Falwell: “The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty”

If you want to feel sick to your stomach about this country’s largest Christian university, make time to read Alec MacGillis’ article on Liberty University for ProPublica.

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MacGillis’ article was also published in The New York Times Magazine

It’s not just that you’ll be reminded of Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s alliance with Donald Trump and the damage it has done to the word “evangelical.” It’s the depth of MacGillis’ reporting on Liberty’s massive online program. I’ve mentioned it before at this blog, both in terms of Falwell’s stated desire to use technology to make Christian higher education available to lower-income students… and significant concerns about the way that Liberty has made enormous profits from mass-produced academic programs marked by high attrition and loan default rates. But MacGillis’ article was still eye-opening.

I knew that Liberty took in hundreds of millions of dollars from federal financial aid programs, but didn’t realize just how much it had benefited from its nonprofit status. (“It insulated us from the attack on the for-profits,” Falwell admitted to MacGillis.) I had significant doubts about the academic quality of Liberty’s online courses, but didn’t realize that tests were written at random, nor that Liberty spends only $2,609 per student (residential and online) in instruction. (Less than a tenth what the University of Notre Dame — to whose status Falwell has quite publicly aspired — spends on its students.)

Perhaps most importantly, MacGillis tells the troubling stories of all sorts of people connected to Liberty Online: students appalled by the quality of their courses; adjunct instructors who would need to teach 20 courses a year to start to compare to the salaries of my most-junior colleagues (granted: they have little more to do than “handle emails and grade”); course editors shivering in a concrete room where the starting pay is $11 per hour; and beleaguered tele-recruiters staffing a call center that makes Amazon sound like a relaxed workplace.

Appalling as that all sounds, something else in the article also caught my attention: how Falwell overcame internal opposition to the online program. Former Liberty English professor (and alum himself) Chris Gaumer told MacGillis that

the steep drop-off in quality from the traditional college to the online courses was both openly acknowledged among Liberty faculty and not fully reckoned with. The reason was plain, he said: Everyone knew that L.U.O. was subsidizing the physical university. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic, because it’s not as if the education is getting any better,” he said.

Jerry Falwell, Jr.Falwell acknowledged that Liberty’s faculty initially resisted the rise of the online program, fearing the degradation of academic standards. “The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” he said.

As quoted by MacGillis, Falwell doesn’t elaborate on how he was able to “tame the faculty,” but it’s easy to imagine how this might work at an institution that doesn’t award tenure (apart from the law school, I learned) and whose president last week was accused again of suppressing dissent.

(In light of what Brandon Ambrosino found in reporting his 2016 article on Falwell’s controversial support for Trump, note that MacGillis quotes Gaumer but no current faculty.)

The “tamed” line resonates so strongly with me because I happen to be one of our faculty leaders right now, at a moment when our institution faces several significant decisions. Vice president for 2017-18 and president-elect for 2018-19, I meet regularly with our president, provost, VP/dean, and other administrators. So I’ve given a lot of thought to the nature of the faculty-administration relationship.

And while I’m still feeling my way on how to handle interactions with people who are at once bosses, friends, adversaries, allies, and sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m as certain that my bosses have no desire to “tame” me as that I have no desired to be tamed.

Now, I’ll grant that there’s a degree to which the evangelical culture of institutions as moderate as Bethel and as conservative as Liberty can seem to “tame” (or maybe “pre-tame”) the faculty. Our conditions of employment include criteria of religious belief and practice, such that some otherwise qualified professors will never apply and those who are hired might be tempted to keep certain kinds of doubt to themselves. We sometimes speak in such spiritualized terms that those questioning people in power can be made to sound less than faithful. MacGillis reports that when one Liberty student emailed her instructor to question the structure of her final exam, he replied, “Do remember that God is in control and he works all things for our good.” I’ve heard our employees receive a similar response from administrators in other contexts — Romans 8:28 is a convenient reply to questions that don’t allow for reassuring answers.

Nevertheless, I hear no shortage of faculty dissent, sometimes expressed in the student newspaper. Yet I’ve seen my immediate superiors defend shared governance again and again, for the same reasons that its critics deride it. “It’s inflexible and slow,” gripe the run-college-like-a-business types. (Falwell to MacGillis: “…we’ve always operated from a business perspective. We’ve treated it like a business.”) But what makes shared governance inflexible and slow is that the decisions related most directly to the mission of the institution (e.g., those involving curriculum, teaching, and research) are made by the people whose very work has taught them that dialogue produces better solutions than diktat.

If I were “tamed,” my bosses know, I’d be no more good to our administrators than I’d be to my colleagues and students. And I’d be far less invested in our institution, at which I’ve now spent the first third of my career — and will most likely spend acts two and three as well.

See, I’m one of Bethel’s most vocal critics because I’m one of its biggest fans. I’ve questioned our own — my own — ventures into online education because I value so highly what we do face-to-face. For every piece I write on our failures, I write at least three more on the successes — of our students, our faculty, and our alumni. Good grief, I can’t even vent spleen at The Anxious Bench about the future of the humanities at our institution without soon writing a follow-up expressing hope and gratitude.

So rather than belaboring my concerns about another university and its leader, let me close by reiterating (from that last post) that

I’m grateful for our president, provost, deans, and other administrators. I have had serious reservations about some of the choices our leadership has made, but I’ve never questioned their intentions. They are doing jobs that seem almost impossible to me, and doing them to the best of their ability to preserve a vision of the Christian liberal arts that I think is mostly similar to my own. As much as I’m sure my post [on the future of the humanities at Bethel] irked them, I also have little doubt that they would protect my freedom to ask hard questions of our institution, Christian higher ed in general, and the Church itself.