A former student journalist at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University (LU) has provided a rare insider’s look at the militantly right-wing, evangelical institution. Will E. Young’s recent Washington Post article is long, but it’s well worth the investment of time to read it.
A picture emerges of a university ruled by an authoritarian figure who brooks no dissent from far-right, extreme fundamentalist ideology. Unlike most universities, LU does not offer its professors tenure (except for those who teach in its law school). Professors are on year-to-year contracts. Any who dare to criticize the school or its policies or deviate from Liberty’s rigid views won’t be invited back.
Young served as editor of The Champion, LU’s weekly student newspaper. He quickly learned that in that position, he’d have no independence.
“[W]hen my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an ‘oversight’ system – read: a censorship regime – that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review,” wrote Young. “Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally. …”
Eventually, Young quit and LU’s administrators took over the paper, which they use as a propaganda organ. This attitude, Young said, spreads to all areas of the campus.
“It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life,” Young wrote. “Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leader, which mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from campus). This ‘culture of fear,’ as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story – most of them anonymously to protect their jobs or their standing – worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.”
According to Young, Falwell would accept no criticism of Donald Trump, whom he endorsed for president in 2016. Young describes a few occasions where Christian speakers who are critical of Trump or other conservatives were warned not to set foot on campus. One of them, Jonathan Merritt, an alumnus of Liberty, had committed the cardinal sin of writing something negative about the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.
Young’s piece is studded with similar stories: LU’s Campus Democrats were shut down, students who wanted to express solidarity for victims of sexual assault as part of the #MeToo movement were pressured to cancel the event and students in LU’s film school were ordered to work on a ridiculous film about Trump’s presidency being part of a biblical prophecy.
Ideally, the purpose of a university is to teach young people how to think, not what to think. At Liberty University, students aren’t being challenged to look at the world in any way other than the narrow, black-and-white vision of Falwell. (And you’re paying for that: LU became the nation’s largest Christian university thanks to the massive amounts of taxpayer support its students receive.)
Young, who now works for Sojourners, a more moderate Christian group, is evidence that not all LU grads buckle under to Falwell’s Orwellian tactics. I hope his insightful article spurs more of them to speak up.
(Photo by Taber Andrew Bain via Creative Commons)