May 28, 2009
Jerry Falwell, Sr., often described Liberty University as the “Harvard of the right,” a label that indicated what left-leaning students could expect to find at the conservative Virginia school.
But as the university has grown over the past five years – estimates put campus enrollment at 11,500, with another 38,000 online – so have the number of more liberal-minded students. This “new breed” still holds conservative values, but not to the degree that perhaps the school has come to expect. And surprises can lead to stress on both sides of the aisle.
“Liberty has been aggressively expanding. You can’t make a case otherwise,” said David Ernest, an LU graduate now attending law school at Florida State. “So you’re getting a more diverse crowd with much more divergent viewpoints. It’s a different place than it was six or seven years ago.”
So it was last week that those on the right and left found themselves at the center of a controversy taking place under a shared roof. Liberty, founded by Falwell in 1971, decided to no longer recognize the College Democrats as a university-sponsored student group. The stated reason was because the group supported political candidates, including Barack Obama, who support abortion rights and gay marriage.
“We are unable to lend support to a club whose parent organization stands against the moral principles held by Liberty University,” LU Student Affairs VP Mark Hine informed the group, according to the The Christian Post.
The result is that the College Democrats will return to its former“unrecognized” club status, although there continue to be talks between the group and the school to find a compromise solution.
The outcry from less conservative quarters has caused LU to address what it described as media inaccuracies about what exactly happened.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty’s chancellor and president, addressed the issue on Monday. He says the school has not kicked the College Democrats off campus, nor banned the club from meeting. And never has LU said that a student cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat.
According to Falwell, whose father oversaw the school until his death in 2007, Democratic clubs long have existed at Liberty, but as unofficial student clubs not endorsed by the school.
“There is absolutely no animosity at all toward any of these kids,” Falwell told the Lynchburg News Advance, adding that the club still has a right to operate and meet in certain rooms on campus, but cannot use the school’s name in activities. “These are good, Christian kids who sit with me at ballgames. I just hope they find a pro-life organization to affiliate with so they can be endorsed at Liberty again.”
In October, Liberty granted the College Democrats’ request to move up to “recognized” club status – a benefit that allowed them to use Liberty’s name and logo, hold public events on the Virginia campus and receive a small subsidy reserved for officially-recognized clubs. But the university also told the group that it must insert two clauses into its constitution – one affirming it as a pro-life organization and the other affirming its support of the traditional view of marriage.
“Being understanding of Liberty's viewpoints and standards, we complied,” College Democrats secretary Jan Michael Dervish told The Christian Post.
But over the past eight months the university grew increasingly uncomfortable with the political group’s choices of who it would support.
“Liberty University is pro-life and believes that marriage between one man and one woman provides the best environment for children. Liberty University will not lend its name or financial support to any student group that advances causes contrary to its mission,” Falwell said, adding that the rules apply to all political organizations, including Republicans.
“If a Republican club supporting abortion sought endorsement from the University, it would be denied,” stated the Office of the Chancellor in an e-mail that went out to LU students.
“The sanctity of life is one of Liberty University’s non-negotiable core values and it simply cannot lend its name or financial support to any group that actively works against Liberty’s core values,” the office stated.
Ernest graduated from LU in 2006 and spent two more years as a university employee. He also was heavily involved in the College Republicans, serving on its executive board and becoming chairman his senior year. But despite his allegiance to the school and “the good people there,” he thinks Liberty struck out on this one.
“Truth does not fear a challenge,” he said, repeating a line he often heard from an LU professor. “If I were still there, as a university member I would welcome an open debate and challenge on these (abortion and marriage) issues.”
Ernest firmly feels that Liberty needs to reassess not so much its values but the way it goes about communicating them – by squelching dissent and robust discussion of sensitive issues.
“One of the drawbacks of Liberty … is that it’s substantially conservative, and you don’t get much check on that,” Ernst said. “It can be monotonous and stifling at times, and I say that as a conservative.”
Ernest pointed out that the vast majority of LU Democrats are pro-life, but they may have different views on other social issues. Yet those views are neither considered nor valued by the university, he says.
“If the College Democrats believe in one of (their party’s) social programs they should be able to meet and present those arguments," he said. "I fully support making an official club of the College Democrats.”