The President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., is facing intense backlash after choosing to allow students back to their campus dorms amid the spiraling coronavirus pandemic.
“The University has decided to move most classes to a digital format and to allow students the choice to return to campus after Spring Break or stay home and complete their classes remotely,” reads a statement posted to the institution's website.
Falwell’s decision – which comes after Virginia governor Ralph Northam placed a blanket ban on gatherings of more than 100 to try and stem the rate of infection – has invited criticism from members of Liberty’s own faculty.
“This decision runs contrary to the three other residential schools in our area that have closed their dorms, allowing only those with nowhere else to go to remain,” wrote Liberty English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett at Religion New Service, noting that university staff are “expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.”
“Jerry Falwell, Jr. is about to make a terrible mistake,” she added. “It’s time for the Liberty University board to stop him and shut the campus down before it's too late.”
Baggett went on to lambast Falwell’s “foolhardy decision” to reject the official advice on social distancing, saying it “smacks of defiance.”
“His public comments on the pandemic have manifested bravado, self-congratulation and callousness in the extreme,” she wrote.
In recent weeks, Falwell Jr has peddled some controversial theories about the COVID-19 virus, which has infected over 250 people across the state of Virginia and killed seven. As Christian Headlines previously reported, speaking to Fox & Friends earlier this month, the devoted Trump supporter floated the idea that the viral outbreak may have been mastermind by China and North Korea as an act of biological warfare against the United States.
“The owner of a restaurant asked me last night, he said, ‘Do you remember the North Korean leader promised a Christmas present for America, back in December?’” Falwell said. “‘Could it be they got together with China, and this is that present?’ I don’t know. But it really is something strange going on.”
These comments led to the start of a petition calling for Falwell's termination. The petition has amassed more than 11,000 signatures at the time of this writing.
Falwell has also suggested that the media is overhyping the severity of the coronavirus situation.
“They are willing to destroy the economy just to hurt Trump,” he told conservative radio host Todd Starnes.
Baggett insisted that Falwell continues to bring Liberty into disrepute by spewing “far-fetched, unsubstantiated and misleading information about the coronavirus outbreak.”
“For one charged with leading a Christian institution of higher learning, these are troubling qualities, fundamentally at odds with both Christian faith convictions and an academic mindset,” she added. “For a leader dealing with a situation of such magnitude, they are outright terrifying.”
The decision to re-open the campus, the professor said, should have been taken out of Falwell’s hands by Liberty’s senior administrators.
“It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg,” she wrote.
“The leadership’s willingness to enable Falwell’s self-professed politically motivated decision bespeaks a spirit of fear, or worse, that shames the mission they ostensibly pursue. I beg the deans, senior leadership and board members to think more long-term.”
On Monday, LU officials posted a statement on their website noting that university administrators have been working together to formulate a plan that would comply with “all state restrictions.”
“Executive leadership of Liberty University has worked closely with President Jerry Falwell and the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV) to comply with all state restrictions while providing safe and reliable accommodations for students choosing to return to campus and for all students to continue their residential studies in an online format,” the statement reads.
Falwell added that by extending the school's Spring Break – which took place last week – he felt students would have a “longer time to become exposed to the virus and bringing it back to Lynchburg.” As such, “Our thinking was, ‘Let's get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back,’” Falwell noted.
After Gov. Northam imposed the 100-person gathering limit, the university decided that as of Monday, March 23, the school would move all instruction online, “except for some particular programs and labs.” Students are, however, still permitted to live on campus during this time.
The university president emphasized that he has been in communication with state officials over the university’s decision.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla/Staff
Will Maule is a British journalist who has spent the past several years working as a digital news editor. Since earning a degree in international relations and politics, Will has developed a particular interest in covering ethical issues, human rights and global religious persecution. Will's work has been featured in various outlets including The Spectator, Faithwire, CBN News, Spiked, The Federalist and Christian Headlines. Follow him on Twitter at @WillAMaule.