Is Liberty University the “Protestant Notre Dame”?

Last month I spent spring break visiting my parents in southwestern Virginia. Thanks to bad weather in Roanoke, our plane was diverted to nearby Lynchburg, where I walked out of the terminal and saw a sprawling university campus a stone’s throw away: Liberty University.

Liberty University initials on Candlers Mountain near campus

Liberty’s president — Jerry Falwell, Jr. — has ambitious goals, reports Slate staff writer Betsy Woodruff:

“Falwell Jr. has made no secret of his branding strategy,” said Ken Cuccinelli,president of the Senate Conservatives Fund and former Virginia attorney general, referring to the late pastor’s son who now serves as the university’s president. “He wants to be the Protestant Notre Dame.”

It’s slowly getting there. The school reports that it has more than 13,500 students on campus and 95,000 or so taking classes online. And in the world of Virginia Republican politics, it has substantial sway.

“If you look at that university 20 years ago, they were struggling financially, they were still working hard to get their feet under them,” Cuccinelli said. “By the mid-2000s, they had some real momentum going. They’re now in an extremely strong position, and part of that trajectory has been just getting bigger.”

If all you know about Liberty is that it was founded by the (in)famous father of its current president, then let’s bring you up to speed:

• Founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr. as a fundamentalist Baptist college in 1971, Liberty was placed on probation by its accrediting agency in 1990 and 1997. On top of concerns about academic freedom and faculty compensation/workload, the school was tens of millions of dollars in debt and late in paying off creditors.

• Early in this century, it not only resolved the financial issues but received a significant influx of capital. (Most famously, Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon helped to bail out Liberty in 1997.) Net assets topped $1 billion as of 2012, ten times what they’d been just before the founder’s death in 2007.

• Liberty has also drastically increased its programs and enrollment. It had 6,000 students when it went on probation in 1997; more than twice as many are on the Lynchburg campus, and tens of thousands more more take Liberty classes online.

• And even as the school announced that its first online satellite campus will be in Dallas, it’s also nearing the end of a five-year campus expansion back in Lynchburg, costing upwards of $120 million. Some of that spending has benefited an athletic program that now fields twenty Division I teams.

Liberty University
Licensed by Creative Commons (Billy Hathorn)

• In addition to its long-established seminary, Liberty’s law school has now been accredited for five years, its new osteopathic medical college will graduate students starting in 2018, and it offers doctoral programs in education, counseling, and business administration. (On top of dozens of master’s programs — even one in History.)

In a 2013 story in the Washington Post, Falwell, Jr. affirmed his goal was “To create for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.”

Now, a key difference here is that Notre Dame (and Brigham Young) are highly regarded as national universities with strong academics, while Liberty struggles to break out of the pack among “Regional Universities (South)” in the U.S. News survey. (It’s #80 this year. For the record, Notre Dame is tied for 16th among National Universities, while BYU is #62 in that category.) One of the most common complaints about Liberty is its high attrition rate, and not just among online students. From the 2013 Post story:

Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.

Indeed, there may be something to Falwell, Jr.’s claim that an admissions policy emphasizing “opportunity over exclusivity” can and should “redefine what is considered an academically prestigious university in the future.” (It’s increasingly nauseating to find Ivy League schools like my graduate alma mater trumpeting their single-digit undergraduate acceptance rates…)

But even if he can overtake some fellow Baptists in Texas for the “Protestant Notre Dame” title — and Baylor leaders have been using that line since the Baylor 2012 strategic plan was announced in 2002

…even if it could be detached from the partisan political commitments of a school that required students to attend a Tea Party senator’s announcement of his presidential candidacy but disinvited a moderate Baptist because it was “just uncomfortable with some of the things” he’d written…

Vines Center at Liberty University
Liberty’s Vines Center – where Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy last month (Creative Commons – wolfy54)

Even then, I’m not convinced that “the Protestant Notre Dame” is really all that great an aspiration.

I have no problem with Doug Henry’s ambition that Baylor (or any other Protestant school, including Liberty) become “a place to come to if you’re looking for moral, spiritual and ethical maturity—a place where students set their sights and set their hearts on going.” But I see no reason why that place needs to be a large university. There are dozens of smaller Christian colleges and universities that already offer Henry’s three maturities — plus intellectual formation — without participating in the arms races that pit research universities against each other. (And without being complicit in the increasingly untenable mockery of intercollegiate athletics that is Division I. That’s another post…)

And while I’m happy to see students from schools like Bethel go on to graduate school, a big part of me wants them to pursue those studies in a very different kind of environment: to experience the secular, pluralistic academy as full participants in it.

What do you think: Is there a need for an evangelical or Protestant version of Notre Dame? (Or, to go back a few decades, for Carl F. H. Henry’s “evangelical Harvard“?) If so, is Liberty or Baylor a good candidate? (Another school?)

8 thoughts on “Is Liberty University the “Protestant Notre Dame”?

    1. Thanks for mentioning that Chronicle article, Kimberly. I don’t tend to link to firewall-protected content, so I left it out, but it’s an important piece. I’ll try to interact with some of it in the follow-up post I’m mentally drafting…

  1. I’ve often thought this since reading Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Big does not equal “research university” though. Notre Dame’s top Ph.D programs and enormous endowment places it WAY outside of Liberty’s league. Perhaps Liberty may make it there someday, but as long as they stay so committed to a particular political market and such stringent theological stipulations for its faculty…I don’t ever see it climbing to the level of ND.

    1. I suspect you’re right about faculty/programs, Andrew. I’m less sure about endowment. The last I heard, Liberty’s endowment was just over $100 million — whereas Baylor had just cleared the billion-dollar mark, and Notre Dame’s is headed towards $10 billion. But Liberty is generating so much revenue from its online programs that its endowment number is bound to climb rapidly.

      I really do wonder, however, just how much of the Notre Dame comparison is about athletics… See:

  2. I think Falwell needed to clarify what he meant by “Notre Dame” before he sought to make Liberty a “Protestant Notre Dame.” Aside from the work of Karen Swallow Prior in English, I am not too terribly impressed by Liberty’s contribution to Christian scholarship and learning thus far.

  3. Thanks, Chris. When the Cruz announcement came up, I had an argument with an acquaintance about whether Liberty was the evangelical Notre Dame. With you, I argued, not. Baylor is getting there, but I don’t see Liberty in the same class, at all.

  4. If one wishes to become a Baptist or Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher Liberty is your place. Academics is not important in that case, as a bonus you can likely find a pastors wife while your at it. I should correct you concerning the use of Protestant in regards to Liberty. I have never heard anyone make such a connection, Evangelical is the only slot they claim.
    BYU and Notre Dame don’t require anyone to believe in Bible inerrancy, Noah’s Flood and the earth being 6,000 years old. At Liberty you don’t get accepted without signing off such a declaration. LU is quantity based not quality based. Notre Dame as well as BYU have quality Science Colleges both actively support the concepts of Evolution. I can’t imagine what knowledge an Astronomy, or Anthropology leaves Liberty with, all we know is that the Bible is not to be questioned by any of man’s knowledge.

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