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Five years after death of Jerry Falwell Sr., growth booming at Liberty

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Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 3:10 am | Updated: 9:16 pm, Sat Dec 28, 2013.

Five years have passed since the death of Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., and the eternal flame erected in his honor burns a steady orange on a hilltop at Liberty University.

There, the university he founded unfolds in all directions, a campus clattering with construction. But the hilltop is serene, and on warm days, students come here to study or pray.

A quarter-mile away, Liberty has broken ground on a $50 million library, and across the border in Campbell County, construction has begun on a medical school.

“It’s almost like he wrote the script,” said Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over after his father died on May 15, 2007. “If you listen to his 1970s sermons and look at what’s happening now, it’s almost like he was seeing it and describing it.”

In five years, the momentum left by Falwell Sr. has snowballed into rapid growth. The biggest gains come from LU Online, where enrollment has soared from 15,000 students in 2007 to 77,500 this month. Residential enrollment has grown by about 3,000 students to 12,560, about a 30 percent increase.

The curriculum has swelled to more than 260 academic programs, including a film school that opened in January. In 2013, Liberty plans to admit its first class of medical students, perhaps the biggest academic milestone since the law school opened in 2004.

Liberty is pouring more than $220 million into construction projects that promise to transform campus over the next decade. Old buildings are being torn down and replaced with Jeffersonian architecture; makeshift dorms will be replaced with high-rise residence halls.

The driving force behind the growth has been the significant improvement of the university’s financial standing. Wall Street investors have taken notice, and Liberty has received strong credit ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service.

“Just over the last five years our net assets have grown from about $100 million to over $850 million,” said Falwell Jr., adding that net assets are expected to exceed $1 billion this year.

“We’ve got the ability now to do what was being dreamed off, to carry out that vision.”

***

During Falwell’s Sr.’s tenure, his roles as chancellor of Liberty, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Moral Majority leader often would blend together.

But when he disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, his son said, Falwell Sr. “decided that Liberty University was going to be the most important part of his ministry.”

In his 1997 autobiography, Falwell Sr. wrote, “My burning obsession is to cooperate with God in building the greatest Christian university in the world, in history.” In the next 10 years, he worked methodically toward that end.

Meanwhile, Falwell Sr. was grooming his oldest son to succeed him as chancellor, said Ron Godwin, LU’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

After earning a bachelor’s from Liberty and a law degree from the University of Virginia, Falwell Jr. officially joined the ranks at Liberty in 1988, where he served as general counsel and managed the business operations. For years, Liberty’s financial survival was a day-by-day struggle, he said.

“The financing was just a hodge-podge of short-term loans and just wherever we could borrow 3 or 4 million dollars...” Falwell Jr. said. “My job was to negotiate with those folks and to show them what we were doing, that there really was light at the end of the tunnel.”

Though Liberty’s financials were shaky, Falwell Sr. had become a household name through his church and televangelism. He also gained publicity for taking controversial stands in the national media, and some sound bites, like his quote blaming gays, feminists, abortionists and others for the September 11 terrorist attacks, still are cited in the media.

 “There was almost this philosophy of there was no such thing as bad publicity,” Falwell Jr. said. “Whatever it took to get the word out. If it meant getting beat up in the press, at least they were talking about us.”

After Falwell Sr. died, Liberty benefitted from $29 million in proceeds from his life insurance policy. That, combined with a surge in fundraising and enrollment, bolstered the university’s financial standing.

Falwell Jr. wasnamed chancellor and thrust into the public eye. A private person by nature, he said it was challenging to adjust to the constant public speaking and loss of anonymity.

“My first speech I gave at Liberty, I got up there and said the fact that I’m standing up here today is proof that God has a sense of humor because I tried to avoid public speaking my whole life.”

On the national stage, Falwell Jr. keeps a lower profile than his father.

“I think it’s good that my profile’s lower because the less dependent Liberty is on a family or personality or a name, the healthier it is for the school.”

 Liberty’s engagement in local politics, however, has increased. Last year, the administration successfully lobbied for a polling place on campus, and in recent elections, student voters have turned out by the hundreds.

Liberty continues to serve as a magnet for high-profile conservative leaders. At Saturday’s graduation, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a crowd of more than 34,000 during his commencement address in Williams Stadium. Romney joined a long list of presidential contenders to speak at Liberty, including Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee.

Still, university leaders insist Liberty’s core mission is education.

“It’s not Liberty University’s mission to do what Moral Majority did,” Falwell Jr. said. “We’re not a church. We’re not a political organization. Our job is to educate young people to go out and make a difference in whatever walk of life they pursue.”

***

In the early years, Liberty’s focus was training the next generation of preachers. The school of religion served as the heart of the school.

The focus shifted when Falwell Sr. decided he could reach more people if he trained students for a broad range of careers. Liberty’s curriculum expanded across the liberal arts and sciences.

Today, the College of Arts and Sciences draws the most students, followed by the business and education schools.

Falwell Jr. — inspired by his father’s propensity for risk-taking — has moved swiftly to expand Liberty’s reach into medicine, cinema and the health sciences.

“The fact that he started a law school back when we had just recovered financially … I thought that was crazy,” Falwell Jr. said. “But he jumped right in and took a risk … That’s affected how I’ve responded since he died.”

In September, Liberty announced plans to build a medical school. In January, the university began training its first class of film majors through the Zaki Gordon Center for Cinematic Arts, which is headed up by a Hollywood veteran.

The administration maintains a Christian culture in the classroom by only hiring faculty members who ascribe to a Doctrinal Statement of Christian beliefs that affirm Biblical authority and reject evolution.

Liberty also employs faculty through short-term contracts and does not offer tenure except in the law school, where it is a requirement for accreditation.

Though it’s rare, Liberty will end a professor’s contract if he writes a book or broadcasts an idea that runs counter to the school’s values, university officials said. It’s part of the strategy Falwell Sr. developed to prevent Liberty from becoming secularized.

“Tenured faculty was not something Dr. Falwell had any respect for,” Godwin said.

***

The “The Liberty Way” — a strict code of conduct that governs campus life — has remained largely the same since Falwell Jr. took over.

The chancellor can name only two rules that have changed. Male students, who were formerly required to keep their haircuts above the ear, are now allowed to sport a slightly shaggier cut. Female students are permitted to wear nose piercings.

“I just haven’t changed much in the last five years because I didn’t want to give the impression we’re moving away from our core principles,” he said.

From the single-sex dorms to nightly curfews, most of Liberty’s rules are entrenched in campus culture. The Liberty Way requires students to attend convocation — a campus-wide worship service — three times per week. Students, on and off campus, are not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, watch R-rated movies or engage in other activities deemed unacceptable by the administration.

Still, the Liberty Way has evolved over time. Most visibly, Falwell Sr. loosened the dress code substantially from days of jackets and ties. Now, Liberty students are basically indistinguishable from their counterparts at secular institutions, with their jeans and flip-flops and sometimes daring fashion choices.

“Liberty had a standard of behavior that Dr. Falwell felt better represented the Christian testimony, but he would never confuse that with the fundamentals of the faith. That he would not compromise on,” Godwin said.

By some accounts, Liberty has become a more fun campus in recent years. Johnnie Moore, who was a student in the early 2000s and now serves as vice president for executive projects, points to the explosion of extracurricular activities, which range from figure skating to paintball.

Liberty drew national attention for the opening of Snowflex, an artificial ski slope on Candler’s Mountain. Students have also benefitted from a host of smaller projects, including an 18-hole disc golf course, an equestrian center and paintball fields.

***

Perhaps the most visible sign of change is the ongoing transformation of campus as Liberty invests more than $220 million into buildings, dorms and athletic facilities.

In five years, the landscape has been reshaped by a steady stream of bulldozers, cranes and construction workers.

One of its marquee projects was the $22 million expansion of Williams Stadium, home to Flames football. Most recently, Liberty completed the Hancock Welcome Center, a stately building with a red brick façade, white columns and a grand rotunda — a symbol of the university’s emerging emphasis on campus sophistication.

Liberty did not have this luxury in its early days. A tight budget forced Falwell Sr. to take a utilitarian approach to campus. The administration built low-cost dorms and converted industrial buildings, like the former Ericsson plant, into classrooms and offices.

“Now, for the first time, we’ve been able to start putting an emphasis on permanence … and building better-quality buildings,” said Falwell Jr.

In January, Liberty sold $100 million in taxable bonds on Wall Street to fund capital projects. In 2010, Liberty made its first public bond offering when it sold $120 million in tax-exempt bonds.

Coming down the pipeline is the $50 million Jerry Falwell Library, which broke ground in March.

The library is the heart of a plan to beautify campus and prepare Liberty for another wave of enrollment growth, Falwell Jr. said.

Long-range plans include building high-rise dormitories behind the Vines Center, and replacing parking lots with green spaces and sidewalks.

Four academic buildings near DeMoss Hall will be demolished to make room for an academic quad featuring expansive lawns rivaling in size those at the University of Virginia, Falwell Jr. said.

Campus leaders say Liberty will be virtually unrecognizable by the end of the decade.

 “We’ve done a lot in the last five years, but we’ll do as much or more in the next five years as we’ve done in the last 40,” said Neal Askew, executive vice president and a longtime board of trustees member.

“I think Neal’s right,” Falwell Jr. said. “I think the changes over the next five years are going to be mind-boggling.”

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