September 17, 2009


Liberty Unbound: How Jerry Falwell's ambitious sons have led the Lynchburg university to financial success and a burgeoning student body. (John W. Kennedy, 9/10/2009, Christianity Today)

The late Falwell established Liberty in 1971 as a small fundamentalist Baptist Bible college. While students are still required to take Bible, theology, and evangelism courses—and to attend chapel services three times a week—the school aims to reposition itself as the nation's premier evangelical liberal arts school. (U.S. News and World Report rates the school as "least selective" in its student admissions policies.)

"The vision is to build for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholic young people or what Brigham Young is for Mormon youth," says Jerry Jr., chancellor and president since his father's death. "We want to produce graduates whose primary calling will be to take their Christian worldview into every profession."

Jerry Jr. doesn't possess the booming voice and dynamic personality of his outsized patriarch; he still seems reserved and uneasy giving a speech before a large crowd. Yet he has a head for business that eluded his build-now, pay-later father. He also won't be holding televised debates with pornographer Larry Flynt, denouncing the Clinton family as crooks, labeling Muslims as terrorists, or hobnobbing with Republican presidential candidates. A University of Virginia law school graduate, Jerry Jr. is foremost a fiscal manager intent on recruiting quality students to the 39-year-old school that has the largest student body among evangelical colleges.

As vice president of spiritual affairs, Jonathan oversees religious aspects of the university, including pastoring Thomas Road Baptist, which moved onto Liberty's campus in 2006.

"The two sons were groomed for this," says Karen L. Parker, 58, dean of Liberty's School of Education. "Both are the right men for this time to reach a younger generation."

Before heart failure claimed his life, Falwell laid the groundwork for the school's path to financial health. With a life insurance policy payout of $34 million, the school paid off its remaining debt with enough left over to begin an endowment that now totals $36 million, including trusts and gift annuity reserves.

New amenities to attract students have more to do with keeping physically fit than spiritually sound. There are indoor swimming pools, an indoor track, whitewater rafting, an indoor soccer field, 60 miles of hiking, biking, and running trails, and, most recently, a snowless ski slope. Division I athletic programs, not usually found on evangelical campuses, prove a big draw for students and alumni.

When Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he convinced millions of conservative evangelicals that the political process was the most effective way to reform America. But Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, while not completely apolitical, believe higher education is the best vehicle for the kind of national transformation their father worked toward. They believe students trained at Liberty who are entering the fields of law, religion, business, government, and other vocations will usher in a new era of conservative Christian influence.

Traditional media are part of their game plan. Jerry Jr. has turned the school's monthly magazine, Liberty Journal, into a glossy, full-color promotional publication, a striking difference from his father's 1990s tabloid full of stories denouncing Democratic politicians and policies.

Cultural engagement is another on-campus feature. Last year, campus speakers included Bernice Albertine King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. who has marched against same-sex marriage, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a sharp critic of former President George W. Bush.

Not only has Liberty paid down its debt, the school has also spent $38 million on facility upgrades without borrowing. Jerry Jr. has welcomed an on-campus Barnes & Noble that carries books by such authors as Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis, and Joyce Meyer—not exactly friends of the school's founder.

It's the long counter-march through the institutions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2009 7:41 AM
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