Roughly 5,000 Liberty University students stood on the school’s football field last Wednesday. From each socially-distanced folding chair, a head bowed in prayer in the wake of former University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public fall from grace. That’s the image of Liberty that students like Bailey Duran want observers to see, not the snapshots of Falwell, his wife, and his wife’s alleged lover that have recently been splashed across headlines.
“Our mission is still the same: to train champions for Christ,” Duran, a senior journalism student, said. “That’s what we’re still doing.”
On August 7, the board of trustees asked Falwell to take a leave of absence after he posted a photo with his wife’s assistant, in which they both had their pants unzipped.
Two weeks later, Reuters published a report in which Giancarlo Granda claimed he and Falwell’s wife Becki had a sexual relationship from 2012 to 2018. Granda, who was working as a pool attendant when he says he met the Falwells, claimed he had sexual encounters with Becki “multiple times per year,” while “Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room.”
In response, Falwell acknowledged his wife’s affair but insisted it was brief and he was not involved, claiming that Granda used the affair to extort money from the couple. Falwell resigned as president of Liberty on August 24. On Monday, the board of trustees issued a statement announcing chairman Jerry Prevo as the interim president and revealing plans to create a position for a spiritual mentor in the school’s leadership.
Students at the Christian university are heartbroken to hear of Falwell’s actions. “You’re already going through a pandemic and then you come back to school and you find out all these things about your leadership,” Duran said. “We don’t know him personally, but you kind of get to know him just from being at convocation or seeing him around campus.”
“All of us are really grieving over the actions that were taken, and the lack of apology and remorse from Falwell himself,” added Amanda Wiggins, a fellow senior.
The students who spoke to The Federalist said they are appreciative of faculty who have stepped up to lead in Falwell’s absence. A few mentioned they’re excited to see how Prevo will lead the school.
Although students seem to generally approve the board’s decision, many are divided over whether it came soon enough. Falwell “made jokes in the past that were not the best and probably someone should have talked to him,” Duran said. Still, she doesn’t think the board knew enough to ask Falwell to step down before this month. “I think they made the right decision at the right time.”
Others think the board should have acted sooner. In 2015, Falwell suggested “we could end those Muslims” after a terrorist attack. In 2019, an Politico investigation claimed that Falwell was discussing his sex life with employees and made questionable business deals. Falwell also apologized in May 2020 for a tweet about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate, in which he included an infamous photo of Northam dressed in blackface.
“Most students would agree that he did not accurately represent the heart of Liberty, and did not always use a wise approach in conversing with people,” Rodriguez said. Additionally, “I’ve been hearing about rumors of the pool boy situation for a while.”
Wiggins thinks the board should have asked Falwell to step down a long time ago, “back in maybe even 2017.”
Others, like Duran, stood up for Falwell before recent allegations surfaced. “There were a lot of people who supported him,” she said. “I was in that camp as well just because his father started all of this and Jerry really did do amazing things for the school as far as growing it.”
Students also disagree on whether the board should face more discipline. “Some people want the whole board removed,” said Rodriguez. “I believe the board has had their eyes opened and are in repentance as well, and I think having a new leader could be enough.”
Wiggins hopes the search committee for a new president is comprised of new people, not just the board. “The board of trustees I feel has largely been enabling the behavior that we’ve seen,” she said. “I’m glad they’re doing the right thing now but I hope this isn’t just a slap on the wrist.”
“Do I hope that there are no more like him? Of course. Am I convinced of that? I’m not sure right now,” she added.
An alumni organization called Save 71 is pushing for more extensive change. “For years, Liberty’s Board of Trustees and Executive Leadership participated in Former President Falwell’s hypocrisy and corruption,” the Save 71 website alleges. The group – which says it includes alumni, students, and faculty – has called for independent investigations into Liberty’s finances and leadership. They want the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Liberty’s accreditor, to investigate “whether its Board and executive leadership meet SACS’s principles of accreditation.”
Meanwhile, Duran and Rodriguez feel that the media has taken advantage of a chance to criticize Liberty. “Every media outlet was jumping at the chance to prove that another Christian leader had fallen,” Rodriguez said.
Duran wishes for more coverage of the campus community’s response, noting a letter David Nasser, Liberty’s senior vice president for spiritual development, wrote to the student body. “It was this amazing letter that said what happened was wrong, but we still want you to know we’re going full force toward our mission,” Duran said. “I think the media should have covered that.”
She’s also hopeful about how the changes will deepen students’ faith. “I think the spiritual growth on campus will take off a little more after this,” she said.
Duran, Wiggins, and Rodriguez all emphasized the importance of extending the grace of the Gospel to the Falwell family. “The Falwells can teach us that no one is exempt from sin,” Rodriguez said. “We need Jesus every minute of every day to guide us, to keep us, and to walk with us, lest we fall too.”