RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – As the nation struggles to do more for racial equality, Liberty University – a school the leadership has said has no problem – faces its own tricky questions.
Jerry Falwell Jr., who heads the leading Evangelical Christian university, apologized this month after posting a tweet calling up the blackface scandal that flooded the governor of Virginia last year. But Falwell’s rare display of repentance, which followed a reprimand from nearly three dozen Black Liberty alumni, has failed to convince many African American students, alumni, and staff of his interest in helping the school deliver on its diversity promises.
At least four Black Liberty employees have stepped down since Falwell’s tweet, several high profile Black student athletes have announced transfer plans, and current and former students and employees are more willing to openly criticize the university’s approach to race and diversity. That shift comes as institutions across the country struggle with the stain of racism and internal documents show that the proportion of black students on campus has fallen.
“Knowing what I know, and given how college has been run and is still operating even today, it’s clear that Jerry isn’t even beginning to understand what it means to be really apologetic,” said a layoff, former director of diversity retention LeeQuan McLaurin said.
While the contradiction against Falwell has been simmering since his approval of President Donald Trump in 2016, his opponents were a pronounced yet substandard presence in Lynchburg, where Liberty has a formidable economic footprint. Indeed, McLaurin and other discouraged black alumni have limited power to force change. Falwell was endorsed by the school’s board after his apology in a June 8 issue that touted the school as a home for “students and staff of all races!”
But interviews with more than a dozen current and former students and staff indicate serious doubts that the school’s culture is as welcoming as claimed.
Keyvon Scott, who resigned as an online admissions advisor after Falwell’s tweet, said “if he’s serious, he should make a change, not just post it” on social media.
Falwell’s tweet of May 27, focused on Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam’s mask mandate, included an image of a mask with a photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. That photo appeared on the yearbook page of Northam’s medical school and – when made public last year – caused a furore that almost forced him out of office.
Falwell initially defended the tweet in response to Northam’s proposed cuts to online tuition. In a June 8 video interview about his apology, Falwell said, “When I waved to the governor, I accidentally hit some people who loved me … the Liberty African American community.”
The late evangelist and moral majority leader, Reverend Jerry Falwell, founded Liberty in 1971 with just 154 students. Led by his namesake, who is a lawyer and not a minister, Liberty has grown into a leading evangelical university, with an impeccable campus and a $ 1.6 billion endowment.
The school, which declined to comment on this story, announced this year that it had enrolled over 100,000 students enrolled in its online programs. But Liberty’s race bill is because the proportion of black college students on campus has declined in recent years. Internal documents obtained by AP show that black students make up 13% of Liberty students in 2007 and only 5% last year.
The 35 black alumni who wrote to Falwell criticizing his rhetoric have sought a meeting to discuss further changes. McLaurin proposed the selection of someone with no financial or political ties to Liberty to implement a strategic plan for “diversity, justice, inclusion and access.” An online fundraiser he set up to help Liberty employees and teachers “suffering from racist trauma” raised more than $ 18,000.
Maina Mwaura, a Liberty graduate who helped organize the alumni letter, said Falwell’s initial apology gave him “a little hope” that the school could be more welcoming – hope has since faded.
“I cannot recommend this place to anyone who is a marginalized person. Period, ‘said Mwaura.
Mwaura praised students and former staff members who spoke out, which he says is “a major problem within the evangelical body of Christ because the tentacles of Liberty are so far-reaching.”
At least four student athletes have announced plans to step out of Liberty since Falwell’s tweet.
Basketball player Asia Todd, who is black, shared her decision in a video identifying the school’s ‘racial insensitivity within the leadership and culture’.
Soccer players Tayvion Land and Kei’Trel Clark, who are also black, shared their transfer plans in social media posts with a Black Lives Matter hashtag. Land was one of the school’s top-rated football recruits. Another player, Waylen Cozad, announced his decision without explanation.
Liberty’s provost told local news station WSET that the school had terminated a professor whose behavior contributed to Land and Clark’s transfer decisions.
The athletes are not the only ones disappointed.
“I personally regret having graduated from now on,” said Liberty senior Janea Berkley, a leader of the school’s Black Christian Student Association. “I would never want to give my money to a place that didn’t support me, it felt like my life mattered.”
Thomas Starchia, who resigned as deputy director in the school’s spiritual development office, said Liberty students and staff made good faith efforts to promote diversity, but the president’s tweet was a “tipping point.”
Recognition of Liberty’s difficulties in competing in races is not limited to staffers and alumni of color. New graduate Calum Best said that “there is no serious conversation about it.”
“Many Christians are very happy with hard conversations about things they care about, such as abortion, such as homosexuality,” said Best, who is white. For whatever reason, racism is something they don’t want to talk about. It is a personal heart problem for them, something to pray about. ‘
Husky reported from New York. Associated Press writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.
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