A few weeks ago, a former student at Liberty University wrote an article for The Washington Post about the authoritarian control Jerry Falwell Jr. holds over the huge Christian fundamentalist college.
Now an even more devastating article about Falwell’s iron grip on Liberty has appeared in Politico. Brandon Ambrosino’s story is long and contains a lot of damning revelations. You should read the whole thing.
Liberty is a private school, and its backers would undoubtedly argue that what goes on there is Falwell’s business. That’s true, but it overlooks some salient facts. First off, LU’s phenomenal growth came largely on the backs of taxpayers. Many of its students, both those at the physical campus and online, get federal grants to go there.
More importantly, Falwell is a Religious Right extremist who is close to the White House – Trump asked him to be U.S. secretary of education, which Falwell declined, and later tapped him to lead a task force on higher education (although it was apparently never formed). Falwell has an aggressive political agenda that he seeks to impose on America. He wants his narrow and repressive version of fundamentalist Christianity to reign supreme. He believes his religion should run your life. In light of that, it’s fair to ask what sort of man he is.
Not a very good one, according to the article. Consider the following:
Falwell runs the school through fear and intimidation: More than two dozen former or current high-ranking LU officials spoke to Ambrosino. They described a stifling institution where employees worry constantly about offending Falwell or his wife Becki.
As one employee put it, “Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear.” That employee would only speak to Ambrosino after buying a “burner phone,” a temporary cell phone that is used once and discarded so that its number can’t be traced.
Falwell is using the non-profit school to enrich himself and his family: Liberty is a nonprofit institution, which means it’s supposed to further some public interest and not be used as a vehicle to make anyone rich – yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Ambrosino discusses several university financial deals that seem questionable at best. Many of these involve property purchases. As one senior LU official put it, “We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund. We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
In one case, Falwell handed control of a university-owned shopping center to his son, Jerry Falwell III. Falwell III, known as Trey, formed a company to manage it and other university properties. An expert in nonprofit law told Ambrosino, “It raises red flags to have your kids being able to profit off the activities of the organization.”
Falwell used the school to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump: As a tax-exempt institution, Liberty is not permitted to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Yet Falwell, who endorsed Trump for president in 2016, has used the school to further his candidacy. On one occasion, after Trump spoke on campus, LU began selling hats and T-shirts mimicking the Trump campaign’s look and employing its slogans.
Falwell is hypocritical: Ambrosino writes that Falwell has boasted to top university officials about his sexual prowess. After a photo of Falwell partying at a Miami Beach dance club surfaced, he insisted it was not him – even though it clearly is. (He reportedly ordered a university IT staffer to find ways to make the photo harder to find online.) How Falwell runs his personal life would be his business – if he didn’t spend so much time trying to tell the rest of us how to run ours. There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy here. LU students who are caught taking part in certain forms of coed dancing, it’s worth noting, can be sanctioned for it.
One source, described by Ambrosino as a “longtime current university employee” with close ties to Falwell, said, “I feel like I’m betraying them in some way. But someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth.”
Indeed someone does. And we all deserve to hear the truth about the man who believes that, by virtue of his faith, he has the right to tell us how to live. Right now, the truth that’s leaking out does not speak well of him.
(Photo: President Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University. White House photo.)