Trustees | Trusteeship

Liberty University Demonstrates What Not To Do During A Pandemic

FORBES   |  April 2, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff

Last fall, I wrote about the poor leadership of Liberty University, a private, Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the board’s lack of oversight over Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. At the time, I was responding to questionable financial decisions and investments that seemed to benefit or enrich friends and family of President Falwell.

Now, the outlook at Liberty University has taken a turn for the worse: Despite “social distancing” recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and closure of public universities in Virginia, President Falwell reopened the school last week after its spring break. Finally, on Monday night, following Governor Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order, Liberty University announced that it would be ending the last of its in-person instruction, at the School of Aeronautics, while allowing students to stay in dorms. But it should never have taken a stay-at-home order from the governor for university leadership to act with public health in mind.

As of Friday, according to the New York Times (NYT), nearly a dozen students exhibited symptoms consistent with coronavirus, and one student tested positive. The Liberty University press office was quick to claim that news coverage of the ill students was falsified. Let us hope that Liberty University’s charge that the NYT is being alarmist turns out to be correct.

What’s clear is that the decision to reopen the campus placed students, faculty, and staff at risk, neglecting the university’s responsibility to look after the health and safety of its constituents. Quibbling over news coverage of possibly infected students, rather than prudently closing the campus, further jeopardized the health of the campus community. And aside from compromising the well-being of Liberty University itself, President Falwell has ignored the university’s civic responsibility to the greater community and nation.

The message on Liberty’s website, “University administration works tirelessly to accommodate students, comply with new COVID-19 laws,” is out of touch with the gravity of the pandemic. President Falwell congratulates himself: “We have a great story to tell . . . We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if Coronavirus is still an issue.” One can only hope that students, faculty, and the wider community will not pay a dear price for his obstinacy.

Whether or not a university is nominally public or private, the institution needs to be publicly dedicated. That is to say that institutions of higher learning must not act solely with the interests of their direct stakeholders at heart, but with regard to the American public. Colleges and universities are uniquely democratic institutions: They exist to serve the public by producing the informed and socially conscious citizens of tomorrow, as well as to prepare students for a career and to offer a path of social mobility. For this reason, the federal government invests in both public and private universities, through federal student loans and financial aid, both of which Liberty University receives.

Furthermore, the university is, first and foremost, an educational establishment. Part of what a university must teach and model is not only skills and knowledge, but the modes and habits of engaged and responsible citizenship. Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, noted in Inside Higher Ed that young people’s documented refusal to self-isolate during the pandemic and their failure to vote in elections are actually related phenomena: They don’t feel like they belong to a community or are a part of something bigger than themselves. What message does it send, what values are inculcated, when university leadership ignores its responsibility to public health?

The sad irony is that while many universities are struggling with the transition to online learning and seeing their finances hurt in pursuit of the common good, Liberty University is remarkably well-suited to go remote. The university has become a hegemon in the online college sector, boasting over 400 degree programs and serving 95,000 students. While other institutions may lack the resources and infrastructure to go remote overnight, Liberty University has gained expertise in online instruction.

Worse yet, there appears to be an utter lack of oversight of President Falwell. University presidents answer to a governing board. Last fall, I called upon Liberty University’s board of trustees to exercise its authority over the university’s finances. The message was clearly not heard, as the board of trustees fails to exercise its legal authority over the operation of the university. The campus community has tried to get Liberty’s board to take action as well. The headline of an article in the Religion News Service, written by a Liberty University professor, says it all: “Dear Liberty University board: Please stop Jerry Falwell Jr. before it’s too late.”

In times of crisis, higher education is often called upon to serve the greater good. During World War I, colleges and universities helped sell liberty bonds to finance the war effort. In World War II, they planted victory gardens to help boost public morale. Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it is their obligation to close their doors to help slow the spread of the virus and potentially save lives. Long before now, Liberty University should have realized that it has a civic duty to enact strong preventative measures.


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