By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
Above is a quote from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., who has kept his university open during this COVID-19 pandemic when all other colleges and universities in the state have closed or moved online. Doing so flies in the face of sense, reason, health, and safety. I would go so far as define it as an act against humanity.
Over 1,900 students returned to campus after spring break, many of whom were in Florida and other places. By allowing them to return, Mr. Falwell has not only put his students at risk, many of whom are reporting illnesses but are confined to the campus, but is putting the town of Lynchburg, Virginia in an uncomfortable situation where students were, until recent closures, frequenting restaurants and other areas.
The New York Times reports that some students want to leave but are not allowed to while there are students who were asked to quarantine, quoting one student: “I’m not allowed to talk to you because I’m an employee here… we need help to go home.”
As reported in Politico yesterday, Mr. Falwell, Jr. is not enjoying the support of the town of Lynchburg.
“Remember when people wanted to tar and feather folks? That’s about the level it’s at in the Lynchburg community right now,” a former longtime Falwell associate told me over the phone. “You have … 16,000 petri dishes he’s inviting back to Lynchburg, who have gone out all over country for spring break—he’s inviting them back into our city, our community, knowing that at some point they’re gonna have to interact with the public.”
The COVID-19 pandemic should not be a political issue. It is a health imperative that could kill as many or more than 200,000 people in the US. This is not a cherry-picked piece of data: it is direct from Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the NIH. Last night President Trump, who as recently as February 28 referred to the virus as a “hoax,” said that if 200,000 deaths occur in the US, it would have “done a good job.” Only a month ago he said this: “We’re 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.”
For his part, Mr. Falwell has led an institution, created by his famous father, into a powerhouse of a Christian higher education organization. And he runs it with an iron hand. Per the New York Times: “Mr. Falwell runs Liberty his own way, and his word is law. Professors are not tenured and can be fired at will. The administration controls the student newspaper.” Falwell, Jr. is a staunch advocate and supporter of extreme right-wing positions and Donald Trump specifically. In the 2016 election, Falwell invited Trump to Liberty University and called for people to support Trump and introduced Trump as “a moral person” who is “like Ronald Reagan on steroids.” Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, suggested that Falwell and his colleagues have provided “religious cover for moral squalor.”
The math suggests that people will die due to Falwell, Jr.’s self-serving decisions. For someone who will earn over $1 million in salary at an institution whose net cost is $28,349, one would think he might consider the plight of his students and the people of Lynchburg rather than his religious and political views. But he apparently is omniscient. While all the scientists and doctors have been imploring isolation and closures, he went the other way in the face of higher education leaders around the country.
What Falwell, Jr. has done is nothing short of atrocious and horrifying. And there should be ramifications for what he has done. Trump supporters like to chant “Lock Her Up” at their campaign events. Maybe their chant should be targeted elsewhere.