(RNS) – Jerry Falwell, Jr. is about to make a terrible mistake.
It’s time for the Liberty University board to stop him and shut the campus down before it's too late.
Although Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s ban on gatherings of more than 100 people forced Falwell to cancel residential classes at Liberty University, the campus remains open, with students set to return to dorms early next week either to live out the semester or to clean out their rooms.
“As you may know,” a notice on the Liberty website states, “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.”
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.
Faculty and staff are also required to report, despite the fact that telecommuting options are readily available. As a Liberty faculty member, I have been told that my colleagues and I must conduct our classes from our offices, even though that instruction is now being delivered virtually. We are also expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.
This is as the window for “flattening the curve” of the outbreak is closing.
This foolhardy decision tracks Falwell’s conspiratorial thinking about COVID-19 and smacks of defiance.
He has repeatedly made it clear that he canceled residential classes for legal, not moral, reasons. In fact, his public comments on the pandemic have manifested bravado, self-congratulation and callousness in the extreme, as, even this week on the Todd Starnes radio show, he spewed 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. For a leader dealing with a situation of such magnitude, they are outright terrifying.
By continuing to flout the danger of this novel coronavirus, Falwell also encourages reckless behavior in the university’s students. The kicker is, he points to the droves of students coming back to live in the dorms as evidence of his wise decision to keep the campus open.
Falwell cavalierly assumes no responsibility for at least enabling and at most incentivizing the students’ decision to return. Rather than provide the steady leadership needed at this sober time, Falwell has chosen to indulge and endanger the students, as he did last Friday in his convocation message.
“You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus,” he told them. “And I want to give you what you paid for.”
He did warn students to stay away from people who were at risk from COVID-19 and say that the school needed to be “sensitive to people with respiratory problems and older people.”
Earlier in the week, Falwell told Starnes that most of the students would come back to campus. He and the radio host laughed off reports of college students partying in large groups on spring break.
“When we were young, we thought we were invincible,” Falwell said. “That’s just human nature. You’re not going to change that.”
But shouldn’t a university president at least try to inculcate more other-regarding attitudes? To further demonstrate how unfit he is for this moment, Falwell plays off the spring breakers’ presumption and insolence as harmless.
“It’s fortunate that this disease, this flu, doesn’t have a high mortality rate for young people, because they’re the ones that are not worried about it,” he said. “And I’m not worried about it.”
He also blamed the media for overhyping the threat of COVID-19.
“They are willing to destroy the economy just to hurt Trump,” Falwell said.
Falwell’s lack of concern does nothing to mitigate these students likely becoming vectors of the pathogen roaming around Liberty’s campus and the Lynchburg community, interacting with professors and staff and other townspeople.
I have no animus toward Jerry Falwell Jr. He simply should not have a monopoly on this decision. I think he is dangerously wrong here and seems unable or unwilling to recognize it. For that reason, the decision must be taken out of his hands. I speak up for his benefit as well, since his current plan is courting a disaster for which he would be primarily to blame.
Yes, Liberty’s students are mostly young, at low risk for serious complications from the virus. But the administration’s decision to remain in regular operation affects many more than simply the young and healthy among us.
Many students, faculty and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight. And of course, Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained. Instead, its population comes into regular contact with those in the Lynchburg community, putting their health and lives at risk as well.
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.
I have heard from many at the university who have health issues or loved ones with health issues and are distressed about the leadership’s insensitivity and profligacy with impunity. These folks can speak up only on pain of risking their careers.
This leaves me wondering what university leadership has to gain in leveraging people’s livelihoods against their speaking the truth. I simply cannot square this oppression of reasonable dissent with the biblical dicta the university professes.
I am deeply grieved that Jerry Falwell Jr’s control of Liberty University is so complete that not one person in leadership is speaking up as the loyal opposition on behalf of the vulnerable that Falwell’s impudent and imprudent decisions have put at risk, both at Liberty and in Lynchburg.
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. They are compelled by what is genuinely best for the university to act, to say nothing of their altruistic obligations as Christians.
These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.
(Marybeth Davis Baggett is professor of English at Liberty University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)