Liberty University Chancellor and President Jerry Falwell Jr. has hit a bit of a rough patch.
Falwell got into trouble a few days ago after he posted a photo of himself on Instagram with his arm around a young woman, both of whom had their pants undone. In the photo, Falwell is holding a drink of what he claimed was “black water.”
Falwell quickly removed the photo from the social media site, but it was too late – several people had made copies, and a media eruption followed. Falwell claimed that the whole thing was just a joke and the woman in the photo is his wife’s assistant. He spun a convoluted tale about unbuttoning his pants because they were old and too tight. The Board of Trustees at Liberty University was not amused by any of this and announced last week that he will go on an “indefinite leave of absence.”
Lest anyone think Falwell is being harshly punished over one wacky photo, it’s worth remembering that the new incident is just the latest in a string of disturbing comments and actions by Falwell:
* Earlier this year, Falwell joined forces with a noisy band of cranky coronavirus deniers, insisting that the pandemic, which has now killed 162,000 people in the U.S. alone, was being overblown by liberals to undermine President Donald Trump. He has ridiculed the idea that people should wear masks in public places and tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask with a racist image.
* At a time when other universities were closing down due to the pandemic, Falwell insisted that Liberty would stay open. After a Liberty professor of English named Marybeth Davis Baggett publicly questioned Falwell’s decision in an opinion column, he issued a tweet calling her “Baggett lady.” When a parent wrote to him to complain about the school staying open, Falwell called the man a “dummy.” (Baggett has since left Liberty and yesterday penned a column for Religion News Service calling for Falwell’s permanent removal.)
* After The New York Times and ProPublica published stories about Liberty that Falwell did not like, he attempted to have a Times photographer and a Pro Publica writer arrested for trespassing on campus
* Former students have complained that Falwell runs the school as an autocrat who brooks no dissent. Most Liberty professors don’t have tenure. Anyone who fails to toe Falwell’s line can be summarily fired.
* Angered by the fact that Democrats won statewide offices in Virginia in 2019, Falwell proposed that huge swaths of the state secede and join West Virginia.
* Falwell has repeatedly sought to excuse appalling behavior by Trump and has gone so far as to assert that there is nothing Trump could do that would cause him to withdraw his support.
* In 2015, Falwell suggested that students begin carrying concealed handguns so “we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.”
Liberty University's trustees should not get distracted by one strange photo. They need to examine Falwell’s behavior and statements over the years and ask themselves if those actions have been in the school’s best interests. They should also consider if it makes sense for Liberty to have a leader who spends most of his time molding the university into an adjunct of the Republican Party – a stance that is clearly not appropriate for a tax-exempt entity and damages the integrity of Liberty’s purported religious mission.
The trustees could send Falwell on a paid vacation for a few months and then bring him back and pretend like everything is fine. That would be a mistake; it’s time for a thorough house-cleaning.
This new flap has handed Liberty’s trustees the opportunity to find a stable, less inflammatory leader who has a forward-looking vision for the school – a vision that goes beyond it being a tool for one man’s extreme political views. Here’s hoping they take it.
Photo by Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commmons.