Liberty University is staying open because Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to own the libs
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s allegiance isn't faltering.
President Trump spent the first few weeks of COVID-19's spread downplaying the seriousness of the risk and Falwell has taken up the charge. But the difference between Falwell and your average pandemic skeptic is he runs the largest Christian university in the country, and he has decided to use that position to make a potentially deadly political point.
While other universities, including private, Christian schools, have closed their campuses and emptied their dorms of all but the few students who truly have nowhere else to go, Falwell has taken Liberty in a different direction. Virginia's prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people prevents most classes at the Lynchburg school from meeting in person, so the bulk of Liberty's instruction has moved online. But the dorms, normally housing about 16,000 students, remain open and ready to welcome residents back from spring break.
"Most of the students, from what we can tell, are coming back, and they're gonna live in the dorms, and they're gonna do their classes online," Falwell said in a radio interview on March 18. "They don't want to sit at home in the basement and have to do their own laundry," he added, laughing with his host. In the same conversation, Falwell referred to the novel coronavirus as "this flu," said he's "not worried about it," and declared the media response to be "just politics," an effort to "destroy the American economy just to hurt Trump."
Falwell's estimate that "most" students would return isn't quite accurate — the school actually anticipates around 5,000, a third of the residential student body — but that number is still far higher than those housed by comparable schools. In Lynchburg, for example, other universities' remaining on-campus population is in the double or even single digits. Liberty is also keeping its fitness center open, operating dining halls on a take-out or limited seating basis, and requiring faculty without a health exemption to hold in-person office hours and teach online courses from campus instead of in their homes. (In an unfortunate slip of the tongue, Falwell initially resisted moving to online instruction because, he said, the school's extant online classes, which instruct about 85 percent of Liberty's student body under normal conditions, are "really not the same quality of education" as residential courses.)
Falwell has never been coy about his politics and priorities, and here he has mostly stayed true to form. Though in his official capacity Falwell cast his decision as a way to let students "enjoy the room and board they've already paid for and to not interrupt their college life," he has elsewhere made his political rationale inescapably clear: Liberty's dorms are open because Falwell wants to own the libs.
Thus recent posts on his personal Twitter account, which models Trump's feed in its intemperance if not its pace, see Falwell repeatedly using the pandemic as an occasion to praise the president, critique former President Barack Obama, and accuse the media and Democratic politicians of making the "corona flu" an excuse to "destroy the U.S. economy."
Liberty University professors outside of the law school do not have tenure, a fact Falwell has touted as a "sound business decision" to suppress dissent from administration decisions. It is rare for current faculty to disagree with Falwell publicly, as doing so puts their livelihoods at stake. Thus it is not surprising that Marybeth Davis Baggett, the faculty member who spoke out against Falwell's coronavirus policy, first on Facebook and then in a Religion News Service article picked up by The Washington Post, has already secured employment elsewhere for the fall semester.
"Falwell cavalierly assumes no responsibility for at least an enabling and at most an incentivizing the students' decision to return," Baggett wrote. "Rather than provide the steady leadership needed at this sober time, Falwell has chosen to indulge and endanger the students." On her Facebook post, she shared dozens of private messages from Liberty faculty, staff, students, and alumni expressing dismay that the campus is open and that work which could be completed remotely is required to be done on campus. (I've received an unsolicited off-record message from a Liberty employee to similar effect.) Baggett concluded her article with a call for the decision to close Liberty's campus to be taken out of Falwell's hands by Liberty's board of trustees. Falwell responded by calling her "the 'Baggett' lady" on Twitter, linking to a new statement reiterating his plan for the school that often seems to function as his personal fiefdom.
As classes resume at Liberty this week, Falwell shows no sign of backing down, evincing a pointedly lackadaisical attitude about the risks of continuing campus life. He told the Lynchburg News & Advance he wants to "to give [students] the ability to be with their friends." And in the statement Liberty published Monday, Falwell described himself walking around campus, meeting and joking with returning students (a bid to be Liberty's own Typhoid Jerry, perhaps). A petition for the university board to fire Falwell will almost certainly go unheeded unless, as Baggett warns, his plan leads to a "disaster for which he would be primarily to blame."
Like Baggett, my hope and prayer is that the risk Falwell's choice courts will never come, that the campus will not become a grim experiment in what happens when the intemperate right's pandemic imprudence is allowed to set policy for thousands. Firing may be the comeuppance Falwell is due for his politically motivated recklessness, but it would be a comeuppance bought at a tragic price.
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