Inside Higher Ed reports that Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s school in the hills of Lynchburg, Virginia, is ready to open its four million dollar Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. (I am not sure why Liberty opted for the British “centre” over the American “center.” Perhaps it is because the facility is modeled after a similar one in Scotland. Shame on Liberty for using an un-American spelling. What would Jerry–that great Christian patriot– think about this?). 🙂
The Snowflex Centre appears to be state of the art. Its slopes will be covered with snowflex–a synthetic snow that can be used year-round. (This explains the August opening of the facility). There are no other snowflex skiing centers in the United States. The Discovery Channel has been covering the construction of the Centre.
Liberty’s goal, of course, is to attract new students–in this case Christian snowboarders–to the campus. As one administrator put it: “…college is not just about sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor….”
It is easy to criticize the way Liberty University chooses to spend its money. Why not use the four million dollars for student scholarships or the recruitment of new faculty? When I visited Liberty last Spring I perceived a definite need for more faculty, more development opportunities for existing faculty, and a lower student-teacher ratio. I am sure that these issues are important to Liberty, but I want to ask someone there if they are as important as the construction of a new ski centre.
Here’s a theory: Perhaps Liberty’s rather rigid doctrinal requirements for faculty might contribute to a campus ethos that gives student-oriented “bells and whistles” priority over important things like faculty development and recruitment. To put it bluntly, there are very few Christian academics and intellectuals, especially in the humanities and social sciences, who could sign Liberty’s doctrinal statement. Jerry Falwell once said that he wanted Liberty to be a kind of evangelical Notre Dame. Well, places like Notre Dame (and even Baylor–a school that also has high aspirations of being a first-rate research university) use a lot of its resources to recruit first-rate scholars. Unfortunately for Liberty, the pool of potential scholars available to them is limited by the restrictive theological demands that the university places on its faculty. Perhaps I am wrong about this. If so, I hope someone will chime in and correct me. (I am sure that Liberty does have some very good scholars–perhaps in their their law school or other professional programs. During my visit, I also met some pretty good historians who, at least from my impression, could really use a lighter teaching load, a system of tenure [there is none in place at the moment], and more incentive [$] to produce scholarship).
In the end, Liberty’s tradition of building elaborate ski centres, paintball fields, and motocross tracks has surely attracted students to Lynchburg. Liberty probably has some of the coolest extracurricular venues in the country. It has indeed, as the Inside Higher Ed article notes, become “something between a summer camp and a theme park.” The university can also brag about its large and growing student body, as if this is a sign that it’s a major player in American academic life. Yet I wonder–what if all the money spent on extracurricular activities were used to cultivate what Mark Noll has called an “evangelical mind?” How a school spends its money obviously tells us a great deal about its priorities.
But before we spend too much time criticizing Liberty for trying to attract Christian snowboarders, I wonder how many other colleges–Christian or otherwise–would die for the resources to be able to build a similar snowflex venue. All of our institutions–whether it be Messiah College or Penn State–are not beyond treating students as consumers by trying to provide them with the kinds of (non-academic) goods that will secure parent’s tuition money. It is unfortunate, but this what higher education in the United States has become. Liberty is no different than the rest of us. They just seem to do it a whole lot better.