Liberty U’s Stiff-Necked Leader
Some of this is already happening, obviously, but it seems like very soon, social distancing is going to be treated by many primarily as a political act—a way of signaling which “side” you’re on.
— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) March 23, 2020
Now, here we are. While the rest of the academic world has sent its students home during this life-or-death crisis, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University is MAGA-ishly defying the crowd:
As the coronavirus threatens to spread across the Lynchburg region, Liberty University officials are preparing to welcome back up to 5,000 students from spring break this week.
Defying a national trend of campus closures, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has invited students to return to residence halls and has directed faculty members to continue to report to campus even as most classes move online.
In an interview Sunday night, Falwell said somewhere between several hundred to more than 5,000 students are expected to live in campus dorms, where they will continue coursework online rather than in classrooms.
Meanwhile, hundreds of professors and instructors without a valid health exemption will come to campus to hold office hours.
“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell said.
What on earth is the point? They won’t be going to classes in classrooms, but will be studying online — which can be done from anywhere? Why bring them back to dorms? You know that some of them will have been exposed to the virus while away. They will bring the virus back with them to the dorms, where they will spread it. And those professors forced to have office hours — what is Falwell trying to prove?
On Monday, Liberty prof Marybeth Davis Baggett issued a public appeal to Liberty’s board:
This foolhardy decision tracks Falwell’s conspiratorial thinking about COVID-19 and smacks of defiance.
He has repeatedly made it clear that he canceled residential classes for legal, not moral, reasons. In fact, his public comments on the pandemic have manifested bravado, self-congratulation and callousness in the extreme, as, even this week on the Todd Starnes radio show, he spewed far-fetched, unsubstantiated and misleading information about the coronavirus outbreak.
For one charged with leading a Christian institution of higher learning, these are troubling qualities, fundamentally at odds with both Christian faith convictions and an academic mindset. For a leader dealing with a situation of such magnitude, they are outright terrifying.
By continuing to flout the danger of this novel coronavirus, Falwell also encourages reckless behavior in the university’s students. The kicker is, he points to the droves of students coming back to live in the dorms as evidence of his wise decision to keep the campus open.
Falwell cavalierly assumes no responsibility for at least enabling and at most incentivizing the students’ decision to return. Rather than provide the steady leadership needed at this sober time, Falwell has chosen to indulge and endanger the students, as he did last Friday in his convocation message.
“You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus,” he told them. “And I want to give you what you paid for.”
She points out that Falwell has publicly said that the disease scare is just hype meant to bring down Donald Trump. More:
I am deeply grieved that Jerry Falwell Jr’s control of Liberty University is so complete that not one person in leadership is speaking up as the loyal opposition on behalf of the vulnerable that Falwell’s impudent and imprudent decisions have put at risk, both at Liberty and in Lynchburg.
The leadership’s willingness to enable Falwell’s self-professed politically motivated decision bespeaks a spirit of fear, or worse, that shames the mission they ostensibly pursue. I beg the deans, senior leadership and board members to think more long-term. They are compelled by what is genuinely best for the university to act, to say nothing of their altruistic obligations as Christians.
These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.
She’s risking her job to say that. Liberty faculty, if I’m not mistaken, are on yearly contract. They don’t have tenure. But she’s right: if Falwell brings those kids back to campus, and there’s a massive outbreak there, the school’s reputation will not recover, and it will be sued into the ground by grieving parents.