LYNCHBURG (WSLS 10) - Lynchburg's largest employer is Liberty University with more than 8,000 people working for the school. With 15,000 students on campus, the university also provides a huge boost to restaurants, housing and more in the region.
Liberty is at the end of a $1 billion expansion and is putting a big emphasis on sports.
Liberty University's risk was worth the reward going into online education when other schools weren't. The university's money grew rapidly because of those programs. Experiencing more than 1,000 percent growth in the last decade from $150 million to $1.8 billion has allowed the university to grow rapidly as well.
"The way that Liberty was a pioneer in adult education allowed us to achieve that original vision for Liberty in decades rather than centuries. It probably would've taken many generations to do than the traditional way with contributions and alumni support, all the things that schools usually are built on," said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
But Falwell knows with more online competition, the day is coming when there will be a drop in online enrollment so he's preparing now with a goal of a $3 billion endowment. Notre Dame has a $10 billion endowment pool. Falwell's goal is to be the evangelical version of Notre Dame or Brigham Young.
To get there quickly the university has invested in athletics. $200 million into new facilities with the hope of having high-ranking sports programs like Virginia Tech or the University of Virginia.
"Sports is a way you can make big, positive changes quickly. Academics takes longer, with the facilities you can do that pretty quickly if you have the resources, but it takes time for your academic achievements to gain the recognition of your peers," said Falwell.
In late 2016, Liberty hired Baylor University's former controversial Athletic Director Ian McCaw. But controversy is nothing new for Liberty University.
"Dr. Falwell Senior was a very outspoken preacher and he said a lot of things from the pulpit that were very very truth based and some of them were opinion based. He could say rather inflammatory things at times," said Dr. Ronald Hawkins, Liberty University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs who worked with Jerry Falwell Junior and Senior.
Falwell Senior was known for many controversial statements, but Falwell Junior hasn't been without his own controversy, recently supporting students carrying guns on campus and backing President Donald Trump during the election.
"He is not afraid of taking a risk. He's not afraid of being unpopular. He is willing to step out and he became and has become for many, kind of a controversial figure," said Hawkins.
But Falwell Junior knows he has to lead differently.
"You have to be a little bit more risk averse, we've worked so hard to create what's here, we don't want to lose it, we don't want to do anything foolish with the financial resources so we worked hard to make," said Falwell.
Liberty is also driving growth in the city of Lynchburg. City Manager Bonnie Svrcek said there's no question Liberty has impacted the entire success of the city and region and is thankful the university is here. They've been able to partner on infrastructure projects including the pedestrian bridge over Wards Road and Liberty's real estate portfolio includes local properties like the River Ridge Mall.
"A lot of people say that Lynchburg without Liberty would look a lot like Danville or Martinsville and that's probably true. It's sad what's happened there with a lot of the jobs that have left, but we're just glad that Liberty was able to grow at the right time to replace all the factory jobs that were sent overseas," said Falwell.
He said the major building expansion is over. Now there will be a shift to building better programs and students.
"We've started turning away a lot of students simply because we don't have room and I expect that trend to continue," said Falwell. "Up to now it's been a focus on quantity, but I think from here on it will be more of a focus on quality."
The students on campus come from all over the world. More than 60 percent are from outside Virginia, with 79 countries represented including Korea, Canada, China and Vietnam.
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