Last week, Jerry Falwell Jr. made several TV appearances intended to reassure viewers that Liberty University was taking the coronavirus seriously. The school had received widespread criticism for Falwell Jr.’s decision to keep campus open for any students who wanted to be there, although classes had moved online. Now, his message was that the campus was effectively empty after all, and that its leadership was taking every safety precaution possible. “Only essential staff are on campus: cleaning staff, food preparers, security,” he said. The next day on CNN, he described campus as a “ghost town.”
For many people who were on Liberty’s campus over the last week, the feeling has been very different. “I do really feel I’m being gaslit,” one Liberty staff member told me. (The staff member asked to remain anonymous because she fears she could lose her job for speaking frankly. At Liberty, “silence is job security,” she said.) Falwell Jr.’s declaration that only essential staff were working on campus surprised her for one reason: She watched the clip from her desk there. Though she could perform all the functions of her job at home, no one had told her it was acceptable to work remotely. The same day that Falwell Jr. told ABC that only essential staff were on campus, Liberty’s website—according to an archived version—was instructing all faculty and staff to “report to work as normal.”
For Liberty’s administration, at least, “work as normal” has meant a series of shifting messages about the coronavirus, as the school has seemingly generated official policy to match its president’s rhetoric. On Friday, March 13, as students were preparing to leave for spring break, Falwell Jr. dismissed the virus as “hype” and told students he saw no reason to close campus. “You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus,” he said in an all-campus event held online. “I want to give you what you paid for.” The next Monday, he said most classes would go online after all, but students were welcome back on campus. By Wednesday of this week, Falwell had adopted a more serious tone, writing in an op-ed in Newsweek that the school had followed state and federal guidelines and was simply “fulfilling our Christian mission” by staying open to a few students in need. “They’ve tried to walk it back, but it was clear they wanted to be defiant and use the university as a political prop,” said another employee. “He’s being deceptive.”
The decision to reopen led to another cascade of confusion. Falwell Jr. initially said Liberty was preparing for up to 5,000 students to return to campus after spring break. Then, the school said 1,900 had returned, with roughly 800 leaving again by the following week. In his op-ed in Newsweek this week, Falwell Jr. wrote that only 1,100 students ever returned from spring break. That piece characterized Liberty as “doing our share to limit the spread of the coronavirus responsibly and ethically, while also fulfilling our Christian mission.”
Students, too, have been receiving mixed messages. The Office of Residence Life sent residential students an email on March 17 reminding them that classes were moving online and “encouraging you to consider staying home.” The next day, Falwell Jr. appeared on right-wing commentator Todd Starnes’ podcast and breezily announced he expected most students to return. “Most of the students, from what we can tell, are coming back and they’re going to live in the dorms and they’re going to do their classes online,” Falwell Jr. said. “They don’t want to have to sit at home in the basement and do their own laundry.” On March 20, the Office of Resident Life sent an updated “clarification,” explaining that its previous letter was not intended as a recommendation to stay home, and telling students in bold-faced type that “all residential students are welcome to either stay in place or return to campus.”
For many Liberty employees, the confusion has led to rising anxiety. As of last week, a significant share of Liberty faculty and staff members were still working from their offices, according to conversations with several employees who did not want to be named. Until last week, Liberty’s website instructed employees to report to their supervisors if they experienced symptoms, but otherwise they were expected to be on campus. If they wanted to follow public health guidelines to self-isolate without symptoms, or they had “concerns in regards to COVID-19 and the impact on older relatives or children,” as the website put it, they had to use vacation or sick days to be excused.
On Wednesday, March 25, the website was updated to instruct faculty and staff to make COVID-19 “work-related adjustments” with their supervisors. In practice, however, many staff members still felt wary about approaching their bosses about working from home. “Everybody is worried about what Jerry thinks,” the staff member told me. “That’s a strong motivating factor that trickles down.” The staffer added: “People in supervisory roles wonder: ‘Will he come down on me if I let an employee do X, Y, or Z?’ You don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has continued to advance. The New York Times reported on Monday that a Liberty student who lives off campus had tested positive for COVID-19. That story cited Thomas W. Eppes Jr., a doctor affiliated with Liberty, as saying that nearly a dozen Liberty students had symptoms that suggested possible infections. In a press release, Liberty said Eppes “denies he ever told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students [who] were sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19.” The release blasted the Times story as “sensational click-bait” and “fake news.”
One student I spoke to, Anna Kelchner, had returned to campus from spring break in Fort Lauderdale and was self-isolating in her room of her own volition. She read the New York Times story, and then read the administration’s rebuttal. She had given up trying to figure out which was true. “Just like any other media,” she said, “I don’t know what to believe.”
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