Serving on the board of a college or university often rates as one of the noblest contributions of time, heart, and intellect that a person can make. But when trustees take the honor of board membership without the moral fortitude that should define the job, they are sending their schools for a stroll through a minefield from which it is unlikely to emerge unscathed.
Without fail, every major scandal in higher education in the past few years has involved a board of trustees that was in blissful ignorance of a looming crisis. At Penn State, the trustees were carefully insulated from information concerning Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of children. Trustees at Michigan State were blindsided when dozens of accusers came forward against Larry Nassar, unaware of the absence of oversight and supervision. The daughter of Lori Loughlin, whose mother now faces jail time for her role in the Varsity Blues bribery scandal, learned of her admission to University of Southern California while vacationing on the yacht of the USC board chair. Sometimes, as in the case of University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall, who uncovered an admissions scandal in 2011, board colleagues will move heaven and hell to try to silence the messenger. (Hall stared down a call for his impeachment and intense hostility until an investigative committee vindicated his candor and bravery in 2015.)
And now, an all-too-familiar picture is emerging at Liberty University.
Liberty University, a private, Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, has been a target of intense media scrutiny—largely in response to President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s vocal support of President Trump. New critiques, however, have moved from ideological differences on which reasonable people will disagree to objective accusations of serious malpractices.
In July, the Washington Post ran a scathing exposé on Liberty University’s “culture of fear,” in which the student newspaper was vigorously censored by university officials, and staff felt uncomfortable questioning President Falwell’s devotion to the Trump administration. The apparent squelching of divergent opinions has, remarkably, also drawn recent and vigorous condemnation from the highly conservative College Fix. In August, Reuters uncovered information alleging that Jerry Falwell may have used university resources in order to enrich his friends, including a deal where the university sold a massive piece of real estate to his personal trainer for no cash up front. And in September, Politico meticulously detailed how Jerry Falwell concentrated power in Liberty University’s administration, allowing him to extend loans and business contracts to friends, including a contract for his son, Trey Falwell, to operate a university-owned shopping mall. (President Falwell then later fast-tracked Trey to Vice President of University Support Services.)
The free press, a powerful tool for higher education accountability, has done a remarkable job exposing President Falwell’s ostensible improprieties to the public, but lost in the dialogue on Liberty University has been the obvious and important question: Where is the board of trustees?
At Liberty University, like any nonprofit higher education institution, the president is answerable to the board. At a minimum, the board signs off on the budget, major capital projects, and reviews the performance of the president. The board in principle plays an active role in shaping the mission and future of the institution, and provides an accountability measure against executive overreach—in a similar manner to how the framers of our Constitution allotted more authority to Congress than to the White House.
Instead of being a mechanism for accountability and transparency, Liberty’s trustees seem to be slouching toward joining the list of boards who failed to protect their schools from harm. They appear to have let Falwell reap personal profit from the university and have kept silent, having signed non-disclosure agreements that remain in effect even after leaving the board. As Politico reported: “Senior Liberty officials might whisper about the propriety of these business deals, but they told me that Falwell’s decisions on campus are rarely ever challenged by the school’s board of trustees. ‘There’s no accountability,’ a former high-ranking university officer said. ‘Jerry’s got pretty free reign to wheel and deal professionally and personally. The board will approve an annual budget, but beyond that . . . he doesn’t go to the board to get approval. . . . It simply doesn’t happen.’”
When trustees have tried to resist, it has not ended well for them. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Falwell asked then chairman of the board of trustees Mark DeMoss for his advice on whether or not to endorse Donald Trump. Mr. DeMoss advised against endorsing anyone at all. President Falwell told him that he agreed, and then proceeded to endorse Trump, convene the board without Mr. DeMoss present, and ousted him from the role as board chair. The rest of the board simply went along.
And Liberty University has serious problems that could benefit from more board oversight. Although Liberty has increased its endowment exponentially under Falwell and has built a massive online degree program, this expansion has come at a cost: According to HowCollegesSpendMoney.com, Liberty spends 86 cents on administration for every dollar it spends on instruction, roughly three times as much as its self-selected peer institutions. Has the board demanded a thorough audit and review?
Liberty University is perhaps the latest egregious example of lax board oversight. It almost certainly will not be the last. Far too many trustees still have the attitude that administrators are professionals who deserve to be left alone. Especially in an era when the value proposition of an expensive college degree is increasingly in question, the consequences may come with remarkable swiftness.