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.
When Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he convinced millions of conservative evangelicals that the political process was the most effective way to reform America. But Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, while not completely apolitical, believe higher education is the best vehicle for the kind of national transformation their father worked toward. They believe students trained at Liberty who are entering the fields of law, religion, business, government, and other vocations will usher in a new era of conservative Christian influence.
Traditional media are part of their game plan. Jerry Jr. has turned the school's monthly magazine, Liberty Journal, into a glossy, full-color promotional publication, a striking difference from his father's 1990s tabloid full of stories denouncing Democratic politicians and policies.
Cultural engagement is another on-campus feature. Last year, campus speakers included Bernice Albertine King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. who has marched against same-sex marriage, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a sharp critic of former President George W. Bush.
Not only has Liberty paid down its debt, the school has also spent $38 million on facility upgrades without borrowing. Jerry Jr. has welcomed an on-campus Barnes & Noble that carries books by such authors as Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis, and Joyce Meyer—not exactly friends of the school's founder.
Jerry Jr., typically addressed by his first name, cultivates close ties with faculty and students. Standing 6 feet, 2 inches, he has a reputation for being transparent, humorous, and intense. He makes appearances at practically every student event and regularly invites groups of students (1,200 during one trip in May) to the farmstead he shares with wife, Becki, and their three children.
In the early years, the elder Falwell set up a sturdy financial support system for Liberty. The school was subsidized by Thomas Road Baptist through Falwell's Old-Time Gospel Hour television ministry. The weekly program, now airing only locally, debuted in 1956 and was a major source of donations underwriting Falwell's activities. "Dad never worried about how things were going to be paid, because there was a steady revenue stream," Jerry Jr. says.
But the spigot stopped gushing in the late 1980s amid televangelist scandals involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. "The PTL [Praise the Lord] mess turned out to be a great thing for this university, because it forced us to be self-sufficient, to operate within our tuition and fees," Jerry Jr. says.
The downturn in giving came just after Falwell embraced a risky strategy to expand Liberty by using Thomas Road Baptist as collateral as well as bond issues to expand the campus (see "Jerry Falwell's Uncertain Legacy," CT, Dec. 9, 1996). As general counsel during the rough decade that ended in 1997, Jerry Jr. continually had to find ways to make payroll and service a crushing debt load.
"In those nightmarish years, we issued checks on Friday and wondered how in the world they would be covered," he says. "My job was fighting all those creditors. Because of that, I am more fiscally conservative than I should be."
During that stretch, Jerry Jr. also helped develop much of the commercial real estate near campus, selling his business interests before becoming chancellor in 2007.
"Almost singlehandedly, Jerry Jr. is the man who paved the way for big-box discounters like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to move into town, most of whom have dropped anchor along Wards Road next to the Liberty campus," writes Dirk Smillie in Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire. "It was not the city, but Jerry Jr. who lured them with Liberty's growing student and faculty population and with good deals on land alongside roads bordering Liberty."
Every month since Falwell's death, Liberty's cash on hand has grown, with 2008 and 2009 its two strongest years of giving. These days, new contributions are slated for capital improvement projects rather than for covering salaries. Jerry Jr.'s office displays huge aerial photos of the campus and its surroundings, thousands of acres of school-owned land for future development.
"I don't want Liberty to grow again until we're sure we can properly handle it without sacrificing spiritually or academically," he says.For now, Liberty is in such good financial shape that students are being granted a $540 tuition break this fall from the $16,532 rate published in the catalog. In 2008—09, the tuition for the 111 member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (of which LU is not a member) averaged $18,577.
"Jerry Sr. had a passion for growth," says Ronald E. Hawkins, 67, vice president for Liberty's graduate school and online programs. "Jerry Jr. has a passion for paced growth, with attention to quality."
"The growth we are experiencing right now is not typical in academia," Parker says. "We don't know how economics will affect us in the long run. After years of being in firehouse mode, we have a deliberate maintenance plan for refurbishing buildings and updating technology."
$100 Million Scholarships
Even so, Liberty has been doling out a whopping $100 million per year in scholarships to students, including to non-Christians such as Priti Sitoula, a former Miss Nepal World entering her senior year at LU. A Hindu who aspires to work at the United Nations, Sitoula says she hadn't heard of the school until a Nepal organization brokered a full-ride scholarship.
"Jesus is one of the many gods," Sitoula, 27, says matter of factly. "I tell my professors I'm still unsaved, and it has never been a conflict. I'm too old to be convinced to start a new religion." Nonetheless, she says she has no problem abiding by LU's well-known code of conduct, the Liberty Way.
"We require that all students write an essay about how their worldview fits with the university's mission and doctrinal statement," Jerry Jr. says. "We still have a few students who enroll without understanding Liberty's Christian mission."
Throughout much of its history, Liberty has accepted virtually all students, including 94 percent of applicants in 2008. Students represent all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries (one in 10 students is from outside the U.S.). Enrollment has grown by 1,800 since Falwell's death, but the school is in the process of weeding out the academically marginal. Last fall, new Liberty students had an average act composite score of 22 and an average sat score of 1006.
We could start growing tomorrow, but I want to be a little more selective in the type of kids who are compatible with our mission spiritually," Jerry Jr. says. "We also want kids who are academically strong and who can afford to be here."
Jerry Falwell Jr.
After years of facing periodic probation status imposed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), mostly for debt problems, Liberty is now fully accredited. "They are in good standing with us; they are not on any of our watch lists," says SACS president Belle Wheelan."Liberty has a strong curriculum."
The school has a 23-1 student-professor ratio in its 55 undergraduate programs and 32 graduate programs. Jerry Jr. wants Liberty to get better at retaining individual students. "Many of the first-year classroom experiences are in large classes," he says. "Using a variety of teaching styles and methods to engage students remains an ongoing challenge." Liberty has four doctoral programs, and 68 percent of its faculty hold doctorates.
"Unlike many major universities, at Liberty the Ph.D.s are in the classrooms, not using graduate assistants to teach while they conduct research and write books," Jerry Jr. says. "We also have a strong track record of preparing our finest undergraduates for success in graduate and professional studies across virtually all the liberal arts disciplines."
Vice President Hawkins, who has spent 30 years of his professional life at LU, says the school is strategically hiring more faculty who are published and respected in their fields. "Liberty has gone through its period of adolescence, deciding who it's going to be when it grows up," Hawkins says. "Faculty are no longer automatically promoted to full professorship if they have a doctorate."
Some of Liberty's better-known faculty include school co-founder and School of Religion dean Elmer Towns, 76, the only full-time faculty member when the school opened in 1971; apologetics scholar Gary Habermas; Bible scholar Harold Willmington; Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors; and provost and history professor Boyd Rist.
Influencing the Public
Justin Stafford, a 2009 Liberty graduate who will begin graduate studies at the Liberty University School of Law this fall, embodies one benefit of Liberty's graduate level programs: many of the school's sharpest undergraduates stick around for a second helping in Liberty's master's degree, doctoral, or law degree programs.
"There's a great need for lawyers with Christian principles," says Stafford, a fresh-faced 23-year-old from rural Oxford, Georgia. "The law school has a rigorous program that includes lawyering skills in the curriculum. It's more than just theory. There is the practical application of doing cases." Indeed, the law school's graduates have a 94 percent bar exam passing rate, which places the school in the top 5 percent of all 200 American Bar Association—accredited institutions.
Falwell named a high-profile religious freedom attorney, Mathew D. Staver, as the law school's second dean in 2006. As someone who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, Staver, 52, is soft-spoken, articulate, and tested in the public arena. He claims to be interviewed by news media an average of 1,300 times per year. He divides his time as dean and as chairman of Liberty Counsel, the religious liberty and traditional family defense organization he founded in Orlando in 1989.
School of Law faculty have labored to establish a competitive reputation for their institution. A new trophy case is being built in the school's foyer. The existing one is full of awards from moot court and other competitions in which Liberty beat state rivals Georgetown University and William & Mary.
The law school is part of an 888,000-square-foot labyrinth of classrooms, offices, and athletic facilities. Hobby Lobby founder and ceo David Green paid $10.5 million to a cellular telephone company for the 113-acre property, which he then donated to Liberty in 2003. The building features two mock trial courtrooms complete with jury boxes, client-attorney tables, and judge benches. Professors can observe the trials from client mediation rooms. And the crowning achievement: an exact replica of the U.S. Supreme Court, with a bench and nine justice seats. Students have opportunities to argue in competitions before nine sitting judges, and the debates are recorded for critique sessions.
Liberty received provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association in its first 18 months, quicker than any law school in the Bar's history. (Full accreditation is expected in 2010.) Meanwhile, law school enrollment has grown every year and stands at 280 this fall, including 120 new students.
"We're training a new generation to go into public service," Staver says. "We are putting lawyers, policymakers, educators, and business leaders in positions of influence and visibility. We take very seriously the integration of a Christian mission worldview into the curriculum." Among the 17 faculty members are two retired court of appeals judges from Missouri. Visiting professors include a former Kansas attorney general and a former Ohio secretary of state.
During the past year, two controversies involving Liberty students drew national attention. In December, partisan politics reappeared on campus when Brian Diaz, a 17-year-old freshman, founded the Liberty University College Democrats club. Without fanfare, Liberty officially accepted the club when Diaz landed a university sponsor. According to Diaz, attendance at some meetings reached 60.
But in May 2009, the school abruptly demoted the Democrats club to unrecognized status. "Their charter provides that the club supports the right to life," Jerry Jr. says. "Unfortunately, the club supported candidates who support abortion rights. The sanctity of life is one of Liberty University's non-negotiable core values."
Abortion isn't the only issue important to Christians, Diaz says: "God also cares about poverty, homelessness, and the environment." In June, officials opted to stop endorsing any political club, including the College Republicans. Meanwhile, Diaz, from Orlando, decided to transfer. "Some students felt like outcasts during the Obama candidacy, but I've worked hard to heal that," Jerry Jr. says.
The second student controversy came with the release of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. Available on Liberty's campus, the book details Kevin Roose's "study abroad" semester undercover as a Liberty student, and how, to his surprise, the self-described "God-ambivalent" writer came away with quite favorable impressions of its student body.
Jerry Jr. believes Roose spent too much space on the 5 percent of the student body who misbehave and the 5 percent who are overzealous about their faith, ignoring the 90 percent in the middle. Yet Roose concludes that Jerry Jr. and Jonathan are key to their school's growth.
"Under Dr. Falwell's guidance, Liberty was frozen in place by a half-century of ideological inertia, and his passing has freed the school from its bindings," Roose writes. "But the younger Falwells belong to a different generation of evangelicals, and the difference on campus is palpable. For one, seeds of ideological diversity are sprouting."
Shrugging Off Credit
Jerry Jr. and Jonathan aggressively exploit different strategies to grow enrollment and boost the school's bottom line.
Liberty has an enormous number of online students. Several faculty members who are involved in online programs say they spend as much time working with off-campus students as with residential ones. Online enrollment totaled 38,000 in May 2009, with a 96 percent acceptance rate, and is on pace to hit 50,000 for the 2009—10 school year. Eventually, Jerry Jr. says, online enrollment will be capped so as not to deter residential enrollment. But for now, significant online tuition income ($250-$395 per credit hour) contributes mightily to LU's revenues.
"We have to be frugal during these prosperous years," Jerry Jr. says. "It's not going to be boom times forever. We've been through tough times. We don't ever want to go back."
In addition to his pastoral duties at Thomas Road Baptist, Jonathan oversees the School of Religion and Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary programs. With a Sunday morning half-hour preaching program carried on satellite networks, cable companies, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Jonathan is regularly reaching a larger audience than his father ever did. The show's opener is a lengthy infomercial for the university.
The lean, red-haired younger son, Jonathan doesn't look or act anything like his father. Instead of standing behind a pulpit, he paces across the platform, clutching a Bible but never glancing at his notes. He often relies on props, such as an iPod towering 8 feet high with a screen illuminating Scripture passages during one Sunday sermon.
"I have a responsibility to reach a generation that is very graphically and visually influenced," Jonathan says. The fast-talking extrovert has a comfortable preaching style that is demonstrative and passionate. Unlike his father, Jonathan sticks to the Bible instead of veering into politics.
Thomas Road Baptist is in the second year of a plan to help plant 500 churches from San Francisco to Baghdad in five years. Many of its pastors are ministerial students at Liberty. During Jonathan's two years as senior pastor, the church has witnessed more than 5,000 salvation decisions and 3,000 new members. Attendance is at an all-time high of 13,000. Jonathan shrugs off credit.
"It's a testament to my dad's influence," Jonathan says. "He built something that transcended him."
Both Jonathan and Jerry Jr. stress that they are content with their particular roles.
"People ask me why I don't get more active in political and social issues," Jerry Jr. says. "It wouldn't be fair for me to focus on anything but Liberty."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the tuition costs at Liberty and incorrectly named Staver as Liberty's founding dean in 2003.
John W. Kennedy, a former CT news editor, is a writer from Springfield, Missouri.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Kennedy's earlier stories on Liberty University include:
Jerry Falwell's Uncertain Legacy | Pastor, chancellor, and self-proclaimed prophet is staging a comeback to secure his standing as a leading evangelical. (Dec. 9, 1996)
Liberty University Placed on Probation | Southern Association of Colleges and Schools faults heavy debt load (Feb. 3, 1997)
$27 Million Payment Trims Debt | Unnamed longtime backer of Liberty University has paid off 1,600 individual bondholders who had the power to foreclose school (Dec. 8, 1997)
Other articles on Liberty include:
One of Jerry's Kids | Kevin Roose sojourns at Liberty U. and lives to tell (mostly good things) about it. (Mar 27, 2009)
Falwell and the Liberty Legacy | Chancellor's insurance policy provided $29 million to school (item, Aug. 16, 2007)
More articles on Falwell and education are available in our full coverage areas.
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