There is a civil war under way at Liberty University, America’s most famous evangelical college. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has helmed the university since his father’s death in 2007, and who over the last few years has fashioned himself as the figurehead for evangelical Trumpism, has had a rough year: Fallout from a legal dispute led to a series of bombshell reports about Falwell, which unearthed wacky details about, in the words of the New York Times, “the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife, and a former pool attendant at the Fontainbleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel, and purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells.”
Falwell’s tabloid escapades have done real damage to his standing among at least some of the Liberty faithful. That became clear last week, when two more anti-Falwell stories broke. On Monday, a Politico story detailed the concerns of “more than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell” that he was no longer “the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.” Then, on Thursday, Reuters published a bundle of leaked Falwell emails, which contained examples of the school’s president “disparaging Liberty students, staff, and parents for years in emails to Liberty administrators.”
Unlike the first round of stories, which seemed to get out nearly by accident, last week’s stories were clearly sourced to people high up in Liberty’s orbit with a desire to harm Falwell’s standing. Most of the time, when a Trumpian figure spouts off about an “attempted coup”—as Falwell did last week—it merits only an eye roll. This time it looks legit. Somebody, or some group of somebodies, wants Falwell out. The dispute is partly personal—Falwell certainly doesn’t come across as a guy who’s a good leader and manager in those emails—but also partly ideological.
And at the heart of it is a deep question: What is the purpose of a university?
It’s worth looking at the leaked emails themselves to get a sense of what Falwell is really like not as a public figure, but as an executive. He calls his campus police chief a “half-wit and easy to manipulate.” He says that one of his students is “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded.” Perhaps the most telling email is the one in which Falwell sneers that the dean of his engineering school is “a bag of hot air” who “couldn’t spell the word ‘profit’”—which is a strange thing, to put it mildly, for a university president to say about his faculty. The picture that emerges from these communication (and others) is that of an arrogant, impetuous, vulgar businessman—not the kind of guy anyone, surely, would want running a tax-exempt, not-for-profit institution of higher learning. Which, technically, is what Liberty University is.
Only what if that’s exactly the kind of guy many at Liberty do want running the show? After all, it’s impossible to deny that Falwell has in many ways been a godsend for the college—increasing its enrollment, weaving together its $1.4 billion endowment more or less from scratch, and generally remaking the comparatively modest Christian school his father founded into the juggernaut it is today. More recently, he has forged strong political connections between it and the dominant faction of a major political party, potentially opening pathways for promising political careers to the undergrads in his charge. And he’s done it all by exercising the same hard-charging, high-energy, and—yes—vulgar personality being revealed now.
In other words, the argument for evangelicals supporting Falwell as president of Liberty bears a strong resemblance to the argument Falwell pioneered for evangelicals supporting Donald Trump as president of the United States. You don’t have to like everything he gets up to; in fact, plenty of it you’re probably better off not knowing about. But he’s the kind of guy, the argument runs, that you want in your corner when the chips are down.
The unfortunate fact for Liberty is that the similarities don’t end there. Because the trouble with having a guy like Falwell or Trump running your institution, is that there’s always a danger that the institutional brand is consumed by the individual’s personal brand. Over the last two years, we’ve seen this happen with the Republican party—everything has been sorted around who is, and who is not, with the president, come hell or high water, such that what passes for Republicanism these days is less a matter of any particular political ideology (Free trade? Small government? Disapproval of executive overreach?) than a matter of knee-jerk support for whatever goofy fight the commander-in-chief decides to pick on any given day.
It’s hard to say how far along that track Liberty has gone. Plenty of undergraduates there might say that Falwell’s personal indiscretions and crass political dealings are at a distant remove from the day-to-day realities of their faith-based education. But there’s also evidence to suggest that those agitating for regime change at Liberty have reason to worry. Take a look at this tweet, for instance, from Liberty University’s official account this week:
— Liberty University (@LibertyU) September 16, 2019
Does that seem to you like a campus that’s doing a good job of keeping its leaders’ politics and its educational brand distinct?
Meanwhile, Falwell Jr. is making it clear that he, like Trump, isn’t a big fan of conscientious dissent. On Saturday, the day after a number of students gathered to protest Falwell’s behavior, he retweeted a meme calling the protesters “probably the same people going to the Area 51 raid in a week. Natural selection at its finest.” (Somewhat later, he begged off on that one, saying this was just a joke.)
Things like this have an effect on an institution—if not right away, then in years to come, as future students decide whether or not Liberty is the kind of place they want to invest their time and money in. Kids won’t go where they’re not welcome, and Falwell is making it abundantly clear who’s welcome and who’s not. A few years more of that, and what brand beyond Fallwellism will Liberty have to call its own?