Liberty University's decision to close its philosophy department didn't make big headlines in May, at least not when compared with its coronavirus policies and the latest comments from University President Jerry Falwell Jr..
After all, liberal arts programs were shrinking while Liberty's online education programs prospered, along with job-friendly undergraduate degrees. Christian colleges everywhere are wrestling with similar concerns.
But the philosophy department was symbolic because it once was crucial to "what made Liberty unique" -- an emphasis on blending faith with core academic disciplines, said Karen Swallow Prior, who taught there for 20 years. This summer, she moved to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., to teach English literature, as well as Christianity and culture.
"That department was top-notch and produced students who went straight to the Ivy League and had great success," she said. "Philosophy was larger when I first got there, and it was clear this discipline was seen as part of Liberty's mission. Then things started changing."
Now, Liberty leaders are wrestling with the undeniable impact Falwell Jr. had as president after the 2007 death of his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Facing years of red ink, the founder's heir soon pushed for $500 million in campus updates and expansions, along with profitable online programs. The university now has 15,000 on-campus students and roughly 100,000 online. Liberty claims an endowment of $1.6 billion.
At the same time, Falwell Jr. developed a swashbuckling style that caused heat, especially when linked to race, guns, jets, politics, yachts and his specialty -- real estate. Controversies about his de facto partnership with President Donald Trump thrilled many Liberty donors, alumni, parents and students, while deeply troubling others.
Many Christian college presidents are super-pastors who provide ties that bind to denominations, churches and networks of believers. Falwell Jr. -- a lawyer -- turned into a dynamic entrepreneur who courted powerful conservative politicos.
On regular Christian campuses, there "are higher expectations for presidents than members of the faculty, and members of the faculty live with greater expectations than students," noted religious-liberty activist David French, writing at The Dispatch. "Liberty flipped this script. The president lived life with greater freedom than his students or his faculty. The message sent was distinctly unbiblical -- that some Christian leaders can discard integrity provided their other qualifications, from family name to fundraising prowess, provided sufficient additional benefit."
All of this led to a soap-opera collapse after risque flashes of social media. The big news: confessions of an affair between Falwell's wife Becki and young Giancarlo "pool boy" Granda of Miami Beach, Fla., an estranged business partner. Granda has claimed Falwell Jr. knew what was happening and approved.
During this semester's first online convocation at Liberty, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell -- senior pastor of nearby Thomas Road Baptist Church -- avoided chatter about his brother's personal life. However, his lengthy sermon warned students not to compromise on matters of faith, especially yielding to temptations that create "impurity" in their lives and careers.
It's easy to stray while striving to "build ourselves up," while others "think that we're awesome and put us on a pedestal," said Jonathan Falwell. "Today we see, so often in the church, impure motives. We see the wrong motives that are so prevalent in our culture. ...
"So many times, we see Christians that are more focused on, and more passionate about, building their own brand than they are about building the kingdom of God. They're more focused on how they can elevate their name, rather than elevate the name that is above every name."
Liberty trustees on Monday announced there would be an independent investigation into allegations about the presidency of Falwell Jr. The board also pledged to hire a "spiritual coach, mentor and guide" for the new administration, while seeking a new president and leaders who "demonstrate a full commitment to the spiritual mission of Liberty University by words, actions and example."
While watching and waiting, said Prior, Liberty supporters should pay close attention to one symbolic slot on the campus calendar.
In recent years, "so many of Liberty's convocations have turned into events focusing on business and politics and power," she said. "I hope that we start seeing a return to actual worship services focusing on spiritual matters and Christian discipleship. That would be a sign of healing."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.