With the unofficial motto “Politically incorrect since 1971,” Liberty University has long prided itself on bucking many of the norms of American higher education. The private Christian school does not offer its professors tenure, for example, and its president gleefully insults his political enemies online. And now, as colleges across the country are shuttering their campuses in the name of public health, Liberty has reopened to any students who want to return. President Jerry Falwell Jr. told CNN on Wednesday that about 1,900 of its 15,000 residential students had returned to its Virginia campus from spring break. This week, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I think we have a responsibility to our students—who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here—to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life.”
It’s not exactly business as usual. Professors will conduct most classes online, keeping lecture halls empty. But residence halls are open to any students who want to be on campus. And several students who are back on campus or living nearby told me they are not reassured by the university’s response and that many of their fellow students do not seem to be taking the virus seriously. Calum Best, a senior, has been back on campus since last Friday and said other students have been offering him hugs and handshakes, and inviting him into their rooms. On social media, he has seen images of “quarantine parties” and other gatherings of more than 10 people. “They’re creating a space where students can come and be stupid,” said Best, the Student Government Association chief of staff. “There’s a general carelessness, and our leadership isn’t doing what they could be to stop that from spreading.”
Last weekend, English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote an op-ed for Religion News Service asking the school’s board of trustees to overrule Falwell’s decision and “shut the campus down before it’s too late.” She wrote that instructors without health exemptions were also expected to hold office hours for students who want to meet one on one. Since then, Falwell has said publicly that faculty are working from home. But Liberty’s campus information page about the virus instructs faculty to make individual arrangements with their deans, and many instructors remain on campus.
Public officials in Virginia have also expressed alarm. A Liberty press release this week claimed that Lynchburg’s city manager and mayor thanked Falwell for moving most instruction online. But the city manager told the Daily Beast that Falwell was not honest with her when they discussed the school’s plans. She said Falwell suggested to her and the mayor, Treney Tweedy, that the dorms would remain open only for international students who could not return home. In fact, Falwell opened the dorms for anyone who wants to return. Tweedy called the decision to reopen “reckless” and said Falwell had not kept his word to the city. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s press secretary said this week that he is “concerned” and that members of his administration had spoken directly with Falwell. (There were not yet any confirmed coronavirus cases in Lynchburg, which includes Liberty’s campus, as of Wednesday morning.)
Falwell’s public statements about the coronavirus have consistently downplayed its threat. On March 13, before he communicated with students at all about the virus, he gave an interview to Fox & Friends in which he said media was exaggerating it in order to hurt Trump and that the virus might be a bioweapon manufactured by North Korea. In the same interview he said that in-person classes at Liberty would go on. At an all-campus event streamed online later the same day, Falwell again dismissed the virus as “hype.” When a parent of three Liberty students challenged him on Twitter about the decision to stay open, Falwell called him a “dummy.” Four days later, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam strongly discouraged any gatherings of more than 10 people, the university finally announced that most classes would move online.
Some current students said they were baffled by the lack of guidance they have received from the administration. “We were asked if we would be returning and using our meal plans, but that was pretty much it,” said senior Elizabeth Brooks. “We have received little to no information.” Students got an email press release from the president’s office last week, announcing the move online. Then they heard nothing until this week, when Falwell’s office sent another press release touting the university’s response to the virus. “[Students] were talking about being glad to be back,” the release quotes Falwell saying. “I was joking about how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and told all of them to enjoy it.”
Falwell said on CNN on Wednesday that the campus “looks like a ghost town.” And the school has taken measures to discourage group gatherings, including posting “no trespassing” signs and restricting access to some areas. Dining halls are allowing only 10 patrons inside at once and serving most meals “to go” from outdoor tents. But some students say that Falwell’s public dismissiveness about the virus has contributed to mixed messages about safety. Ellie Richards, a senior who lives off campus, said she is enrolled in a ceramics class in which the instructor has been encouraging students to come to campus to retrieve their clay and other materials. Richards does not want to leave her home because her roommate is immunocompromised. “It just seems very foolish,” she said. “I think they just don’t want to give students any money back.” Many colleges closing their campuses are offering partial rebates for room and board payments. (A spokesman for Liberty did not respond to an interview request.)
For now, Liberty has canceled campus events and is reevaluating future cancellations every two weeks. In the meantime, students are left to debate whether their college president knows the virus is a major threat and is choosing to minimize it or whether he truly believes that it’s a conspiracy or a minor bug. Richards speculated that Falwell might be like her grandfather, a “chain email kind of guy” who views the virus as an overhyped conspiracy. But Best pointed out that Falwell is a college president with a law degree from the University of Virginia. “He’s not stupid,” Best said. “He’s fully aware that this is a giant crisis, and he’s choosing to downplay it.”
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