A ‘tip­ping point’: Lib­erty Univer­sity rat­tled by its own racial reck­on­ing

Many Black stu­dents, alumni and staff doubt prom­ises on di­ver­sity

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELANA SCHOR AND SARAH RANKIN

As the na­tion wres­tles with 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 in Lynch­burg, 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 alumni of Lib­erty, 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 staff mem­bers at Lib­erty have re­signed since Fal­well’s tweet, sev­eral

high-pro­file Black stu­den­tath­letes 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 that 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,” said one re­signed staffer, for­mer di­rec­tor of di­ver­sity re­ten­tion LeeQuan McLau­rin.

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 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

Northam 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 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 that 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 the AP show that Black stu­dents made up 5% of Lib­erty’s res­i­dent un­der­grad­u­ates last year, down from 13% in 2007.

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.

He 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 stu­den­tath­letes 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.”

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 Fal­well’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 “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.”

“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.”

LeeQuan McLau­rin, a Lib­erty alum­nus and for­mer di­rec­tor of di­ver­sity re­ten­tion

2016, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lib­erty Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Jerry Fal­well Jr.’s May 27 tweet, aimed at Gov. Ralph Northam’s coro­n­avirus mask man­date, in­voked the black­face scan­dal that en­gulfed the gov­er­nor last year.

PHO­TOS BY THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump posed with Lib­erty Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Jerry Fal­well Jr. in front of a choir dur­ing grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies at the school in Lynch­burg on May 13, 2017. While push­back against Fal­well has sim­mered since his 2016 en­dorse­ment of Trump, his de­trac­tors have been an outspoken but un­der­sized pres­ence in Lynch­burg.

Lib­erty alum­nus LeeQuan McLau­rin, the school’s for­mer di­rec­tor of di­ver­sity re­ten­tion, left his job in the wake of a tweet from Jerry Fal­well Jr. that in­voked the black­face scan­dal that en­gulfed Gov. Ralph Northam last year.

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