What Liberty’s Billions Can’t Buy

I thought it would come from the sports side. But Karen Swallow Prior’s recent decision to leave Liberty University makes me wonder if academics might do the trick instead.

Karen Swallow Prior

It’s not me, it’s you.

First, a little background: SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the unique story of Liberty’s billions. After the school’s online programs became incredibly popular, current President Jerry Falwell Jr. invested in brick-and-mortar campus improvements, football, and basketball.

When I conducted research at Liberty for Fundamentalist U, I was agog at the lavish accoutrements. It wasn’t only the all-year snowboarding hill. It wasn’t only the fact that Liberty had purchased a nearby mountain on which to slap its logo. It was also the splendid archive facilities and professional archive staff.

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

Liberty has also managed to hold on to star professors such Karen Swallow Prior, until now. Professor Prior just announced she is heading to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Why?

As she told a local newspaper,

“With the rise of Trump, I felt a lot of the values that shaped and formed me were being betrayed by many within evangelicalism. . . . I know a lot of people who voted for Trump and I understand why they did and I get that, but for me it was too much of a compromise.”

Prior said her criticism of Trump has caused tensions on Liberty’s campus and has contributed to her decision to leave the school.

If Liberty can’t hold on to academic talent, it will have squandered its billions. Though it sometimes might not feel like it, students and their families care about a top-notch academic college experience. Even top-ranked sports teams and flashy campus amenities won’t attract students if those students feel like a university is not a “real” college.


A Socialist in the Liberty Lion’s Den

Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?

For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?

Could he grab some votes?

Could he grab some votes?

First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.

Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.

Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,

A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.

But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.

It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.

The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.

This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:

  • Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
  • And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?

Common Core = Christian Core

What is an evangelical Christian to do?

The prolific Karen Swallow Prior recently argued that evangelicals ought to embrace the emerging Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The CCSS have been attacked and defended by both progressives and conservatives.  They have been called both totalitarian and liberating, intrusive and effective.

Conservatives are divided.  Some say the Common Core is the least-bad planOthers warn of “control by Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”

Not so fast, Prior wrote. She attended a workshop with Core Mastermind David Coleman, and came away convinced that the standards have promise to improve literacy skills in the USA.  Especially as Bible-centered Christians, Prior argues, evangelicals need to get behind this effort.

After all, Prior insisted, “no one more than evangelicals can appreciate the importance to a people and a culture of the ability to read, and read well—or the devastating effects of being unable to do so.”


Does Jesus Love Shotguns? Liberty University and the Many Faces of American Conservatism

What do gun rights have to do with Jesus?

Nothing, right?

Then why did Liberty University offer a sweet scholarship to David Cole Withrow?

Here’s the latest, according to the Christian outlet World Magazine: Withrow had been punished for bringing two guns to his high-school campus in Princeton, North Carolina.  At first, it appeared he had accidentally left them in his truck.  As soon as he remembered his mistake, the story was first reported, Withrow informed school authorities of the guns.  In spite of the innocence of his mistake and his Eagle-Scout honesty in reporting the problem, school officials reported Withrow, who was charged with a felony and kicked out of school.  The story became a tempest in America’s culture-wars teapot.  Withrow became a symbol of an overreaching anti-gun governmental tyranny.  Since Withrow was wearing a Liberty University t-shirt in some public appearances, the University contacted him and offered him a full scholarship.

Falwell and Withrow

Falwell and Withrow; Image source, Liberty University

Turns out Withrow had known about the guns all along. According to World Magazine, Withrow admitted in court he had lied.  Nevertheless, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University stand by their offer.  Withrow’s admission of dishonesty, Falwell announced, smacks of more heavy-handed state tactics.

So in the end, nothing really happened.  A conservative Christian youth will go to a conservative Christian college.

Why should those of us trying to understand the world of conservative educational thinking in America care about this story?

Because this story demonstrates the sticky web of connections between seemingly unrelated issues.  Liberty University was founded in the early 1970s by barnstorming evangelist Jerry Falwell.  The goal of the university was to produce new platoons of educated conservative Christians, ready to swing the United States back into the arms of its rightful Moral Majority.

This story demonstrates that the conservatism of Christian institutions such as Liberty University reaches beyond theology.  Liberty University may exist to teach students in a Christian environment.  But that environment also supports theologically unrelated notions, such as the rights of people to have and use guns, and the rights of people to be defended from an overreaching Obama regime.

As faculty star Karen Swallow Prior reported a while back, the broad cultural conservatism on Liberty’s campus may be relaxing a little. Students these days tend to wear less formal clothes, and some even started a Campus Democrat club.  Nevertheless, as Chancellor Falwell’s actions show in this case, Liberty still represents a bastion of an American conservatism that reaches far beyond Biblical interpretation.

What does Jesus think about shotguns?  I don’t know.  But the multifaceted ideology/theology/admissions policy on display in this story demonstrates the complexity of American educational conservatism.


Faith and Football

Forget Tim Tebow.  The real story in the world of fundamentalist football is Liberty University. The fundamentalist Virginia school founded in the early seventies by Moral Majority frontman Jerry Falwell wants to become the face of conservative Christian college ball.

This isn’t news, but Bill Pennington offered a new look at the program in last weekend’s New York Times.

Pennington points out that a big sports program can signal the emergence of a religious school from sectarian obscurity, as happened with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame, or a later generation’s Brigham Young University.  Pennington gets the dates wrong; Rockne pulled Notre Dame football to national prominence in the 1920s, not the middle of the century.  But the point still holds.  Football made Notre Dame an American story, not just a Catholic one.

Image source: Wikipedia

According to Pennington, Liberty is different.  The vision of both founder Jerry Falwell and current chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. is of a team that competes with the likes of Alabama and LSU while remaining staunchly fundamentalist.  As Falwell Jr. told Pennington,

‘“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”’   

In order even to have a shot at such elite play, schools need money.  According to Falwell Jr., that should not be a problem.  Thanks largely to an exploding online program enrolling over 80,000 students, Liberty has announced it will soon reach one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Could they make it happen?  In the world of big-time college ball—to paraphrase an old prayer—with money, all things are possible.

Pennington’s article is worth reading, especially for those interested in college football.  Those interested in the world of conservative Christian higher education will wish Pennington probed a little deeper.  The story of Liberty University in 2012, after all, is much bigger than just an ambitious football program.  As Karen Swallow Prior of the Liberty University faculty pointed out recently, the campus culture has been changing in other important ways as well.  In addition to a loosening of the dress code, students at Liberty have begun showing more diversity in terms of politics and culture, according to Prior.

Liberty watchers have to wonder: Did all these changes—a push for big-time ball, loosening of the dress code, broadening of the politics of the student body—did these changes result from the big on-line payday, or did these changes lead to that payday?  That is, did Liberty make itself the big winner in the new world of online higher education by broadening its appeal?  Or did the broadening happen after the money starting rolling in so fast, according to Falwell Jr., that “we can’t spend it fast enough”?

These questions aren’t new to the world of fundamentalist higher education, nor are they unique to Liberty.  In the 1920s, Bob Jones University also fielded intercollegiate athletic teams.  However, school founder Bob Jones Sr. quickly dropped the program.  Friends said Jones worried that sports would pull the new school too far from its central mission.  Enemies whispered that Jones feared having to accommodate any outside influence in his flagship university.

Liberty University will certainly wrestle with this same tension.  As any football fan knows, money drives success.  It will be difficult for Liberty to compete without putting athletic success first.  And it will be hard to do that without changing the focus of the school from the religion of Falwell to the religion of football.



The Evolution of Liberty University

First flip-flops, now College Democrats.  What is next for Liberty University?

Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago.  Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty.  Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.

Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving.  A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred.  As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”

More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics.  Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats?  As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission.  As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones.  Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?

At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith.  They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.

Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension.  As Prior explains,

“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”