that would allow us to simply exit the program. … If it became necessary, that’s what we would do.”

Obamacare poses another challenge. Lawyers for Liberty argued the provision of the healthcare law imposes costly burdens on employers and infringes on religious liberty, both in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Liberty’s case in 2011, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, keeping Liberty’s legal fight alive. A new 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on Aug. 7 means the case will once again go to the Supreme Court.

Some have also noted that neither Jonathan nor Jerry Jr. is as outspoken on political or “culture war” issues as their father. New York magazine’s “The Daily Intelligencer” went so far as to call the silence of the sons a shift in policy. “Liberty’s [stand] on gay marriage—from vocal activism to quiet tut-tutting—are likely a product of the school’s increased focus on growth over ideological unity.” Falwell Jr. insists the school will never compromise on its core Christian distinctives. Every faculty member has to reaffirm the school’s doctrinal statement every year, said Provost Ron Godwin, which affirms, among more than two dozen doctrines, that “the universe was created in six historical days.”

Still, Liberty has a lot going for it. As the internet became more widespread, Liberty quickly converted its old VHS tapes to digital, online video, making Liberty one of the early leaders in online learning. This “first-mover advantage” into the online market continues to generate outsized profits for the college. The size of the school means that thousands of graduates join Liberty’s alumni pool every year—all of them potential donors. Other colleges have more than Liberty’s $1 billion in assets, but no other Christian colleges do. Falwell Jr. said within five minutes of our first meeting, “Schools like Harvard have more assets. But it took Harvard 350 years to get there. We did it in less than 40.”

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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