(RNS) — According to data Liberty University has typically used to call itself the nation’s largest Christian university, it has lost that title. Liberty has begun removing the claim from its website.
But after Religion News Service published an article Friday (April 27) in which the university’s executive director for external communications acknowledged that Grand Canyon University had “supplanted” Liberty as the largest Christian university, President Jerry Falwell Jr. sent a statement to RNS questioning whether GCU meets Liberty’s definition of a Christian school.
He also cited a different metric than the one Liberty has used to tout itself as the world’s largest Christian university, and suggested that both schools, by different measures, could temporarily share the claim to be the largest.
“Our definition of a Christian university only includes universities who hire faculty who adhere to fundamental Christian doctrine. GCU does not. Liberty does,” Falwell said in a statement provided to RNS.
GCU officials said they do require faculty to sign a statement saying they understand the school’s Christian values.
When told of Falwell’s statement, GCU officials said they have the “utmost respect for Liberty and its mission as a Christian university,” but disputed Falwell’s characterization of their school.
“As a Christian institution, GCU is committed to distinctively Christian approaches toward education that are grounded in theological conviction, development of sound character, and the capacity to live in ways that honor God, benefit others and contribute significantly to the common good,” reads a statement from GCU.
Falwell said his definition of “fundamental Christian doctrine” was based on his own school’s doctrine of faith, and he “may not understand GCU’s hiring policies.”
He also said “Liberty’s definition of a ‘Christian’ university for identification purposes refers to evangelical Christian universities.”
John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College and an expert on American evangelicalism, said Falwell’s reaction reflects broader debates over the definition of “Christian,” including some evangelicals who “do not see Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or even mainline Protestantism as true Christians.”
“Why would you argue over such semantics?” Fea continued. “Why would it be important to claim that you are the largest Christian university in the world other than to use this as a platform for your own theological and, in Falwell’s case, political agenda?”
Falwell is a member of President Trump’s informal evangelical advisory committee and has been criticized for providing cover for some of the president’s most divisive comments and actions.
Liberty has typically cited its total enrollment as the basis for its claim to be the largest Christian university in the world. It submits those numbers to the Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System database — or IPEDS — a project of the U.S. Department of Education. The IPEDS reports Liberty’s “12-month unduplicated headcount” enrollment (meaning every student should be only counted once) at 109,921.
GCU’s for the same year — 2015-2016, the most recent available — is more than a thousand students larger: 111,211.
But in a statement provided by Liberty, Falwell suggests that because his school has a larger number of full-time students, it could still claim to be the largest Christian university. For 2015-2016, the IPEDS listed the “12-month equivalent full-time enrollment” for Liberty at 65,290, compared to GCU’s 63,350.
The National Center for Education Statistics ranks universities by “highest enrollment,” a total enrollment metric, not full-time enrollment.
When Falwell was informed that GCU faculty sign a statement acknowledging they understand GCU’s Christian beliefs, he suggested the schools could both call themselves the largest in their category.
“If GCU requires faculty to affirm a strong Christian doctrinal statement and enrolls more students by total headcount while LU enrolls more FTEs (full-time enrollment students), then it would be fair for both schools to claim to be the largest Christian university in the world,” he said in the statement provided to RNS.
“In any event,” Falwell added, “Liberty will remain the largest non-profit Christian university in the world and the most prosperous and successful academically and athletically by almost any metric for years to come in our opinion.”
GCU is a for-profit university, but is applying to regain nonprofit status.