In the early 1990s, Liberty University (LU) had sunk into a $110 million debt, been placed on academic probation, and was tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. Its workaholic founder Jerry Falwell, somehow managing to divide his time between roles as school chancellor, megachurch pastor, and national politics mouthpiece, faced the possibility of forfeiting his dream of training up "Champions for Christ."
The financial turning point for the Lynchburg, Virginia, university came in 1997, when Falwell received a multimillion dollar infusion from insurance titan Arthur L. Williams Jr. Ten years later, in May 2007, Falwell, 73, collapsed at his desk and died, with the school's turnaround under way but incomplete.
Now, two years later, under the leadership of Falwell's two sons, Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, LU and Thomas Road Baptist Church have visibly improved. And their leaders are nothing like their father or each other. This year, Jerry Jr., 47, and Jonathan, 43, guided Liberty to two unprecedented milestones: capping enrollment at 11,520 on-campus students, and a school budget that is debt-free.
While the sons fiercely defend their father's memory, they have a pragmatic streak. Both use different strategies from their lightning-rod father to ensure that Liberty will grow in its influence beyond enrollment numbers and budgets to impact the church and the world.
An Evangelical Brigham Young
The late Falwell established Liberty in 1971 as a small fundamentalist Baptist Bible college. While students are still required to take Bible, theology, and evangelism courses—and to attend chapel services three times a week—the school aims to reposition itself as the nation's premier evangelical liberal arts school. (U.S. News and World Report rates the school as "least selective" in its student admissions policies.)
"The vision is to build for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholic young people or what Brigham Young is for Mormon youth," says Jerry Jr., chancellor and president since his father's death. "We want to produce graduates whose primary calling will be to take their Christian worldview into every profession."
Jerry Jr. doesn't possess the booming voice and dynamic personality of his outsized patriarch; he still seems reserved and uneasy giving a speech before a large crowd. Yet he has a head for business that eluded his build-now, pay-later father. He also won't be holding televised debates with pornographer Larry Flynt, denouncing the Clinton family as crooks, labeling Muslims as terrorists, or hobnobbing with Republican presidential candidates. A University of Virginia law school graduate, Jerry Jr. is foremost a fiscal manager intent on recruiting quality students to the 39-year-old school that has the largest student body among evangelical colleges.
As vice president of spiritual affairs, Jonathan oversees religious aspects of the university, including pastoring Thomas Road Baptist, which movedonto Liberty's campus in 2006.
"The two sons were groomed for this," says Karen L. Parker, 58, dean of Liberty's School of Education. "Both are the right men for this time to reach a younger generation."
Before heart failure claimed his life, Falwell laid the groundwork for the school's path to financial health. With a life insurance policy payout of $34 million, the school paid off its remaining debt with enough left over to begin an endowment that now totals $36 million, including trusts and gift annuity reserves.
New amenities to attract students have more to do with keeping physically fit than spiritually sound. There are indoor swimming pools, an indoor track, whitewater rafting, an indoor soccer field, 60 miles of hiking, biking, and running trails, and, most recently, a snowless ski slope. Division I athletic programs, not usually found on evangelical campuses, prove a big draw for students and alumni.