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Liberty University needs full leadership change, not just Jerry Falwell Jr.

An open letter to the Liberty University family by an alum of the LU Class of 1991

The statement by the Liberty University Trustees on Aug. 7 creates wiggle room where
they would have Jerry Falwell Jr. return as President and Chancellor.

Curt Olson
Courtesy of Curt Olson

That cannot happen, and the LU Trustees should depart too for failing to rein him in
sooner. After all, we have early signs of failure. David French reported in a column on Aug. 9 LU has had drops in freshmen applications and transfer students. It’s an obvious correlation since 2017, and if you can’t see it, you don’t want to see it.

Two recent events created problems. In June, Falwell Jr. said he would wear a face mask only if it looked like the “blackface,” an effort to mock Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. That drove a couple football players to transfer from LU and got him in hot water with African-American LU alumni. Two weeks ago an Instagram photo emerged of Jerry Jr. pictured with a female who was not his wife and his pants were unzipped. Falwell was later on WLNI explaining what happened with the deleted photo and sounding as if he was drunk. The Instagram photo and the “blackface” mask displayed a shocking level of poor judgment for a man leading a Christian organization.

It is time to face some harsh facts. Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership is toxic, with a culture of fear that has been felt by multiple faculty members, staff, and students. That just begins the list of grievances that go back to around 2012. Aside from the poor judgment from the June and August incidents, we also have the following issues that could serve as the catalyst for Jerry Falwell Jr.’s termination as President and Chancellor:

● Self-dealing on some real estate transactions;
● Self-dealing on some of the construction projects to benefit friends;
● Harming the reputation of Liberty University through other incidents;
● Displaying a lack of justice and mercy with many in the LU family;
● Having a faculty member with a muddied position on homosexuality; and
● Neglecting his spiritual role for the university.

While these would be key indictments to compel LU Trustees to terminate Falwell Jr.,
these are the known issues through prominent reporting.

Reuters reported in August 2019 on a real estate transaction with a gym owner in
Lynchburg, VA. It reported: “In 2016, Falwell signed a real estate deal transferring the sports facility, complete with tennis courts and a fitness center owned by Liberty, to Crosswhite. . . .Liberty committed nearly $650,000 up front to lease back tennis courts from Crosswhite at the site for nine years. The school also offered Crosswhite financing, at a low 3% interest rate, to cover the rest of the $1.2 million transaction, the contract shows.”

By Sept. 9, POLITICO’s Brandon Ambrosino wrote a damaging piece that detailed the
self-dealing, building contracts going to friends, his autocratic leadership, and activities that would only harm LU’s reputation. Those activities include: Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen dealing with racy personal photos, a Falwell appearance at a Miami nightclub, photos Jerry didn’t want public, and the notorious Miami South Beach hostel with a seedy reputation owned by Trey Falwell, Jerry Jr.’s son. As an alum, I have been hurt more by what Jerry Jr.’s actions were doing to the reputation of LU. Ambrosino’s revelation that was most bothersome was the apparent lack of any, or at least sufficient, oversight of major construction on the campus. Ambrosino had the following excerpt:

At the outset, some in Falwell’s inner circle were not so confident
in the arrangement with (Robert) Moon. Before his CMA Inc.
(Construction Management Associates Inc.) became Liberty’s
go-to contractor, the school bid out its construction work through
an office on campus. (‘Free enterprise tends to do pretty well,’
one high-ranking university official said.) The prospect of
changing that — giving CMA control over campus construction
and its associated costs — rankled some senior university officials.

Early on in the CMA partnership, before CMA became the
university’s single-largest contractor, Charles Spence, the
school’s then-vice president of planning and construction,
expressed unease about the high costs Moon was quoting for
certain school projects. ‘Jerry I am very concerned about cost
control on all the projects,’ he wrote to Falwell in a November
2014 email. ‘[Over the last couple of weeks we have had a lot of
meetings and conversations on cost and cost overruns. We are just
seeing the information begin to trickle in and there really don’t
seem to be good answers just a response that the cost we are
seeing are fair, and being handled appropriately.’ ‘I hope that I am
over reacting,’ Spence continued, ‘but I assure you I am
concerned.’

‘I am fine with going back to bidding every project out if CMA
can’t run with the big dogs!’ Falwell replied. ‘Let’s hold their feet
to the fire!’

In each of the two years that followed, Liberty paid CMA more
than $62 million, part of at least $138 million in contracts from
Liberty since the company was formed, according to publicly
available tax documents.

Senior Liberty officials might whisper about the propriety of these
business deals, but they told me that Falwell’s decisions on
campus are rarely ever challenged by the school’s board of
trustees. ‘There’s no accountability,’ a former high-ranking
university officer said. ‘Jerry’s got pretty free reign to wheel and
deal professionally and personally. The board will approve an
annual budget, but beyond that … he doesn’t go to the board to
get approval. … It simply doesn’t happen.’

Jerry Falwell Jr. not only has a family friend as the assigned contractor of capital
projects, but few, if any, of them have gone to the LU Trustees for review. The Trustees pass an annual budget and that’s about it. These revelations open up a litany of questions for both Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Trustees on their financial stewardship of LU.

It also creates the issue of whether LU’s leadership needs wholesale change – at
President/Chancellor and Trustees. Isn’t it the responsibility of the Trustees to make sure the President is doing the right thing for and by the university? If Trustees were doing their job, this should never have come this far. Since they have now done something, why did they do it now?

What took them so long to come to their collective senses? In November 2019, Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni chastised LU Trustees in Forbes.  Issues stemming from the Trustees are simply added to the overall picture of Liberty University’s leadership. If you can’t see that something’s amiss, you have to be blind.

Meanwhile in July 2019, former Liberty Champion editor Will Young wrote a column in
The Washington Post titled, “Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear.’” Young outlined numerous stories that gained scrutiny after Jerry Jr. endorsed Donald Trump in 2016. He explained multiple events where the editors were constantly second-guessed at what would offend Falwell’s political sensitivities. After Champion coverage of the Red Letter Christians event in Lynchburg, it resulted in two students being fired and a complete reorganization of the campus newspaper.

Lastly, we have a couple of spiritual issues. Karen Swallow Prior was a long-time
English professor at Liberty University before recently joining Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In an interview with Julie Roys in February, Prior talked about her affirmation of the biblical definition of marriage. However, she has had some connections with a couple of conferences, including Revoice, that could lead one to draw a different conclusion. The Revoice conference has advocated that same-sex attraction is alright if people remain celibate. All one can do is take Prior at her word, even though that leads to some muddy water. If LU allowed her to remain as a professor for numerous years, one can’t help but wonder how many other professors snuck in under poor vetting that do not hold biblical views on any number of issues.

One pairs that with Falwell Jr.’s past tweet where he underscored his responsibility is
financial, not spiritual. Yet, if one goes to the Leadership page at liberty.edu there are Doctrinal and Mission/Purpose statements that have clear spiritual focus, and a photo of Jerry Falwell Jr. is there with those tabbed links on the left side of the page. Does he have any spiritual responsibility for the university, or does he not?

Dr. John Maxwell has said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It would appear
that some parents are voting with their wallets. How much longer are Trustees willing to go with Falwell Jr.? There’s much at stake in answering that question.

Liberty University Alumni for Reform believes Jerry Falwell Jr. should resign or be
terminated. Additionally, all of the Trustees should follow him. It would be the right thing to do. Only a total house cleaning will cleanse LU and restore it.

Curt W. Olson is a 1991 graduate of Liberty University, with a degree in communications that launched his journalism career.  He has served as a religion editor, copy editor, editorial page editor, and investigative reporter.  He spent about 20 years in journalism.  He is currently teaching English at a Christian school in Upstate New York.  

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