Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Liberty University Has a Long Way to Go Before it Becomes the Evangelical Notre Dame

Check out this Washington Post article about Liberty University's ambition to become a major football power.  According to the article, Jerry Falwell Jr. wants to move Liberty football into the upper echelons of NCAA Division I football and are ready to respond positively to an NCAA invitation to join the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) in 48 hours.  

Here is a taste of the article dealing with Liberty's aspirations to be an evangelical Notre Dame:

Notre Dame’s reputation, of course, is driven by much more than football. Hesburgh spent much of his presidency building the university into an educational powerhouse. He also ensured that the Vatican did not meddle with Notre Dame’s academic freedom.
Liberty’s reputation still rests largely on the Falwell name and on the school’s prominence in the political world. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s founder, was a famous television preacher and a key figure in the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 90s. Now, Liberty is a frequent stop on the campaign trail for Republican politicians, and occasionally for Democrats. When Falwell Jr. spoke out this month about his desire for more Liberty students to carry concealed weapons on campus, as a safety measure to deter terrorists, his comments reinforced the sense that Lynchburg is a frequent dateline for political stories.
But Falwell said that he does not want to make news. He said his speech on Dec. 4 about guns was unplanned — an impromptu set of remarks after the Heritage Foundation’s president, Jim DeMint, finished a speech earlier than planned.
“We’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,” he said. “We’re a university.” 
I have visited and even spoke on the Liberty campus.  It is an impressive place.  If the facilities are any indication, Liberty has a lot of money.  With such resources they just might be able to become another Notre Dame.  But in order for that to happen, Liberty will need to do several things.
First, it will need to be a more open place.  Here is another quote from the Washington Post article:
Falwell said the university has no political or religious litmus tests. “I’d say Liberty is Christian with a capital c, conservative with a small c,” he said. Many of its students lean to the right, politically. “It’s not required. It’s not what we seek,” Falwell said. “It’s what we attract.”
It seems like Falwell Jr. is being a bit disingenuous here.  Liberty does have religious litmus tests for its faculty members.  I also wonder how an outspoken liberal Christian who affiliated with the Democratic Party would fare at Liberty?  Students enroll at Liberty because they believe it is a safe place where professors will not challenge their core conservative values.  It is hard to believe that Liberty does not "seek" these kind of students.
If Liberty wants to be a world-class university, it will need to be more open to Christian scholars who do not subscribe to the conservative brand of evangelical religion that Liberty currently peddles.  This would not only include moderate and liberal evangelicals, but mainline Protestants and Catholics.  I don't see that happening any time soon.
Second, Liberty will need to hire research faculty and support them in their work.  Liberty does not have to give up its commitment to teaching in order to do this, but it will need to start funneling money into its academic programs.  It will need to provide some kind of tenure system for faculty, establish well-funded endowed chairs, and lighten the heavy teaching loads that faculty currently experience. This is a huge financial commitment. It also requires, as I noted above, loosening the doctrinal restrictions at the university so that they can attract this kind of quality faculty.
Third, Liberty will need to do something about what appears to be the autocratic hand of Jerry Falwell Jr.  When I was doing research for my recent post on Falwell and guns, I was amazed at how many Liberty faculty and students I contacted were unwilling to talk (even off the record) about their distaste for Falwell's remarks on this issue.  I can't say for sure why they were unwilling to talk. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to the institution.  Or maybe it was out of a fear of losing their jobs. Such a culture needs to change if Falwell is serious about Liberty becoming the evangelical Notre Dame.
My advice to Liberty University would be stop worrying about Division I football, lobbing grenades into the ongoing culture war, and monitoring the views of its faculty, and start shoring up the quality and diversity (within the limits at a Christian university) of its academic programs. When this happens I just might believe Falwell Jr. when he says that "we're not a church, we're not a business, we're not a political organization,..we're a university."