The current edition of Newsmax magazine examines the latest power play by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Is this Russia's climb back to superpower status and could it be the start of a new Cold War era? This edition also features a report on the Rise of Liberty University – By David A. Patton. This faith-based school that the late Rev. Jerry Falwell built thrives with a strategy that surpasses its established rivals.
The faith-based school that the late Rev. Jerry Falwell built
thrives with a strategy that surpasses its establishment rivals.
ruise into Lynchburg, VA., along U.S. Route 29 and your eyes are immediately drawn to the expansive Blue Ridge Mountains looming to the west. You then spot another dominating sight: a huge red “LU” logo emblazoned on a mountainside overlooking a sprawling school campus.
Welcome to Liberty University, the school that the late Rev. Jerry Falwell built.
Like the mountains that bear its logo, Liberty University is a substantial presence. It has transformed the landscape of private education with the type of success that few imagined other than the Rev. Falwell.
Elder falwell The Rev. Jerry Falwell at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
He founded what was then Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971. Not looking to build just another Bible college, his goal was as simple as it was ambitious: to give Evangelicals a center of education excellence that would be for them what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.
Today, it’s hard to dispute that Falwell’s vision is being realized. Liberty has emerged as the largest university in Virginia, surpassing better-known schools like Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. Based on enrollment, it is the largest private nonprofit university in the nation and the largest Christian university in the world. Yet despite its exponential growth, Liberty University in some ways is just now coming of age.
By mixing traditional values with cutting-edge educational methods, it is challenging a liberal education establishment whose inertness has been fed by a seemingly bottomless trough of federal dollars. Liberty’s success serves as a stark forewarning that the hidebound U.S. educational establishment must reconsider how it does business. “I just don’t think what the big schools are doing is sustainable,” says President Jerry Falwell Jr., who assumed the mantle at Liberty after his famous father passed away in 2007. “I think our model is sustainable. If all schools operated like Liberty and charged what we charge, there wouldn’t be a student loan problem in America.”
Liberty’s bid to create a new paradigm for higher education — one based on free-market, Judeo-Christian principles — began over the proverbial breakfast napkin in 1985 involving the late Falwell and his trusted associate Dr. Ronald Godwin, who today serves as the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. (This was the same year the school achieved university status, changing its name to its current appellation.) After jotting down some thoughts, Falwell and Godwin envisioned opening the Liberty experience to students off-campus through distance learning. Helping even less fortunate students get an education, after all, felt like the Christian thing to do.
“It was just a way to make Christian education more accessible to more students, and more affordable,” the younger Falwell tells Newsmax.
They agreed to give the idea a shot, fully expecting that the magnanimous idea of Christians offering distance learning would never make any money. And for about 20 years, they were right.
Helping even less fortunate students get an education, after all, felt like the Christian thing to do.
Today, the wisdom of doing the right thing despite suspect economics is seen in Liberty’s burgeoning residential campus, which is in the middle of a $400 million building campaign. Liberty’s facilities, neatly ensconced on a campus spanning more than 7,000 acres, would be the envy of most major universities. And with its online student population fast approaching 100,000 students, Liberty unexpectedly finds itself in the vanguard of a high-tech trend that has caught many elite institutions off-guard.
As the chorus grows louder to reform higher education — whose spiraling costs have outpaced even those of healthcare — Liberty’s tuition at slightly more than $28,000 per year, including fees and housing, ranks in the bottom 25 percent of all universities. Its default rate on student loans is less than half the national average. Small wonder then that administrators from supposedly more prestigious universities have begun visiting Liberty to educate themselves on what it is doing right.
It seems the Rev. Falwell is getting the last laugh on a liberal educational establishment that so often looked down at the values he represented.
That providence took personal notice of Falwell’s dreams is strongly suggested by the fact Liberty survived, because in the early days, donations from friends and contributions from Falwell’s ministry program, Old Time Gospel Hour, were all that kept it afloat.
Those revenues dried up over time. “By 1990 we were faced with either refinancing and finding a way to get Liberty to pay for itself, or going out of business,” says Falwell.
The Falwells began tirelessly working the phones, determined to restructure the university’s short-term debts. It was often a week-by-week fight, and as the financial issues mounted, Falwell made a fateful decision: He would close Moral Majority, the advocacy group that had vaulted him to national fame.
presidential greeting The Rev. Falwell and President Ronald Reagan at CPAC in 1987.
Godwin, Falwell’s fellow soldier in the culture wars, describes that decision as a “monstrous gamble.” After all, Falwell was leaving a platform of national influence. Under his leadership, the Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and the religious right became an indispensable element of the Republican coalition. Yet the Rev. Falwell was prepared to leave that power base behind and focus all his energy on Liberty.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview, son Jerry says his father made the shift “because he saw that Liberty could impact more people beyond his life span than anything else he was doing. So he focused totally on that.”
The total focus of both Falwells would be necessary to nurse Liberty through its salad days. To succeed, they would have to walk the self-reliant, free-market walk that professors preached in their classrooms.
Godwin recalls a series of what he calls “institutional near-death experiences.” As the younger Falwell remembers it: “There were about 10 years from ’88 to ’97 where it was not uncommon for us to issue paychecks on Friday, then Dad and I would get on the phone with donors and with lenders over the weekend to try to find a quick bridge loan to cover the checks, try to keep the lights on.”
By 1997, however, the hard work began to pay off. The university’s financial situation stabilized, and for the first time Falwell and Godwin could shift their attention to recruiting students and growing the university.
It was also about this time that more homes began hooking up to the high-speed Internet connections that made distance learning feasible. Internet penetration was rising and Liberty’s online program began to take off. “When people started getting high-speed Internet in their homes about 10 years ago, it just exploded,” the chancellor explains. “I don’t know if anybody here ever expected it to do that, but there was a huge need for it.”
Suddenly business was booming and Falwell’s days of sweating over payroll were over.
“He finally got to see Liberty start to break out into the clear, after 36 years of just one struggle after another,” he says. But in May 2007, just as Liberty was about to graduate its first law-school class in fulfillment of another of its founder’s dreams, the Rev. Falwell suddenly died. The Liberty community found it hard to accept that such a powerful voice for their values never would be heard again.
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“The final big hurdle was, OK, how do we survive losing the founder?” Chancellor Falwell recalls. “That for me was the final big hurdle. It was like now is the big challenge; he’s gone, this place was built on his personality more or less.”
Fortunately, as a final testament to the Rev. Falwell’s foresight, a succession plan already was firmly in place. Son Jonathan Falwell stepped into his father’s role as senior pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Lynchburg megachurch that boasts more than 24,000 members. Jerry Falwell Jr., who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with his father to keep Liberty University afloat during the lean years, became the school’s chancellor and president.
A soft-spoken, cerebral and genteel Virginian, Jerry Falwell Jr., was born and raised in the Lynchburg area, graduating from Liberty University in 1984 with a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1987 and began practicing law in the Lynchburg area that same year.
He took an interest in local real estate development, and his firms successfully recruited national retail stores and restaurants to locate in the region. The combination of legal and real estate experience proved to be a key asset given the rapid growth Liberty experienced. Its online business boomed, its resident-student enrollment rapidly expanded, and new structures started popping up all over campus. Today, Liberty has more than $1 billion in net assets. The university is the city’s second largest employer behind Centra, the regional hospital and healthcare chain. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Liberty as the fourth largest university in the nation based on undergraduate enrollment.
“I just don’t think what the big schools are doing is sustainable. If all schools operated like Liberty and charged what we charge, there wouldn’t be a student loan problem in America.”
— Jerry Falwell Jr.
Revenues from its red-hot online programs have enabled Liberty to turn the staid, religious-college stereotype on its head. The university competes in Division I NCAA athletics, boasts a football stadium and a new baseball stadium, and operates hundreds of intramural leagues.
Not far from that hillside LU logo is the Snowflex Center, an artificial ski slope made of a synthetic material that simulates snow. Students can snowboard and ski down the slope year round, regardless of snow conditions.
They can take figure-skating lessons at the LaHaye Ice Center, learn to ride horses at the Equestrian Center, or explore over 60 miles of hiking and biking trails. A full 90 percent of students participate in small-group activities on campus.
The objective, its leaders say, is to provide on-campus students with a rich variety of ways to make their school years as rewarding as possible. Always having something to do is especially important at a university that strongly discourages the inebriated revelry characteristic of so many of today’s colleges.
Liberty, whose motto is “Training Champions for Christ,” offers more than 300 unique programs of study (166 of them online). The transformative building program now underway includes over 50 construction projects: Construction of Liberty’s new medical school, the addition of about half a million square feet of academic space, a 67,000 square foot addition to the LaHaye Student Union, a new school of music, a new Science Hall, a new prayer chapel, and more.
The crown jewel of the project is the $50 million Jerry Falwell Library, which boasts a high-tech, robotic book-retrieval system that finds the tomes students need to cram for their final exams, and delivers them automatically. The new facilities will serve an on-campus population expected to surpass 16,000 by 2020.
Falwell emphasizes that the synergies between online and residential programs benefit everyone.
“The online program benefits the resident program,” he says, “because it allows us to build facilities that might have taken two or three more generations to raise money to build. But the reverse is true also. The online program benefits from being part of a traditional resident university. That makes it different; it gives online students a sense of belonging. Thousands of them come here to walk at commencement.”
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view from here
President and Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. overlooks Liberty campus.
To fully appreciate the shifting paradigm that Liberty University tosses in the machinery of traditional academe, one must leave its verdant campus behind and head out to the local mall — but not to go shopping.
About five years ago, an Arizona developer donated Lynchburg’s 50-year-old Plaza Shopping Center to the University. At the time, the mall properties were only about 50 percent leased. Today, it’s bustling at over 90 percent occupancy.
If a traditional university tried to emulate Liberty’s model, a revolt by tenured faculty would be the likely result. Pin-cushioned faculty lounges are not hotbeds of support for distance learning and online educational programs.
But Liberty doesn’t worry about offending tenured professors for the simple reason it doesn’t have any. Because the Falwells always felt they needed the leeway to say goodbye to a professor who went off the deep end and began preaching anathema, they steered clear of the tenure model of higher education.
Unencumbered by an entrenched faculty, they’re free to navigate a rapidly changing educational marketplace.
can take courses in flying commercial
drones, or building
That’s one reason why Liberty offers not only music, literature, and theology, but also occupational skills that are in high demand. Liberty students can take courses in flying commercial aircraft, piloting drones, or building cabinets. These are hardly the classic topics one expects to find in post-secondary curricula. But they reflect Liberty’s commitment to preparing graduates to work, compete, and succeed in a competitive world.
“There really is a hunger and a demand for something different in higher education,” says Falwell. “So many of the schools are just politically correct mirrors of each other. If you go to this school versus that school, you’re just going to get a different version of the same political correctness and liberal indoctrination. So the market’s there. Top quality students want a school like this, and all we’ve got to do is deliver.”
There’s a major hurdle to establishing a new model for higher education, however: the ranking system that purports to designate which institutions offer a superior education. The various college rankings tend to reinforce the very trends that have everyone from Bill Gates to President Obama to Jerry Falwell Jr. calling for reform.
a moment shared Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Jr. mid-1970s.
Schools that reject a higher percentage of applicants, for example, tend to be rewarded with higher ratings. Those that charge higher tuition tend to be perceived as more elite. None of these metrics works to the benefit of students, however.
“We want to redefine what constitutes a prestigious college,” says President Falwell. “We think it should be colleges that bring students the furthest, from where they were to where they should be when they graduate, instead of just taking the ones who are most qualified.”
The next big step in Liberty’s emergence will be joining a football bowl subdivision. At that point, Liberty fans and Evangelicals nationwide will be able to root for their football team to play in a major college bowl game, with all the priceless media exposure that goes with it.
It would signal Liberty’s arrival on the national collegiate stage.
“We’ll be the only Evangelical Christian school at that level,” says Falwell. “There’s a ready-made fan base there nationally. And all the players like Tim Tebow, Christian kids who are going to secular schools to play ball, they’ll be coming here.”
No one can say how long it will be before Liberty is invited to join the bowl-eligible ranks of NCAA football. But with his father’s dream so close to becoming reality, Falwell intends to be ready when it comes.
Sometimes he considers what the Rev. Falwell would say if he could see Liberty University today. But he’s pretty sure he knows.
“He’d be saying, See? I told you so,” Falwell says with a laugh. “Because he always said that God had a plan for the university . . . even in all the tough times, he never doubted that it was going to happen.
“If there is one thing you could say about him, it is that he had incredible faith.”
Airplane opening image: courtesy of les schofer/lu / Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr./ap images / godwin/alexis c. glenn/upi/newscom / reagan/ap images / campus 1977/courtesy of les schofer/lu / campus 2014/courtesy of kevin manguiob/lu / football 1975/courtesy of lu / player/courtesy of lu / football 2013/courtesy of lu / library 1975/courtesy of lu / library 2014/courtesy of kevin manguiob/lu / commencement 1974, 2013/courtesy of les schofer/lu / cap/istockphoto / jonathan falwell/courtesy of thomas road baptist church / jerry falwell jr./courtesy of kevin manguiob/lu / students with airplane/courtesy of lu / staver/ap images