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Leaving Liberty

After a decade of declining black enrollment on campus, a tweet set off several recent departures among black students and staff.
Leaving Liberty

A diversity director who builds trust with minority students through campus events. A scholar researching racial disparities in higher education. A divinity school PhD student with a heart for urban apologetics. A national recruiter focusing on applicants of color. A communications professor with a background in African American rhetoric. A rising basketball star who marches for black lives.

These represent a handful of the black members of the Liberty University community who have cut ties with the school over the past three weeks, as majority white institutions across the country are turning new attention to race and diversity.

In interviews with CT, they recounted defending Liberty in the past. But this time, they felt unable to excuse president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s tweet with the Virginia governor’s controversial blackface photo, even after he deleted the post and apologized for the unintended trauma and offense it caused.

To make a political point, Falwell suggested he would wear a COVID-19 mask displaying Gov. Ralph Northam’s controversial 1984 yearbook photo, which showed one college student in blackface and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Falwell also sent out tweets in early June condemning George Floyd’s killing and supporting peaceful protestors near Liberty. But black staff members like Keyvon Scott, an outgoing online admissions counselor, believed the moment called for far more.

“If you want to show people what Christians are supposed to do, stand up for the black community,” Scott said. “Stand with people who are hurting and pray for the nation.”

The departing staff and students say frustration over Falwell’s leadership has been swelling for years, particularly among minorities. They told CT that while Falwell doesn’t represent the things they loved about their school, his remarks influence outside perceptions of the Christian university as well as the environment for black students on campus.

Black alumni, including pastors at prominent churches such as McLean Bible and Epiphany Fellowship; ministry leaders such as Be the Bridge founder Latasha Morrison; and professional athletes have said they can no longer endorse the school. At least a half dozen black employees have left. A GoFundMe page launched to aid black employees who want to quit is more than halfway to its $30,000 goal.

As Falwell pointed out to The Washington Post, the numbers of people leaving are still small by Liberty standards; the school includes some 100,000 students on campus and online, 9,000 faculty, and 360,000 graduates.

Though Liberty has faced scrutiny over Falwell’s leadership before, outspoken criticism from within the university has been far less common. With their departures and statements, Liberty’s black minority has led the charge in calling for change for the sake of the community and its Christian witness.

Whether they call it conscience or God’s calling, they see their decision to leave as a moral imperative.

“I could no longer stand at an event, arena, or stage and lie that LU was everything I’d hoped for when I stepped on campus in 2012,” wrote former diversity recruitment specialist Obehi Idiake, thinking back to the black parents who asked him pointedly whether they should send their kids to Liberty.

An alumnus who worked for the school for six years, Idiake stepped down at the start of last year but spoke out for the first time in recent weeks when he joined dozens of black alumni who called for Falwell’s resignation. That call has turned into an online petition with 35,000 signatures.

Liberty’s board of trustees has stood by the president. “We understand these images have been hurtful for a number of our friends to see,” said board chair Jerry Prevo, following a meeting to discuss the tweets last Monday. “We also know him and know him not to be a racist. Nor do we believe that he has been running Liberty University in a way that discriminates against African Americans.”

Many black students have expressed feeling a disconnect between the type of Christian college they expected and the environment they encountered at Liberty. Some associated Liberty not with its Moral Majority roots but its taglines: “the largest Christian university in the world” and “training champions for Christ.”

When Antonia Ingram, a Baton Rouge–area minister, enrolled in a hybrid PhD program for theology and apologetics, she believed a school as big and prestigious as Liberty would offer more diversity of thought and students than her master’s program at Dallas Theological Seminary. Instead, she ended up being the only black woman in many of her classes, and during conversations about church and ministry life, “none of it was speaking to anything I experienced,” she said.

She prayed as the controversy over Falwell played out on social media: “I said, ‘God, you led me here so I could be well-equipped. You didn’t call me to defend a man instead of the Word of God.’” She decided to leave at the end of the semester.

Quan McLaurin, the former director of diversity retention, said political messages from guest speakers influenced how students approach race and social issues and had spurred tension among them.

“It helped to set the tone on campus,” said McLaurin, who spent eight years as a student and staff member. He quit on June 3 and launched the “LUnderground Railroad” GoFundMe. “It was common practice for students and staff alike to use the phrase ‘politically incorrect’ as justification to say whatever racist or insensitive comments they cared to.”

Because popular conservative voices like Charlie Kirk—who appeared at two convocations so far this year—critique concepts like systemic racism, black students struggled to have meaningful conversations around the issue or their experiences. “I often felt like an outsider crying wolf, especially when there was some sort of racial tension in national headlines,” said TJ Davis, who attended Liberty from 2014 to 2018.

Nashville pastor and Liberty graduate Chris Williamson helped organize the June 1 alumni letter suggesting Falwell step down to focus on politics and offering to meet with him “in order to provide counsel on ways for LU to best move forward in these racially charged and divisive times.”

Williamson, who studied at LU in the early ’90s and whose father-in-law is a Liberty trustee, said his concerns grew when his son went to the school. “His experience, compared to mine, was worse from a racial standpoint. He was there when Trayvon Martin was killed,” said Williamson, who leads Strong Tower Bible Church. “I had told him to be careful with what he said. I was fearful for my son being in that kind of environment.”

Black students recounted how the animosity and tension on campus spiked around Barack Obama’s presidency, debates over the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump’s campaign, and most recently, the creation of the Falkirk Center, a conservative think tank named for Falwell and Kirk. In the 10 years since Obama’s election, the percentage of black undergrad enrollment on campus dropped from 13 percent to 4 percent.

As a result, the school resolved to adopt more proactive, race-conscious measures to ensure student diversity. When asked if the blackface tweet controversy or the national attention toward racial injustice would spur new initiatives around race and diversity at Liberty, spokesman Scott Lamb pointed to ongoing efforts under the two-year-old division of Equity and Inclusion.

Lamb declined to provide CT with further comment from Falwell, instead citing a June 8 update to his apology. Greg Dowell—Liberty’s vice president for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer, and currently the highest-ranking black leader at the school—also turned down an interview request.

Dowell formerly worked as Liberty’s director for minority and international students when he attended divinity school in the late ’80s. He has said that Liberty offers a unique perspective on diversity. “The way that our students are discipled and spoken into—so much Bible, so much public service, so much outreach—that sort of hedges what the world might be taking away in this area of diversity,” he said. “We see things the way God sees things. God looks on the heart.”

McLaurin said Dowell’s preference to derive curricula solely from Scripture prevented McLaurin from implementing new programs designed to improve cultural competency and student dialogue in his role as diversity director.

The Office of Spiritual Development mentioned the responsibility to work against racial injustice in a tribute to Floyd and other black victims, and students have promoted their pastoral counseling resources now available. The Black Christian Student Association told students last week it has been “actively communicating with the administration so we can help the student body in these current times.”

Several Liberty employees, both black and white, described internalized fear over speaking out to disagree with leadership. Some black staff members say they cannot stay in their positions even if leaving comes at significant personal cost.

“These past two weeks have been the most emotionally difficult weeks I've ever experienced in my lifetime. This is not an exaggeration,” wrote Thomas Starchia, the outgoing associate director in the Office of Spiritual Development. He announced his resignation with “heavy, frustrated, yet peaceful heart” on June 5.

Two weeks after Christopher House, an online instructor at Liberty, became the first employee to publicly announce he was leaving his position, a fifth departing employee—strategic and personal communications professor Annette Madlock Gatison—is boxing up her home in Virginia, preparing to move back to the Midwest.

Gatison, who has degrees from Bethel and Howard universities, has no job lined up and isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to find work in higher ed. She said she decided to resign after working two years at the school, citing the “racial trauma” she attributes to the leadership at Liberty. She disagreed with Falwell’s stances and was frustrated by students disillusioned by his example.

Gatison was the only African American professor among the five departments in Liberty’s School for Communications and the Arts.

“I came here because this was part of my call,” Gatison said. “Lynchburg? The name alone would have scared me away.” Now she says she senses God calling her to go. “Lord, release me,” she prayed.

Freshman basketball star Asia Todd is giving up a full scholarship at the Division I school. Nearly half a million people watched Todd’s Twitter announcement describing her decision to transfer. “I definitely see God at work here,” she said in an interview. “Do I have enough faith to trust that he will put me in a better position?”

A pastor’s daughter from North Carolina, Todd immediately clicked with the coaching staff at Liberty. She told CT she loved the program and never experienced discrimination during her time on the Flames. “They treat their athletes very well at Liberty,” she said. “It’s kind of like we’re in our own little bubble.”

But her attitude changed when she saw Falwell’s blackface tweet. “It made me come to my senses. There are some things that you can tolerate, and there are some things that you can’t tolerate, and for me, with my moral compass and my personal convictions, racism isn’t one of those things,” she said. She marched in protests following the death of George Floyd, carrying a sign that read, “Stop Killing Us.”

Former NFL running back Rashad Jennings was among the African American leaders and alumni who met with Falwell about the controversy. Alumni Walt Aikens, an NFL free agent who played for the Miami Dolphins, and Eric Green, a Liberty hall of famer who spent 10 seasons playing professionally, signed the June 1 statement saying they would no longer endorse, recruit for, or donate to the school.

The pushback from black alumni extends to the online student body. Educational consultant and instructor Emmanuel Cherilien, who has two advanced degrees from Liberty’s School of Education, worries that when Liberty’s name shows up on black students’ resumes, they’re put in the position of defending their decision to attend.

“If we go there, we’re almost considered a sellout, someone who doesn’t care about the plight of African Americans,” said Cherilien, who finished his PhD in March and chose to no longer sit on dissertation committees due to Falwell’s tweet.

Ingram, the doctoral student from Louisiana who dreamed of studying apologetics under Liberty’s Gary Habermas, said that during her year examining the Resurrection and claims of Christ, her faith deepened beyond what she could have imagined.

But she leaves with stark concerns over whether the lessons that ignited her faith in the divinity school are pulsing through all levels of leadership and all aspects of campus life. She prays that they will.

“God may be also using me in this moment to shed a light on Liberty, so they can be that place to prepare those champions for Christ,” Ingram said. “You say you’re the largest Christian university in the world, but you are missing opportunities to train future champions that can go out and impact the world through whatever passions God has given them. You’re letting us go.”

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