NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n December 2015, I sat with about 10,000 other students in Liberty University’s Vines Center for one of the thrice weekly Convocations, this one featuring remarks by Jerry Falwell Jr., the school’s president, chancellor, and son of its famous founder. It was already well-known by the student body that for Jerry, as we half-affectionately called him, off script was a dangerous place to be. Mostly that danger took the form of bad jokes and awkward malapropisms. But on that particular day, it was worse. A few days earlier, a gunman had killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. Jerry was addressing the shooting. Praising Liberty’s policy of allowing concealed carry by licensed students and faculty, he said: “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here. . . . I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”
A little more than a month later, Jerry would endorse Donald Trump in the Republican primary.
The years since have been filled with foibles and minor scandals (some major scandals too) that have cast a shadow on the school. The release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016 drew the first major outcry from students and alumni, in the form of a petition organized by students rebuking both then candidate Trump for his comments, and Falwell for defending them. But there were also sketchy and self-dealing business practices. A hostel in South Beach, Fla., part-owned by Falwell. Photos of him at a nightclub (a violation of Liberty’s code of conduct several times over). These along with dozens of other gaffes and infractions filled a reservoir of dissatisfaction among the Liberty community.
Some ill-advised Instagram posts proved to be the tipping point, prompting renewed calls for Falwell’s resignation both from alumni who had been complaining for some time and from other major public and political figures. Liberty’s Board of Trustees announced August 7 that Falwell had agreed to an “indefinite leave of absence.”
I count myself among the alumni dissatisfied with Falwell’s leadership. We are a diverse group: Some opposed him because of his political activism, some because they thought his business dealings harmful to the school’s finances, others because they believed his personal conduct undermined the Christian witness of the school. Ultimately, I believe all reflect the same pathology, exacerbated by the institutional decay that Yuval Levin identifies in his book A Time to Build.
Levin argues that the institutions of American civil life have lost their ability to shape and mold the people who compose them. No longer do an institution’s members feel an obligation to serve it. Rather they see it as a platform for their own aims and ambitions. Think of congressmen more interested in cable hits than legislation.
Well-functioning institutions make demands of the people within them and the people who lead them. The president of a university should make decisions and conduct himself in light of the obligation he owes to the school, its students, and its alumni. Institutions should compel their members — especially their leaders — to constantly ask, as Levin put it in an interview with NPR, “Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.”
The case of Mitch Daniels is an instructive example of this. When he took the helm of the Purdue University system, some were concerned that Daniels’s political background would harm the school’s reputation, that he wouldn’t be able to set aside partisan politics and put the needs of Purdue first. Years later, those concerns look foolish. Within two years of Daniels becoming president, enrollment and graduation rates had risen, the school had hired hundreds of new faculty members in STEM disciplines, had increased the number of university-affiliated startup companies by 400 percent, and had registered a record number of patents. And Purdue has not raised tuition since Daniels became president in 2013. Daniels’s overriding concern is clearly to improve the university and to serve the student body and alumni. He has been shaped by the institution, not vice versa.
Falwell became president and chancellor after working diligently for years to grow the enrollment and endowment of Liberty. Thanks in large part to him, Liberty grew to be either the largest or second-largest Christian university in the world, depending on how one measures, with an endowment north of $1.5 billion.
But after becoming president of the school and finding his spot in the political limelight, his interests seem to have shifted. He grew more interested in using Liberty as a platform for his ambition and budding political celebrity. You can see it clearly in the chyron of every cable-news interview: “Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University,” an affiliation that lends a certain heft that “son of Jerry Falwell” lacks. Without his title, one would be hard-pressed to find a reason to care much about his perspective.
Ultimately, I think it is right and good that Jerry appears to have seen his last days as president and chancellor at Liberty. And that’s not because I disagree with his politics, or think his business dealings are questionable, or believe his personal behavior un-Christian (though I do think and believe all of those things). Rather, it is time for Jerry to move on from Liberty because he is no longer interested in doing the work his job required. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that he’ll have little trouble finding a perch more compatible with the sort of work he is interested in doing. The market for flame-throwing tweets and cable-news hits seems as strong as ever.