Is Jerry Falwell Jr. an idiot or a genius? Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has hit the jackpot with Liberty’s incredibly popular—and incredibly lucrative—online programs. Falwell has plowed that money into Liberty’s brick-and-mortar campus. Is Falwell a higher-ed visionary? Or does he simply not recognize the way things are really going in higher education?
The money is hard to ignore. Between 2006 and 2012, Liberty’s net assets increased from $150 million to $860 million, thanks mainly to its booming online business. Instead of using those funds only to increase online education, Liberty has bankrolled an ambitious sports program and a recession-busting campus building program.
Most campuses are going the other direction. At traditional schools, including my beloved State University of New York, presidents and chancellors are scrambling to find ways to profit from online education.
Perhaps Liberty’s got something to prove. Founded only in 1971, it originally met in the basement of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. As I explore Liberty’s archives this week as part of the research for my next book, I’m finding reminiscences of those early years. One early ministry student remembered that he used to have revival meetings on the “old trash dump road” above the current campus. There was no campus back then, so these earnest “preacher boys,” this alum remembered, used to
pray, sing, and practice preaching for about an hour to an hour and a half. We would pray and preach in the Spirit! Walking, shouting, and praying up and down that road, calling out your name to the Father, tears streaming down our cheeks!
As do most fundamentalist schools, Liberty feels a constant need to prove that it is just as good, intellectually, as mainstream universities. As first president Pierre Guillermin put it in an early fundraising letter, any Christian college must maintain “performance standards of unquestionable academic excellence and admirable professional credibility.”
The campus building program may result from a deep need to prove that Liberty is a real university, not just a fundamentalist camp meeting. Or it may be something more strategic. College administrators these days are wracked with anxiety about the future of higher education. Will students in the future simply take classes from a menu of online providers? Will giants such as MIT and Harvard provide the world’s best content online? Can smaller schools continue to exist?
It seems President Falwell is betting big that people will continue to want a traditional campus, with traditional amenities such as sports programs and libraries.
I think he’s right. So far, the leaders in Massive Open Online Courses are not start-up companies in their garages, but established schools such as MIT and Harvard. People still have high expectations that their education—even their online classes—will come from a “real” university.