Liberty University professor warns 'lives are at stake’ after Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomes students back to school
College campuses all over the United States have been shut down in response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, but in Lynchburg, Virginia, a major exception is Liberty University — a Christian fundamentalist college run by Jerry Falwell Jr., a strident supporter of President Donald Trump and the son of the late Moral Majority leader, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. And some people believe that Falwell, Jr. is putting the lives of students and faculty at risk.
One of them is Marybeth Davis Baggett, who is on Liberty University’s board of trustees and has criticized Falwell for not being aggressive enough when it comes to social distancing.
In an op-ed for Religious News Serve, Baggett asserted, “Many students, faculty and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight. And of course, Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained. Instead, its population comes into regular contact with those in the Lynchburg community, putting their health and lives at risk as well.”
In an interview with The News & Advance, Baggett even said that she is now afraid to set foot on the campus. Baggett, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Richard Chumney, has taken a job with the Houston Baptist University after 17 years with Liberty University and will be starting her new job in the fall.
Baggett, interviewed by The News & Advance, stressed that Falwell is making a huge mistake by reopening the campus following spring break.
“Lives are at stake,” Baggett warned. “I think this decision is a recipe for disaster, and I have been trying to push that as much as I have been able to internally.”
Chumney reports that Liberty University is “preparing to welcome back up to 5000 students from spring break this week.”
Interviewed on March 22, Falwell Jr. told the Times-Dispatch that perhaps more than 5000 students will be living in dorms on the campus. However, they are expected to be studying in online courses rather than in physical classrooms.
Falwell Jr. told the 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.”
Chumney reports that Liberty University has “taken some steps to help slow the spread of the virus”; for example, gatherings in campus buildings are “capped at 10 people in accordance with an order by Gov. Ralph Northam” — and dining halls “are only providing take-out service.” But Chumney also reports that “in contrast with other schools, Liberty’s dorms, academic buildings, library and fitness center remain open to students.”
Like governors in other states, Democrat Northam has been ordering social distancing in his state and ordered businesses he considers non-essential to close — including gyms and hair salons. However, supermarkets and pharmacies, which are typically considered essential under social distancing guidelines, remain open in Virginia.
Falwell told the Times-Dispatch, “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together. Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk, and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
But Baggett vehemently disagrees.
Falwell, according to Baggett, “has repeatedly made clear that he canceled residential classes for legal, not moral, reasons.”
“In fact,” Baggett wrote in her Religious News Service op-ed, “his public comments on the pandemic have manifested bravado, self-congratulation, and callousness in the extreme, as he even this week on the Todd Starnes radio show spewed far-fetched, unsubstantiated and misleading information about the coronavirus outbreak.”
Update Wednesday 3/25, 8:31 AM:
Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday told CNN his school welcomed back between 1,000 and 2,000 students who are using the campus more like an "apartment complex" than a university. Falwell said all classes have been moved online.