An organization doesn’t always achieve success because of a brilliant leader. Sometimes, it thrives in spite of an incompetent or insincere one. Taking that one step further, it can be hypothesized that when there’s money, sex, and politics in the mix, actual responsible management is no longer the priority.
Ruth Graham of the New York Times confirms that theory in relating the relief at Virginia-based Liberty University now that Jerry Falwell, Jr. has stepped down as president and chancellor, a position he held for 13 years. Falwell, 58, became president after his father, famed televangelist and conservative activist Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., passed away in 2007.
While Falwell presided over $1 billion in capital improvements to the campus, the past few years have exhibited many signs that Falwell was ill-suited to run an academic institution, particularly a Christian one. Last September, for instance, Reuters reported that Falwell mocked staff and students in emails, often using ableist and hurtful language.
However, what pushed Liberty University’s board to act was a series of revelations that began last month with a picture Falwell had posted on his Instagram account. In that photo, taken on a yacht at a party, he has his arm around a woman who was not his wife (and immodestly dressed) and has his shirt pulled up and his pants unbuttoned, showing his underwear. Had he been a Liberty student, the transgressions depicted, including a glass of what looks like alcohol, would have racked up $9,000 in fines and 900 hours of community service—actual punishments for students who break the school’s moral code.
Falwell took the picture down and, after many complaints, agreed with Liberty’s board that he would take indefinite leave starting August 7th. That was before Reuters published colorful (if lurid) stories detailing sexual adventures involving Falwell, his wife Becki, and assorted members of their staff and student body.
Conservative politics played a daily role in Liberty’s academics. Kaitlyn Schiess, a 2016 graduate from Liberty and a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the mix of politics and Christian teachings that was the current Liberty modus operandi:
At Liberty, our minds may have been receiving correct content, but our hearts were being trained to love wrongly: to love political power, physical security, and economic prosperity as higher goods than they are. The leaders of the university may have believed that we could be immersed in the stories and values of the Republican Party while maintaining any theological truths incompatible with them, but the power of our affective education was stronger. The ethics we learned in a classroom were not nearly as powerful as the emotion and desire created in a stadium full of people singing, praying, and hearing stirring messages about making America great again.
Current senior and student body president Tavia Bruxellas says, “We almost had a monarchy, but you don’t see that at any other university, where presidents are chosen based on their skills and abilities. Everybody just sees Liberty as this big Republican university, and students are really tired of that.”
Falwell has generally not apologized for past missteps, instead excusing them with a claim that he wasn’t a moral leader. “I have never been a minister,” he tweeted last year. He often told reporters that “Jesus did not tell Caesar how to run Rome.” Still, this doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“When you say you train champions for Christ, you want a champion for Christ to lead the organization,” said Brandon Pickett, a pastor and Liberty graduate, referring to the school’s longtime motto. “That means a champion for Christ who leads a Christlike life in private and public.” Pickett now teaches at Liberty as an adjunct professor, and his two children are enrolled as students.”
There have also been financial oversight concerns. Liberty has sponsored a racecar for Hendrick Motorsports since 2018, which typically costs millions of dollars. A college employee says the school is spending about $6 million a year that on sponsorship, which may be a bit outside the university’s mission. Also, Falwell has used the 164-foot yacht owned by NASCAR mogul Rick Hendrick for family vacations, which is a major conflict of interest and a personal benefit from a school contract.
Schiess captures the failures of Falwell this way:
With each succeeding Falwell scandal, the failure of this approach becomes clearer. For Liberty University as a whole, and for Mr. Falwell as an individual leader, there’s compelling evidence that proximity to power is its own kind of education. It shapes who you are and what you desire in life. A thirst for political power—and sometimes, obtaining that power—begets more than corruption: It often involves sexual immorality, degraded moral judgment, and financial malpractice.
The website of Liberty University already calls Jerry Falwell, Jr. “former president.”
In an interview with National Public Radio, Falwell claims the resignation makes him feel “free at last,” perhaps indicating that in some way he was aware it was not the job for him. The added burden for the leader of a college, or, for that matter any organization, is to be that person 100 percent of the time. “Lead by example” means exactly that, so be sure that’s what you are equipped to do.—Marian Conway