If anything, the risk of speaking out is even greater for faculty who are similarly unhappy about the school’s association with Trump. At Liberty, there’s no tenure—a practice specifically put into place at other universities to protect professors’ intellectual freedom.
Despite all of this, by and large, Falwell seems extremely popular on Liberty’s campus. Most students call him by his first name, and when he shows up at Convocation, they’ll boom it out in two guttural syllables: JERR-REEEE. “A lot of people love Jerry, very much. … He [is] kind of lovably awkward,” said Sitterding, the student from Virginia Beach. “He injected life into the university—Jerry Sr. had a vision for it, but he was driving it into the ground economically.”
As Falwell has significantly increased his political profile during this election cycle, that love has become more complicated. While Falwell emphasized in an interview that he endorsed Trump as a private citizen, rather than as a representative of the university, many see Liberty and the Falwells as inevitably entwined. This has had a chilling effect on what some people in the Liberty community feel they can say.
A number of students said they’ve cringed at Falwell’s political comments over the past year, like when he said concealed-carry permits would let people “end those Muslims before they walked in” and urged students to get gun licenses. “So much respect was lost at that moment,” said Emmy Brien, a junior from Northern Virginia. “It was just so insensitive and not intelligent. It was like, ‘You’re our president, you’re supposed to represent us. How could you slip like that?’”
A lot of the backlash to Liberty United Against Trump wasn’t actually about Trump—it was about respect for Falwell, Wahl said. Like the faculty, the students, too, have a deep sense of appropriateness. As Rylee Young, a freshman from Pennsylvania, put it, the letter was “disrespectful to our leader, especially when our president said that was his personal view. I think all it did was give the liberal media an avenue to criticize and pit people against Trump, like they do.”
There are theological reasons why Liberty kids would be reluctant to criticize their leader. “Biblically, authority figures are placed over us by Christ,” said Cutler, the senior from New Jersey. “God gives them that authority. The problem is that a lot of people misunderstand respect for agreement.”
At a school like Liberty, which is definitively Christian and publishes a doctrinal statement on its website, it’s fair to expect agreement within the community on a lot of issues. But sometimes, the assumption of consensus can be overwhelming, students said.
“You’ll hear a lot of racist jokes on the hall—not bad ones, but people will make jokes about racial stereotypes,” said Sitterding. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Liberty’s population of African American students is roughly on par with other U.S. campuses—an estimated 11 percent of Liberty students are black, although that figure may be low. But the school is still contending with a difficult racial history. Before he founded Liberty, Falwell Sr. opened Lynchburg Christian Academy. The school briefly served only white students, many of whom did not want to attend racially integrated schools.