On Tuesday Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he’s been asked by the Trump administration to head up a task force recommending higher ed policy changes for the Department of Education. (In late November Falwell had told the Associated Press that he turned down the Secretary of Education position itself, preferring to stay at Liberty.) I can only imagine how satisfying a moment this must be for Falwell, who was the most vocal backer of the Trump candidacy in the world of evangelical higher education — and received plenty of criticism (even from students and a trustee at Liberty) for staking out that position. Already the leader of the country’s largest, wealthiest Christian university, Falwell is now in a position to pursue a deregulation of higher ed that will likely benefit his own school enormously.
Moreover, he can conceivably claim to be the most powerful figure in Christian higher education.
But at least for me and my house, the face of Christian higher education is not Jerry Falwell, Jr.
I do respect some of what Liberty has accomplished under Falwell’s leadership. The Liberty professors and students I’ve met at conferences and online have generally impressed me as serious, thoughtful scholars, and most seem to like their president. While an Atlantic story this week framed Liberty as an example of “a hot new brand in higher education—the conspicuously conservative college,” it’s also the only university that had both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump address its student body during the campaign. Finally, while spending the fall in southwest Virginia, I heard several times from middle and working class high school students that Liberty was their dream school. I’ve written before that “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.'” Given how schools like my own fared in a recent study of economic diversity and social mobility in higher ed, I do appreciate Falwell’s desire to make a Christian university available to more students beyond the upper middle class.
But I’m not impressed by his means of accomplishing that goal. Hailed by the Chronicle in 2015 as “an unexpected model for the future of higher education,” Liberty’s massive online program (four times as large as the residential population in Lynchburg) has generated far more economic benefit for the university — creating a billion dollar cash reserve and fueling a massive on-campus building program — than for those middle and working class students it’s meant to serve. Kevin Carey points out that in 2015 the “conspicuously conservative” Liberty received almost $350 billion in grants and loans from the federal government, twice as much as the country’s largest public university (Arizona State, another online giant). Yet 9% of Liberty students default on their loans; the national average for private colleges is 6.5% and Bethel’s is less than 3%. Moreover, only three in eight have paid down even a dollar on their principal within three years of graduation. “This is probably because many struggle to land well-paying jobs,” concludes Carey. “Forty-one percent of former Liberty students earn less than $25,000 per year — the typical salary for people with only a high school diploma at age 25 — six years after entering college.”
(I’m not sure if “former Liberty students” here is equivalent to “Liberty graduates.” Almost half of the undergraduates who matriculate at Liberty do not graduate within six years.)
Of course, these figures, however troubling, can’t capture the entire value of a Christ-centered education. But then my concerns about Falwell’s leadership go far deeper than alumni debt and salaries.
First, Liberty does not grant tenure to its faculty, none of whom (please correct me if I’m wrong) went on record to criticize their president’s controversial participation in the 2016 campaign. “All things considered,” wrote journalist Brandon Ambrosino just before Election Day, “it seems correct to say that Liberty technically allows all of its faculty and students to speak to anyone they wish, about anything they wish. It also seems correct to say that many faculty and students don’t feel as though this is the case in practice.”
Sadly, that’s not entirely unusual in the Christian college world. But at a time when evangelical Christianity finds itself yoked to a “post-truth” communicator whose spokespeople promote “alternative facts” and denigrate the role of a free press, it’s imperative that evangelical colleges and universities recommit to the academic freedom necessary for the “courageous Christian scholarship” that Dordt College professor Scott Culpepper recently urged at The Anxious Bench:
In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically. All clouds pass in time. When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past. That generation sits in our classrooms today. We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state. May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.
Second, Falwell has given spiritual cover to a president whose policies are starting to match the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric that helped propel him to the White House. This, of course, is the same college president who told the Liberty student body after the shootings in San Bernardino that “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.”
But while Falwell has attached himself to a president committed to building physical and legal walls around our nation and exacerbating divides within it, there are others in Christian higher education who exemplify two other, more winsome metaphors: Christian educators as bridge-builders intentionally serving in borderlands. Rather than indulging the fearful fantasies of a xenophobe, some of us are instead (if I can quote myself once more) “serving faithfully, fearlessly in contested territory, building bridges, healing wounds, and inviting their enemies to turn towards the Prince of Peace.”
I think of Bethel colleagues like Sara Shady and Marion Larson, whose new book on interfaith engagement apparently came up when Interfaith Youth Core director Eboo Patel recently addressed a group of presidents from institutions belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). One of those leaders, Whitworth University president Beck Taylor, then spoke out against Trump’s refugee ban while meeting with senators from the state of Washington. And I appreciate that CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra, who co-signed the World Vision letter protesting that ban, has pursued a compromise with LGBT activists who tend to be wary of evangelical colleges and universities.
Finally, I’m not sure how Falwell can convincingly extoll one of the traditional virtues of Christian higher education — its holistic commitment to not just intellectual, but spiritual and moral formation — when he has made abundantly clear that character and integrity are dispensable qualities. I don’t mean to suggest that my peers at Liberty don’t value this model themselves. But the good work they do in this area risks being overshadowed by a president who not only offered unswerving support for an unrepentant Donald Trump but is so committed to building up a top-tier sports program that he recently hired the former athletic director at Baylor, where the cover-up of sexual assaults by athletes may have been even worse than what that university already admitted.
(It’s also worth noting here that, after Tuesday’s announcement, a Liberty spokesman told CNN that “Title IX is one of the areas [Falwell] mentioned where there is over-regulation,” with sexual assault cases “better left to police, attorneys, judges.”)
The true leaders of Christian higher ed in the coming years will be presidents, administrators, trustees, and faculty — of all political persuasions — who defend academic freedom, who seek to build bridges instead of walls, and whose leadership embodies our educational commitment to preparing “whole and holy persons.”
And if Jerry Falwell, Jr. would like to read more about these ideas, there’s a book waiting for him in a library named for his dad.