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Liberty University Fined $14M Over Campus Safety

Focused on the evangelical school’s handling of sexual violence, the federal penalty is by far the largest in the Department of Education’s history.
Liberty University Fined $14M Over Campus Safety
Image: Lukas Souza via Unsplash
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia

The US Department of Education (DOE) announced on Tuesday that it has fined Liberty University $14 million for its failures to report campus crimes and its treatment of sexual assault survivors. The culmination of a long-running federal investigation, it is by far the largest fine for such a campus safety violation, according to the department.

Liberty is the largest evangelical college in the country, with the school reporting in 2022 about 16,000 students on campus and 130,000 students enrolled overall. The school has $4 billion in assets. It is among the colleges awarded the most federal aid in the country, with students receiving $772 million in 2017 according to ProPublica.

Colleges receiving federal aid are required by the Clery Act to report crime statistics and campus threats. After a complaint in 2021, the DOE reviewed Liberty’s handling of campus safety from 2017 to 2023.

The federal government found the failures at Liberty centered on its handling of sexual crimes. The department’s final review concluded that Liberty had failed in 11 areas, from timely responses to sexual violence to reporting crimes either to the department or the wider community.

“Students, faculty, and staff deserve to know that they can be safe and secure in their school communities. We respond aggressively to complaints about campus safety and security,” said Richard Cordray, who oversees federal student aid for the DOE, in a statement.

In response, Liberty acknowledged that “there were numerous deficiencies that existed in the past. We acknowledge and regret these past failures and have taken these necessary improvements seriously.” It did not name sexual assault survivors in its statement, as the federal report did, but said its failures were focused on “incorrect statistical reports as well as required timely warnings and emergency notifications that were not sent.”

“It is a new day at Liberty University,” the statement concluded, adding that it had invested an additional $10 million in campus safety infrastructure.

The previous record Clery Act fine was $4.5 million for Michigan State University over its failures responding to sexual assault complaints against doctor Larry Nassar, according to AP.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, was also involved in recent years in pushing Liberty to address its handling of sexual assaults. A lawyer and a Christian, she had taught classes at Liberty’s law school, but then in 2021 was initially barred from speaking at a prayer rally about the issue on campus. The school later allowed her to speak at the rally.

Liberty had previously described the government’s preliminary findings as full of “significant errors” and “unsupported conclusions.”

But the final federal report found that Liberty had made severe errors, including an incident where a woman reported being raped by a man she thought was armed, and whom she also reported beat her physically. The university’s investigator declared the case “unfounded,” stating that the “victim indicates that she consented to the sexual act.”

The department’s final report found a general attitude conflating assault with violations of the school’s honor code, known as “The Liberty Way.” It found from interviews that the honor code deterred reporting of crimes.

“Under The Liberty Way, acts of sexual misconduct, consensual sex, and alcohol policy violations are all top-line offenses,” the final report reads. “As a result, the conduct monitoring and enforcement system established by The Liberty Way created an environment where people experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner or persons who were incapacitated by alcohol or drugs could be subject to disciplinary action if they reported the offense.”

It stated that the department “does not, in any regard, dictate or question the doctrinal views, missions, visions, or values of any institution,” but that it was investigating anything that might have “contributed to violations.”

As part of the settlement with the federal government, Liberty agreed to spend an additional $2 million on safety monitoring over the next two years, during which time it will be under heightened federal monitoring. Liberty will have to implement “new policies, procedures, training programs, and systems” to address deficiencies found in the investigation, or face review of its federal aid.

A consultant will oversee these federally mandated remediation efforts at Liberty, and the university will have to implement federally approved training for anyone involved in handling cases of sexual violence. Liberty must notify the Department of Education within seven business days of any disciplinary action against a staff member related to a crime or a violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policy.

In the statement responding to the fine, Liberty maintained that the DOE has treated the university unfairly. It called the investigation “unprecedented and arduous” and said the review of seven years of data was “the most extensive review period of any higher education institution in the department’s history.”

“Many of the department’s methodologies, findings, and calculations in the report were drastically different from their historic treatment of other universities,” it said in its statement. “Liberty disagrees with this unfair treatment.”

Author Karen Swallow Prior, a longtime professor at the school who left in 2020, said on X that the school’s response was “grievous.”

“Rather than demonstrate genuine repentance and lament, @LibertyU whines that it was treated unfairly,” she wrote. “This fine is pocket change for the school.”

Some students have filed lawsuits against Liberty over its handling of sexual assault, and the school settled a case with 12 women in 2022.

Students and alumni have repeatedly spoken out about Liberty’s shortcomings on campus safety, with prayer rallies and protestors outside football games. Groups of students and alumni like Justice for Janes and Save 71 are pushing for changes on how the school handles sexual violence and other abuse.

“Liberty should be apologizing to the students who have been harmed over the years and demonstrating a commitment to change,” Dustin Wahl, cofounder of Save 71, told the Associated Press. “Not because they are being dragged along by the government, but because they genuinely want to be transparent and fix the problems.”

The severity of the fine and remedial requirements “reflect the serious and longstanding nature of Liberty’s violations,” the Department of Education said in a press release.

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