Evangelical Liberty U rattled by its own racial reckoning

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FILE - In this July 21, 2016, file photo, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Falwell has apologized after posting a tweet on May 27, 2020, aimed at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's coronavirus mask mandate, that included a picture of a mask bearing a photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. That photo appeared on Northam's medical school yearbook page and, when made public in 2019, sparked a furor that nearly forced him from office. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

RICHMOND, Va. – As the nation wrestles with how to do more for racial equality, Liberty University — a school whose leadership has said it doesn't have a problem — is facing its own tough questions.

Jerry Falwell Jr., who leads the prominent evangelical Christian university, apologized this month after posting a tweet invoking the blackface scandal that engulfed Virginia's governor last year. But Falwell’s rare show of contrition, which followed a rebuke from nearly three dozen Black Liberty alumni, has left many African American students, alumni and staff unconvinced of his interest in helping the school live up to its promises about diversity.

At least four Black Liberty staff members have resigned since Falwell’s tweet, several high-profile Black student-athletes have announced transfer plans, and current and former students as well as employees have become more willing to openly criticize the university's approach to race and diversity. That shift comes as institutions across the country are grappling with the stain of racism and as internal documents show the university's share of on-campus Black students has fallen.

“Knowing what I know, and seeing how the university has been run and even now continues to operate, it is clear that Jerry doesn’t even begin to comprehend what it means to be truly apologetic,” one resigned staffer, former director of diversity retention LeeQuan McLaurin, said.

While pushback against Falwell has simmered since his 2016 endorsement of President Donald Trump, his detractors have been an outspoken but undersized presence in Lynchburg, where Liberty has a formidable economic footprint. Indeed, McLaurin and other disheartened Black alumni have limited power to force change. Falwell was endorsed after his apology by the school’s board of trustees in a June 8 release that touted the school as a home for “students and staff of all races!”

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former students and employees point to significant doubt that the school’s culture is as welcoming as it claims.

Keyvon Scott, who resigned as an online admissions counselor after Falwell's tweet, said that “if he’s serious, he needs to make a change, not just put it" on social media.

Falwell's May 27 tweet, aimed at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's mask mandate, included a picture of a mask bearing a photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. That photo appeared on Northam’s medical school yearbook page and — when made public last year — sparked a furor that nearly forced him from office.

Falwell initially defended the tweet as a response to Northam's proposed cuts to online tuition assistance. In a June 8 video interview about his apology, Falwell said: “When I was swinging at the governor, I inadvertently hit some people that love me ... the Liberty African American community."

The late evangelist and Moral Majority leader the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded Liberty in 1971 with just 154 students. Under the leadership of his namesake, who is an attorney and is not a minister, Liberty has grown into a leading evangelical university, with an immaculate campus and a $1.6 billion endowment.

The school, which declined to comment for this story, announced this year it had surpassed 100,000 students enrolled in its online programs. But Liberty’s reckoning over race comes as its share of on-campus Black students has declined in recent years. Internal documents obtained by AP show Black students made up 13% of Liberty’s resident undergraduates in 2007 and just 5% last year.

The 35 Black alumni who wrote to Falwell criticizing his rhetoric have sought a meeting to discuss further changes. McLaurin proposed the selection of someone without financial or political ties to Liberty to execute a strategic plan for “diversity, equity, inclusion and access.” An online fundraiser he launched to aid Liberty employees and teachers “suffering from racial trauma" has raised more than $18,000.

Maina Mwaura, a Liberty graduate who helped organize the alumni letter, said Falwell's initial apology gave him “a little bit of hope” that the school could be more welcoming -- hope that has since faded.

“I cannot recommend this place to anyone who is a marginalized person. Period,” Mwaura said.

Mwaura lauded students and former staff who spoke out, which he said amounts to “a big deal within the evangelical body of Christ, because Liberty’s tentacles are so far-reaching.”

At least four student-athletes have announced plans to transfer out of Liberty since Falwell’s tweet.

Basketball player Asia Todd, who is Black, shared her decision in a video that identified “racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture" of the school.

Football players Tayvion Land and Kei’Trel Clark, who are also Black, shared their transfer plans in social media posts with a Black Lives Matter hashtag. Land was among the school's highest-rated football recruits. Another player, Waylen Cozad, announced his decision without explanation.

Liberty's provost told local news station WSET that the school had terminated a professor whose behavior contributed to Land and Clark's transfer decisions.

The athletes aren’t alone among the disappointed.

“It’s a personal regret of mine, getting my degree from here now,” said Liberty senior Janea Berkley, a leader at the school’s Black Christian Student Association. “I would never want to give my money to a place that didn’t support me, that felt like my life mattered."

Thomas Starchia, who resigned as an associate director in the school’s office of spiritual development, said Liberty students and staff made good-faith efforts to promote diversity but its president's tweet was a “tipping point."

Acknowledgment of Liberty's difficulties engaging on race isn't limited to staffers and alumni of color. Recent graduate Calum Best said that “there is no serious conversation about it.”

“Many Christians are plenty happy to have hard conversations about issues they care about, like abortion, like homosexuality,” said Best, who is white. “For whatever reason, racism is a thing they don’t want to talk about. It's a personal heart issue to them, something to be prayed over.”


Schor reported from New York. Associated Press writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.


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