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Liberty University’s choice to stay open during coronavirus, explained

Liberty University’s classes are remote, but its students are coming back to dorms. It could be a public health disaster in the making.

The Liberty University campus in 2018. School president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced that the campus would be reopening despite a surge of coronavirus cases in Virginia, where the school is located.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

On Sunday, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced that unlike virtually all other colleges and universities in the United States, Liberty would soon be reopening and permitting thousands of students and faculty to return to campus — even as the coronavirus continues to rage and the city where the school resides discouraged the move.

“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, Jr. said in an interview with a Richmond-area newspaper on Sunday.

To be sure, the abrupt closures enacted by thousands of other colleges and universities resulted in major problems for many, with international students and students in need of housing left scrambling as dorms closed and cafeterias shut.

But Liberty faculty have already been on campus during this time, asked to teach to empty rooms while the university — and Falwell Jr. — give wildly differing stories about the university’s coronavirus strategy to news outlets and to members of the university community. While the university says that students will be taking all classes online, Falwell told ABC Tuesday that “about one to two thousand” students have returned to campus dorms and cafeterias — major gathering places where coronavirus could easily spread. In short, the university will be both open and, according to Falwell Jr., closed, “more like an apartment complex than a university” during this time. That incoherent strategy has left many at Liberty confused and upset. I reached out to Liberty University for comment and will update if and when I hear back.

As President Trump starts to voice a desire to return to some semblance of economic normalcy by Easter, the president of one of the largest Christian universities in the world (and a major supporter of Trump) is using his campus as a testing ground to prove that the pandemic is no real concern. In a March 23 press release, Falwell Jr. said, “Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can’” — despite a surge of coronavirus cases in the state of Virginia.

“Ultimately, it’s a failure of leadership and communication,” a Liberty University professor who wanted to remain anonymous told me.

“Strange to me how so many are overreacting”

Liberty University is one of the world’s largest Christian universities, with roughly 15,000 students on campus but more than 95,000 students taking classes online. Founded in 1971 by Falwell Jr.’s father, Rev. Jerry Falwell, as Lynchburg Baptist College, the school has become a massive institution of higher learning with hundreds of graduate programs and colleges under its aegis.

But under the leadership of Falwell Jr., who has served as the school’s president since 2007, it’s also become a platform for advancing “political evangelism.” As I wrote last year:

It’s important to remember that despite being often described as a Christian leader, Jerry Falwell Jr. never became a pastor — a fact he’s not shy about sharing even while leading one of the largest Christian universities in the world. According to the agreement made with his father, upon the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007, Falwell Jr. took the helm of Liberty University while his brother, Jonathan, took over the church their father helped to found in 1956, Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Falwell is also not shy about his fundraising efforts for the university, or his role within the world of what I’d call “political evangelicalism” — the effort to combine evangelical Christianity with bare-knuckle politics in order to get evangelical priorities into law and evangelical politicians (or politicians willing to accede to evangelical interests) into office.

Falwell is also a longtime supporter of Donald Trump (because of the president’s purported “business acumen”). Because of that alliance during the 2016 presidential campaign, Falwell Jr. said that he was offered the role of secretary of education.

And it’s that fervent support for Trump that some believe may have influenced Falwell Jr.’s decision-making regarding coronavirus, a pandemic he told Fox and Friends was both largely an overreaction by mainstream media and potentially a “Christmas present” from North Korea. In an interview with Fox News radio host Todd Starnes, Falwell Jr. said, “Shame on the media for trying to fan [coronavirus] up and destroy the American economy. They’re willing to destroy the economy just to hurt Trump.”

On campus, Falwell Jr. and other leaders downplayed the pandemic during convocation on March 13 (convocation is a mandatory assembly for students held twice a week), referring to coronavirus as a “flu” and saying that Liberty would be remaining open while eschewing large gatherings. “I don’t see us doing the same thing other schools have done,” Falwell Jr. said, referring to colleges and universities that had already closed in the wake of coronavirus.

“You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus, I wanted to give you what you pay for,” he continued, while saying that students should be cautious about those with respiratory illnesses and the elderly. While his recent rhetoric toward national outlets has been less dismissive of the virus — mirroring Trump’s shift on the issue — the messaging at Liberty has been incredibly mixed.

But as one faculty member I spoke to told me, students are in fact getting a clear message from the university: “[Coronavirus is] not that serious or not as serious as the quote-unquote ‘media’ makes it out to be.”

“I think faculty members are really just worn out by all this”

And for faculty, the situation has been doubly challenging as they have been expected to continue teaching on campus even while students aren’t present in the classroom. Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor of English at Liberty, described the confusing situation in an op-ed for Religious News Service:

Faculty and staff are also required to report, despite the fact that telecommuting options are readily available. As a Liberty faculty member, I have been told that my colleagues and I must conduct our classes from our offices, even though that instruction is now being delivered virtually. We are also expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.

In response, Falwell Jr. tweeted the page linking to Liberty’s coronavirus response while referring to her as “the Baggett lady.”

And the guidance professors and faculty are receiving from the university seemingly changes by the hour, even based on media appearances by Falwell Jr. himself.

For example, in interviews with CNN and ABC News, Falwell Jr. said that all faculty were working from home due to the pandemic, but I reviewed emails sent to faculty that clearly stated they needed to request permission and provide a rationale for why they should work from home rather in their on-campus offices. My source told me that either Falwell Jr. is lying, or he hasn’t communicated the new guidance to faculty but has been more than willing to do so to media outlets. “Now my colleagues are wondering if we are supposed to go in or now we can stay home.”

One faculty member said that this lack of clarity was par for the course at Liberty. “To be honest, that’s kind of how things go at Liberty. It doesn’t work that well when there’s not a crisis, [and] it goes especially wrong when there is a crisis, we’re finding out. Liberty does things on the fly.”

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