Is Liberty University the Protestant Notre Dame? Not even close.
When Liberty University starts to invest its money in a world-class faculty, gives them the time and the opportunity to do world-class research, and develops Ph.D programs taught by those world-class faculty, it might be on the way to this distinction. But I just don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. The doctrinal requirements for those who teach at Liberty are just too narrow. The campus and its administration are just too driven by one political persuasion. Jerry Falwell’s legacy plays well among young conservative evangelicals whose parents were part of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, but it does not play well among all evangelicals. Many evangelical scholars who want to maintain academic respectability in their guilds may shy away from a teaching post at Liberty because of its connection to the Christian Right. Liberty may be growing, and it may have tens of thousands of online students, but world class universities are not measured in terms of numbers.
Chris Gerhz, aka The Pietist Schoolman, has addressed this question in a much more thoughtful way than I have done above. Here is a taste of his post “Is Liberty University “The Protestant Notre Dame?“
In a 2013 story in the Washington Post, Falwell, Jr. affirmed his goal was “To create for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons.”
Now, a key difference here is that Notre Dame (and Brigham Young) are highly regarded as national universities with strong academics, while Liberty struggles to break out of the pack among “Regional Universities (South)” in the U.S. News survey. (It’s #80 this year. For the record, Notre Dame is tied for 16th among National Universities, while BYU is #62 in that category.) One of the most common complaints about Liberty is its high attrition rate, and not just among online students. From the 2013 Post story:
Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.
Indeed, there may be something to Falwell, Jr.’s claim that an admissions policy emphasizing “opportunity over exclusivity” can and should “redefine what is considered an academically prestigious university in the future.” (It’s increasingly nauseating to find Ivy League schools like my graduate alma mater trumpeting their single-digit undergraduate acceptance rates…)
But even if he can overtake some fellow Baptists in Texas for the “Protestant Notre Dame” title — and Baylor leaders have been using that line since the Baylor 2012 strategic plan was announced in 2002…
…even if it could be detached from the partisan political commitments of a school that required students to attend a Tea Party senator’s announcement of his presidential candidacy but disinvited a moderate Baptist because it was “just uncomfortable with some of the things” he’d written…