How Liberty University Students Really Feel About Staying Open

“He saw Covid as a business transaction..." Liberty University students in their own words on Jerry Falwell Jr.'s decision to keep the school open.
Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at the Liberty University commencement ceremony with Jerry Falwell Jr. at his side – May 17, 2017. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at the Liberty University commencement ceremony with Jerry Falwell Jr. at his side – May 17, 2017. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

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At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the Evangelical school Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, became the center of international media attention due to its decision to stay open. Jerry Falwell, Jr., the university’s president, who is also a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump – has since slammed the press for spreading fake news, while applauding others for “representing Liberty well.

In all the critical media attention, Liberty University students sought to unlink the institution from president and politics, declaring it Christian before conservative. The problem is the evidence – evidence that this school inextricably tied to Falwell.

“I definitely would not have made it a political issue,” said Meredith Coen, a residential senior at Liberty University, when asked how she would have changed how the school’s president Jerry Falwell handled the situation in late April, after the media storm a month ago. “He saw Covid as a business transaction and tried to save face.”

With links to Evangelicalism, Trump, and conservatism, Falwell tends to show up in interviews with Fox News, as well as insult “liberal” media sources via Twitter, where his bio reads, “University President personal page. Haters will be blocked.”

When The New York Times published a story on Liberty in late March, Falwell tweeted that its “failing paper has less credibility every day!” saying it accused Liberty for coronavirus cases when it didn’t have any, but failed to report on Arizona State University, which confirmed 15.

“I assume you are asking about the report from the New York Times accusing of Liberty of bringing Covid-19 back to campus and alleging that there are thousands of students on campus?” said sophomore Jacob Bartholomew in an interview with me, when asked about the coronavirus situation at Liberty.

“This headline is misleading and in many aspects blatantly false. There are not ‘thousands’ of students on campus,” said Bartholomew, even though there was no mention of “thousands” in the Times article.

Bartholomew was on campus on Sunday and Monday of the week of March 29, seeing only “maybe 900 students at the most,” with social distancing enforced, and penalties enforced by university police, LUPD. All dining is takeout, and no more than ten people can be inside a dining area at a time. And, he mentioned, the majority of students still there are international, “and simply do not have anywhere to go, one of which being my roommate.”

“LUPD is making sure everyone is aware of the rules handed down by Governor Northam and they are enforcing said rules.”

When asked how Falwell was currently handling the situation, Bartholomew commented that he’s better now, “especially since the virus is getting more serious in VA. I actually decided to move out of my dorm and back home three weeks ago, much like a lot of other students.”

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Students share their experiences, confusion, frustration

Coen, a residential senior, said that at the beginning of quarantine, students had advocated for online classes. “The vast majority of Liberty students that have stayed are international students, and most students like myself are working from home. When I was there packing up my things there was hardly anyone on campus and they had some drastic measurements in place to facilitate social distancing. At the library, I had to tell the staff where I planned to study and could not go into a room with more than 10 students. Dining locations cannot have lines of more than 10 people and those students have to stand at least six feet apart.”

“As a Liberty student, I often feel at odds with Falwell’s views and the political stance of the school. However, I also feel that we all are doing our best with the knowledge that we have. I appreciate you giving me the voice to share what is actually happening. It has been frustrating to read media accounts of what is happening at Liberty because I do not think it is an accurate portrayal of what is really going on. The reality is that most Liberty students are home and doing their best to protect their surrounding communities.”

Peyton Crenshaw, who will be transferring to Liberty University in the fall as a junior, told of what she’s been hearing about her future alma mater.

“Through public announcements, I am under the impression that there are no students on campus with COVID-19. Only a recent graduate has been confirmed. I believe the campus is doing everything within its responsibility to keep its students safe. Out of an estimated 15,000 students only a little over 1,000 has returned to campus. Every student has confirmed that LU is the only place they have or cannot go anywhere else and be safe. There are also international students who needed to stay on campus. I believe the media is not accurately reporting this at all. The administration has encouraged any students who have the ability to stay home to do so. I have no reservations about attending this university and look forward to transferring!”

“I’m so sick and tired of having conservatives shoved in my face.”

On her YouTube channel, current student Aly Mcalister speaks to the camera for 16 minutes in a vlog about the political environment at Liberty and “what’s actually going on” with coronavirus.

“It really, really hurts my heart that people look at Liberty and they’re like, oh, they’re just a bunch of conservatives, they’re dumb, they just listen to whatever Jerry says,” she says. “There’s only so much that we can do when our president has all these connections that he wants to bring in.”

The vast majority of students come for Christianity, not for conservativism, Mcalister says. “I’m so sick and tired of having conservatives shoved in my face,” when talking about the events Falwell organizes at the university, and how the school is inextricably linked with his Trumpist connections. “But honestly I think that it is the biggest disservice to Liberty University to make it about politics and not about Christ,” she said.

And on her whereabouts? “It’s my civil duty to not go back.”

Liberty’s creation and funding

Despite students’ frustration with the media’s portrayal of the university as inextricably linked to Falwell, there’s evidence to suggest that it is. In 2019, Politico published a piece investigating Falwell’s cronyism and corruption; in 2018, NYT dived into Liberty’s financial growth, alleging Falwell’s dodging of taxes and adequate pay for professors.

Students say the media has exaggerated Liberty’s COVID-19 response, making the global audience see the institution negatively. They urge that the school is separate from that. They urge that the school is not conservative, like Falwell. That the school does not always have to be linked to Falwell and his beliefs. But multiple sources suggest that the school only continues in existence and expansion because of Falwell.

Looking ahead

“I apologize for potentially coming across as harsh earlier, there have been so many false stories posted about Liberty recently and I’m standing on campus like ‘yeah that isn’t happening at all’ and honestly I’m tired of the BS,” said sophomore Bartholomew, in a follow-up interview with me.

When asked how he would change the Times headline, he said “It would be ‘Liberty University Partially Re-Opens Campus to International Students and Those with Special Circumstances a Place to Stay.’ There is no evidence that Liberty brought coronavirus to Lynchburg. I would not change how Liberty handled the situation. I do not always agree with President Falwell but with this I do.”

“I think it is an important time for young people to learn to be resourceful and most importantly responsible, and it is also a great time to learn how to be selfless and put others first,” added Ruggiero ‘13 in interview. “I believe that as a Christian University who are training ‘Champions for Christ’ it is important to encourage students to be Christ-like. Putting the health of those around you first is an attribute of a true champion for Christ.

“This pandemic is an opportunity for communities to serve one another and as a Christian, I believe that serving others is what we are called to do through God’s word. Philippians 2:3-4 says, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or out of vein conceit, rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.’”

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