If You Don’t Think It Matters, then YOU’RE the Idiot

Liberty 48, Baylor 45. Bam. Jerry Falwell Jr. might be an idiot for investing unwisely in athletics and brick-and-mortar campus facilities, but at least his investments have paid off. The long-held dream of Jerry Falwell Sr. and his successors seems to be coming to fruition.

As I’ve been working on my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many schools invest so much money in seemingly antiquated relics of higher-educations past? If the future of higher ed is online, why do schools make such sacrifices to have winning sports teams and ivy-covered buildings?

In the case of Liberty University, it would make sense if they avoided pricey campus investments. They made all their money, after all, in the flashy world of online education. And it was a lot of money. Instead of presenting themselves as a new, more modern-than-thou online institution, though, Liberty plowed those winnings back into the trappings of traditional higher education.

The campus is beautiful and growing fast. It even has an all-year snowboarding hill built into Liberty Mountain. Harvard doesn’t have one of those.

LU sign on mountain

Mountain-sized ambitions…

We might think—as I have—that Liberty’s leaders are merely missing the boat. We might think that they are trapped in a dead-end vision of higher education.

If they are, however, at least they are making that vision come true. Their recent upset win over football powerhouse Baylor was treated on campus as a major miracle. Students were given an official holiday to rub Baylor’s noses in it. President Falwell even relaxed the famous curfew rules in order to encourage Liberty’s students to celebrate.

All the hoopla shows how much athletics means to Liberty. As then-president Pierre Guillermin crowed way back in 1982, Liberty Baptist College (it only became Liberty University in 1985) planned to be

the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.

This recent football triumph brings that vision one step closer. And it tells us something about the nature of higher education. College has never been only about professional preparation. Yes, in order to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer one needs a college degree. But “college” as a whole has never been limited merely to that sort of thing.

When Americans think of higher education, we tend to think of a bundle of things all wrapped together. We want to earn a degree, true, but we also want to have an “experience.” We want to attend a “real” college, one that has ivy and winning sports teams.

To a great degree, this unarticulated assumption is the reason why MOOCs flopped. The ability to take challenging classes online can’t replace the allure of a full-bore college experience.

At some level, President Falwell grasps this key fact in a way policy nerds have not. He sacrificed a great deal (not personally, but in institutional terms) to have a winning football team.

For Falwell, as for generations of scrimping and struggling evangelical colleges, the looming, nagging worry has been that they have not been seen as real colleges. They’ve been seen as dumpy little church schools, though they’ve dreamed of being taken seriously.

The win over Baylor means—at least for today—Liberty’s dreams have come true.

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