Jerry Falwell Jr. Takes Leave of Absence from Liberty
August 07, 2020 4:00 AM
Jerry Falwell Jr. has agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence from Liberty University, the evangelical school he has led since 2007 as president and chancellor.
The six-member executive committee of Liberty’s board of trustees, of which Falwell is a member, met today and made the decision, according to a statement posted as “important news regarding Liberty’s leadership.”
The leave is effective immediately.
The announcement did not indicate the reason for Falwell’s leave. However, this week, a wave of Liberty alumni and supporters spoke out against his leadership after a recent photo circulated on Twitter of him posing with a woman at a party with their midsections exposed.
The critics included a US Republican congressman, an executive board member of the state Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and multiple evangelical pastors. Some at Liberty told CT they were hopeful their voices would shift the response to the latest controversy.
The night before the trustee committee met, Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a former pastor who serves as an advisor to Liberty’s music department, tweeted, “Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling … I’m convinced Falwell should step down.”
“None of us are perfect, but students, faculty, alumni and @LUPraise deserve better,” wrote Walker, who spoke at a campus-wide convocation last year.
Several alumni, including Southern Baptist pastors, considered the photo inappropriate.
“As an @LibertyUAlum it is bewildering that the board of trustees continue to support @JerryFalwellJr to remain in his role as president of @LibertyU,” said Colby Garman, pastor of Pillar Church in Virginia and an executive board member with the SBC of Virginia. “If I posted the photo my church would rightly ask me to resign.”
Falwell clarified in an interview with a Lynchburg radio station that the party, held on a yacht during his family vacation, was “just in good fun.”
Over his 13 years as president—suceeding his father and the school’s founder, Jerry Falwell Sr.—the younger Falwell has expanded Liberty’s online degree offerings and sports programs, growing it to become one of the biggest Christian colleges in the world.
But during his tenure, his leadership has also drawn controversy, including around his politics—such as his friendship with President Donald Trump—and personal life—like photos of him and his family at a Miami nightclub.
“All of us are tainted by association,” one professor told CT, asking to remain unnamed because Liberty faculty do not have tenure. “We go to a conference, and when we say we’re from Liberty, people are thinking of what’s the latest scandal they’ve read about Jerry Falwell Jr.”
In June, Falwell apologized for a tweet that included an image of the yearbook photo from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal. Dozens of black alumni said he should “withdraw the racist tweet” and resign to focus on politics.
Though he deleted the post, a string of black students and employees—including two starting football players and the school’s diversity director—left Liberty this summer over broader concerns with the administration’s treatment of racial issues. The university’s board of trustees addressed the tweets with Falwell and defended his leadership.
Even before the news of his leave, some in the Liberty community told CT that the concerns raised by the recent controversy had taken on more urgency and weight than before. “It feels like more people are speaking up,” the professor said, “and it’s hot on the heels of his misstep earlier this summer.”
Faculty return to the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus next week, and classes begin August 24.
Critics had called on Liberty’s trustees, comprised of business and ministry leaders, to hold Falwell to account. Four members of Liberty’s board of trustees and Liberty’s spokesperson were contacted by CT for comment on Thursday night and did not respond prior to the announcement.
“As a Liberty alumnus & pastor, I continue to be embarrassed by Jerry Falwell Jr’s attitudes, words, & behaviors. If the Board of Trustees don’t take action, the name of Christ and the reputation of Liberty will continue to be dishonored. Its time for a change!” tweeted Mark Davis, a pastor in Texas.
“Somebody show some courage on the Board or somewhere,” wrote Dean Inserra, a Southern Baptist pastor in Florida, who championed the school’s students and teachers and contrasted Falwell with his brother Jonathan, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
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