In this Nov. 16, 2016, photo, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. poses during an interview in his offices at the school in Lynchburg, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The fall of Falwell: A timeline of the ups, downs and scandals of his Liberty University presidency

(RNS) — News that Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as president of Liberty University, which came on the heels of reports that he and his wife, Becki, were involved in a sexual tryst with a younger man, may have caught some by surprise: How could the successful scion of a renowned evangelical preacher abandon his post at the school his father founded?

But Falwell’s resignation is but the resolution of years of smaller scandals, some of which are directly connected to the circumstances surrounding his decision to step down as Liberty’s president.

Religion News Service takes a look back at some of these controversies, chronicling the rise and fall of Falwell’s career as president of Liberty University.

 

May 2007 — Jerry Falwell Jr. takes over

Falwell becomes president and chancellor of Liberty University after his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., dies at his desk. The elder Falwell, a prominent televangelist and political figure, had founded the evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia.

2012 — The Falwells meet Granda

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Becki Falwell reportedly meet Giancarlo Granda, then a 21-year-old pool attendant and Florida International University student, while vacationing in Miami. The Falwells go into business with Granda, purchasing a South Beach youth hostel.

September 2013 — Growth at Liberty

Spurred in part by a shift to online education, Falwell steadily builds up Liberty’s financial prowess, eventually accumulating an endowment of more than $1 billion. Largely due to massive enrollment in the online program, the school eventually claims the mantle of the largest Christian university in the country until it was dethroned by Grand Canyon University in 2018.

2015 — Liberty becomes a popular conservative speaking spot

Liberty emerges as a popular spot for conservative speakers and presidential hopefuls in 2015, beginning when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launches his White House bid from the school’s campus. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks a few months later at Liberty’s commencement, and Trump makes a stop early the following year. The trend continues into Trump’s first term, with the president speaking at the school multiple times. Although Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also addresses at the school in 2015, some students grow frustrated with the mostly Republican slate of speakers.

December 2015 — ‘End those Muslims’

After the San Bernardino, California, shootings, Falwell sparks one of his first national controversies after encouraging students to carry concealed weapons during the school’s weekly Convocation and expressing anti-Muslim sentiments. “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says.

January 2016 — Trump endorsement

Falwell becomes one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most outspoken evangelical supporters when he endorses Trump’s presidential campaign. The endorsement comes a week after Trump’s appearance at Liberty, during which Falwell compared him to his father, saying both were men who spoke their minds, often in fearlessly brash ways. A longtime Liberty board member resigns over the endorsement and a number of students publish a statement expressing their disappointment — foreshadowing future departures and statements from Liberty students, staff and alumni.

2016 — Athletic center deal

Falwell reportedly signs a deal selling an 18-acre athletic center on Liberty property to the Falwells’ personal fitness trainer, Benjamin Crosswhite. The Falwells reportedly had had personal training sessions with Crosswhite since 2011, when he was a 23-year-old Liberty graduate. The deal raises some eyebrows, according to Reuters, because Liberty adjusted the price and financed the purchase for Crosswhite, which it has defended as beneficial to the university.

April 2019 — Protests and censorship

Opposition to Falwell’s affiliation with Trump grows so fevered that an evangelical author, Jonathan Martin, calls for a prayer protest of Liberty University and Falwell. When Martin is arrested at Liberty and removed by campus police while visiting a band, evangelicals host a “Red Letter Revival” demonstration in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty student journalists attempt to cover the rally but say they are personally censored by Falwell, preventing them from doing so. News of the censorship reportedly results in Liberty officials taking full control of the student newspaper.

May 2019 — Michael Cohen and photos

Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen claims he was asked by Falwell to help him destroy racy photos described as images typically kept “between husband and wife.” The photos were reportedly kept by a third party who destroyed them after Cohen intervened on Falwell’s behalf. However, Cohen is recorded saying he kept one of the images. Falwell denies such compromising photos exist.

October 2019 — Settlement with Bello

Falwell reportedly settles a lawsuit with Gordon Bello, who claimed the Falwells promised him and a family member a stake in a Miami hostel business venture that the Liberty president and his wife purchased in 2013. Also involved in the hostel was Granda, and the lawsuit reportedly devolved into a debate over compromising photographs that could be used as leverage against the Falwells.

May 2020 — Blackface/Northam tweet and fallout

Falwell tweets an image of a mask emblazoned with a picture of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface. Several African American faculty members and student athletes leave in protest, citing what they describe as the school’s long-standing issues with race and sexuality. Falwell later apologizes.

Aug. 7, 2020 — Instagram scandal(s)

Falwell agrees to an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as president and chancellor of Liberty after posting — and then quickly deleting — a photo on Instagram with his arm around a woman who was not his wife, pants unzipped, midriffs and underwear visible, glass of what he described as “black water” in hand. Falwell says the photo was “meant in good fun,” but it isn’t his only controversial activity on social media. Instances of him “liking” Instagram photos of women in bikinis come to light over the following days. He also previously called a Liberty parent a “dummy” in a tweet. Demands for him to resign or be removed intensify.

Aug. 24, 2020 — Falwell resigns. Eventually.

Falwell resigns after a bombshell report in Reuters alleges a past sexual relationship involving Falwell, Becki Falwell and Granda. The day before, Jerry Falwell had released a statement to the Washington Examiner claiming Becki Falwell had an affair with Granda “in which I was not involved.” In a daylong tug of war with the university, Falwell withdraws his resignation before submitting it again late that night.