Jerry Falwell Jr. agreed Friday to take an “indefinite leave of absence” from his roles as president and chancellor of Liberty University at the request of the board of trustees.
“The Executive Committee of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the full Board, met today and requested that Jerry Falwell, Jr. take an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as President and Chancellor of Liberty University, to which he has agreed, effective immediately,” the university said in a statement released Friday.
The board's request came days after Falwell expressed regret over posting a photo of himself at a costume party on a yacht during his family's vacation that showed him wearing a T-shirt and jeans that were unzipped to expose his abdomen and underwear. His right hand was around the waist of his wife's assistant who was wearing a tank top and unzipped shorts, exposing her midriff.
In an interview with the WLNI's "MorningLine" Wednesday, Falwell explained the context of the photo that he posted on Instagram last weekend and subsequently deleted. His wife's assistant, he said, is pregnant and was unable to zip up her shorts.
“She’s pregnant, so she couldn’t get her pants zipped,” he told the radio station. “I had on a pair of jeans I haven’t worn in a long time, so I couldn’t get mine zipped up, either. And so, I just put my belly out like hers.”
“I should never have put it up” and “embarrassed her,” Falwell added, explaining that he has “apologized to everybody” about the vacation photo taken during a costume party.
In a statement released Friday night, Jerry Prevo, chairman of the Liberty University Board of Trustees, acknowledged the "unprecedented success" and growth the university has experienced with Falwell at the helm and explained that the decision "wasn't made lightly."
"In the 13 years that Jerry Falwell, Jr. has served as president of Liberty University, Liberty has experienced unprecedented success, not only academically and financially, with a world-class campus, but also spiritually. As we enter our 50th Anniversary year, we have been blessed to grow to a record 120,000 students, both residential and online, and continue to fulfill our founder’s mission to Train Champions for Christ across the world.
"Unfortunately, with this success and the burdens of leading a large and growing organization comes substantial pressure. Today, my colleagues and I on the Liberty University Board of Trustees and Jerry mutually agreed that it would be good for him to take an indefinite leave of absence. This was a decision that was not made lightly, and which factored the interests and concerns of everyone in the LU community, including students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, leaders of the Church, as well as the Falwell family.
"To support Jerry through this period, we ask that our entire community lift him up in prayer so he may be able to fulfill God’s purpose for him and for Liberty University."
In a statement to The Christian Post late Friday, Pastors Chris Williamson, Eric Carroll, and Maina Mwaura — the organizers of a June 1 letter to Falwell signed by 35 black pastors, ministry leaders and athletes who graduated from Liberty University and warned they'd stopped donating to the university because they disagreed with Falwell's political rhetoric and activism — said his leave of absence was the right decision.
"We believe the Board of Trustees made the right decision in asking Mr. Falwell to take a leave of absence, and we are praying for him, his immediate family, and our entire Liberty family during this season," they said. "First and foremost, it is our desire that Mr. Falwell would experience healing and restoration that only God can give. Liberty is a special place, and the God that we serve is a powerful God to lead the school into its next season. Liberty University deeply impacted us as students and we hope that its leadership can return to a focus of training 'young champions for Christ' with Biblical conviction for the Gospel and justice."
Friday evening, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a former pastor of 16 years who also worked at Liberty University as a guest lecturer, said on Twitter: "I pray for Jerry Jr. and the Falwells, and I take solace in the Christian principle that forgiveness and redemption is available to all."
Walker added: "Though not easy, this is the right call for @LibertyU students & family. Liberty is such an important institution to our nation, our next generation of leaders & faith. The Liberty family impacts the world every day for things that are good and righteous."
Earlier on Friday, before the board announced its decision, the congressman called on Falwell to step down. "Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling. As a Music Faculty Advisory Board Member and former instructor @LibertyU, I’m convinced Falwell should step down. None of us are perfect, but students, faculty, alumni and @LUPraise deserve better," he wrote on Twitter.
The image of Falwell and his wife's assistant was shared extensively after Robert Downen, a religion reporter with The Houston Chronicle, posted it on Twitter Sunday.
"Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht. I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only,” Falwell wrote in the caption of the now-deleted photo along with other images of the costume party inspired by the long-running comedy series “Trailer Park Boys." The comedy actors are known for setting a record for the highest number of f-words in a film by saying the curse word 935 times in the movie "Swearnet."
Some accused Falwell of hypocrisy, citing Liberty University’s code of conduct that prohibits students from consuming media that contains “lewd lyrics, anti-Christian message, sexual content, nudity, pornography” either on or off campus.
Falwell, the son of Liberty University’s founder, the famed preacher Jerry Falwell Sr., took over as president after his father's death in 2007.
In just over 10 years, the university has grown from a combined student body of 38,000 to more than 100,000 (resident and online), making it the second-largest nonprofit university in the world and the second-largest private nonprofit university in the nation.