Liberty University English Professor: “Please Stop Jerry Falwell Jr. Before It’s Too Late!”

Liberty U

If you are looking for dissenters on the campus of Liberty University, the English Department might be a good place to start. Earlier this year, the department’s most public figure, Karen Swallow Prior, announced that she is leaving Liberty University, citing, among other things, “new regulations and policies that make me less freer to practice [her] art.”

Now Marybeth Baggett, Associate Professor of English, is demanding that Falwell Jr. close the campus to protect students and employees from the coronavirus.

Last week, some of you may recall, Falwell Jr. moved nearly all Liberty instruction online, but he gave students the option of returning to campus after Spring Break ends today.

Baggett has turned to Religion News Service to make her case. A taste:

I have no animus toward Jerry Falwell Jr. He simply should not have a monopoly on this decision. I think he is dangerously wrong here and seems unable or unwilling to recognize it. For that reason, the decision must be taken out of his hands. I speak up for his benefit as well, since his current plan is courting a disaster for which he would be primarily to blame.

Yes, Liberty’s students are mostly young, at low risk for serious complications from the virus. But the administration’s decision to remain in regular operation affects many more than simply the young and healthy among us.

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.

It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg.

I have heard from many at the university who have health issues or loved ones with health issues and are distressed about the leadership’s insensitivity and profligacy with impunity. These folks can speak up only on pain of risking their careers.

This leaves me wondering what university leadership has to gain in leveraging people’s livelihoods against their speaking the truth. I simply cannot square this oppression of reasonable dissent with the biblical dicta the university professes.

I am deeply grieved that Jerry Falwell Jr’s control of Liberty University is so complete that not one person in leadership is speaking up as the loyal opposition on behalf of the vulnerable that Falwell’s impudent and imprudent decisions have put at risk, both at Liberty and in Lynchburg.

The leadership’s willingness to enable Falwell’s self-professed politically motivated decision bespeaks a spirit of fear, or worse, that shames the mission they ostensibly pursue. I beg the deans, senior leadership, and board members to think more long-term. They are compelled by what is genuinely best for the university to act, to say nothing of their altruistic obligations as Christians.

These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.

Read the entire piece here.

Yesterday on Facebook, Baggett urged other members of the Liberty University community, including faculty, to speak-up.  A taste of her post:

…Yet many Liberty faculty and staff hold back from expressing their concern publicly for fear of repercussions. And so the real and valid concerns folks have about the situation are suppressed. For that reason, I am posting this thread to solicit private messages which I will post here anonymously as comments.

Those in the Liberty or Lynchburg community who will be affected by the administration’s decisions to keep the campus open, please send those to me. I will hold your name in confidence, but will share your comment here.

My sense is that there are many who would like to speak up; I hope this will provide them an opportunity to have their voice heard.

On Twitter, Baggett asked for help in amplifying her message.  In that spirit, here are some of the Facebook responses she has received:

FB message: I am actually at more risk than most to contract the illness, because of the nature of my work. My employer *can’t* close, and half my work time is spent in a room shared by entire project team that includes several consultants who fly home and back on weekends. They’re very high-risk transfer vectors, which means I’m very likely to get exposed, and from there, my wife is *also* likely to be exposed. My wife works for Liberty in her own project team for a job that could easily be done remotely, and many of the people she works with are professors who are old enough to be severely compromised by the virus. LU doesn’t seem all that concerned about the effect they’d have by transferring viruses outward, so they might benefit from knowing how vulnerable they are to viral transfers inward to their own ranks.

FB message: I think it is safe to say that the culture of fear is alive and well at LU, which may be why there has been a silence from the faculty and staff. I am a current employee and worked in various departments within LU for almost a decade now. My current role is work-from-home so I am grateful for that. However, my heart hurts and is so concerned for my friends and co-workers who are on-campus. I work with seasoned employees who are (at least in this pandemic), considered elderly or higher risk. Many more staff/faculty members take care of and even live with their elderly parents/grandparents. Those who are mothers/fathers of small children are a concern as a well. This is about safety. It is not like deciding a cancellation due to weather, but we are playing with the lives of others and risking further spread of the virus. This is scary to me that staff and faculty safety have seldom been regarded as being a priority. I have a young child as well and my parents and husband are considered high risk, so why endanger the people of Lynchburg in general (and surrounding areas) by ignoring the suggestions from the government, CDC? This is completely irresponsible and faculty/staff keep the school running. They should be a priority and feel valued, not just the students. It is shameful and those in leadership need to be willing to hear the praise AND concerns from their employees without instilling fear in the hearts of the staff for having an opinion. In this case, an opinion to close, which will save lives!

Personal message: What is most frustrating to me is the seeming lack of care for the Lynchburg community. I have seen of my local, non-Liberty friends and businesses in the past several weeks doing good work help mitigate the spread of the virus. Liberty, by contrast, is having its employees to return to work and keeping campus open. If it’s Christian, it ought to be better, right? At this point, if an outbreak happens in Lynchburg, Liberty will be if not totally at fault at least a large contributing factor. Creating a situation where students are given permission to return to campus en masse is irresponsible and unethical and does nothing to care for the least of these in our campus community and in our City.

FB Message: There’s simply no reason for faculty and staff to come to campus if we can do exactly what we need to do under these straitened circumstances via Microsoft Teams video conferencing with students. I find it completely unacceptable that we’re being asked to make the impossible choice between following the orders of the administration for the sake of our jobs and personal/family health. I’ve always loved the classroom environment, but I’m dreading having to go back Monday. Wakes me up at night with panic.

FB Message: Where is the School of Divinity in all this? Thought they were supposed to be the rudder? Those days seem to be over.  [JF: This link might provide an answer to this question].

FB message: I think allowing the person who runs the university to make such a selfish and dangerous decision is partially on the faculty. What if none of the faculty showed up on Monday but still taught their online classes and did everything else they were supposed to do? What are they going to do? They can’t fire everyone. The university can’t run without faculty. Now is the time to unify and take a stand if ever there was one. A stand that will not cause harm to the university but will show they care about the community, even if their president does not.

FB message: Liberty has always been vocally pro-life, until now. Putting faculty, staff, and students needlessly at risk is just the opposite, not to mention the physically vulnerable like the aged and sick. Falwell literally laughed at the reckless disregard of life found in young people without calling them to account and trying to inspire them to think about more than themselves. But perhaps it would be hard for him to teach such a thing when he lacks any such vision himself.

FB message: I’ve got an asthma sufferer in my home, but I haven’t asked to stay home yet. I’m working up the courage because we are supposed to reach out individually to request exemption, which means that I have to stick my neck out and maybe pop up on the administrative radar. When contracts are up for renewal, I don’t want to people to think “well, so and so didn’t want to come in.” And then, what if my course evaluations take a dip because of all of this? It’s frustrating that as faculty we are asked to be (and I’m happy to be) understanding, compassionate, extend grace and the benefit of the doubt, etc. —especially at this time—and yet we are not given the same treatment, in addition to the constant checks for compliance for things we didn’t completely understand, while migrating course content online, and training in a new technology… all of which culminated in a handful of administrators being added into faculty LMS to monitor all communication to students, also for compliance, which comes off less as “we’re going to make sure we support you so we can get through this the best we can” and more like “we’re gonna make sure you do this, now.”

FB message: The decisions the institution is making about staff and faculty are incredibly stupid. My particular job can easily transfer to work from home (as shown every time there is a snow day) and yet when I didn’t feel comfortable going in to work yesterday because I was running a low grade fever (though I felt fine in general) I was told I would have to take paid time off because current policy isn’t allowing us to work from home. My entire office has spoken about how utterly incompetent Liberty’s response has been during this time but there’s no avenue to express these complaints. I’ve never seen morale as low as this and it could so easily be fixed by just having us work from home. I’m desperately tired of working for a University that clearly cares so little about their staff and faculty.

FB message: It is positively terrifying to think about pushing back against the administration on this, as they are watching us and could punish us and our families (if we lose our job and our income, it hurts our families too) for expressing even cautious dissent. And yet, having that many people come to work (when we can do the same work at home) is potentially dangerous. The fact that students are required to move their stuff out of the dorms within a few days is also dangerous. I don’t understand why we are being asked to do this, and it is hard to know where to draw the line. I woke up last night and had to pray through anxiety on this. God, help them change their hearts.

FB message: In the 12 years that have passed since my husband and I graduated LU, we’ve been ashamed to say we’re Alum- but never as much as we are now. We need reasoning behind the decision to bring students back. We need to know how this isn’t a risk to students, faculty and the people of Lynchburg. We need to know WHY in the middle of a pandemic, Liberty University believes their dorms should be full and their faculty should put their own families at risk. The answers to these questions need to be based in statistics and science. Jerry Jr: are you using Liberty and Lynchburg as an experiment? What are you thinking?

FB message: It is time for the board of Liberty University to ask for Jerry Falwell Jrs. resignation. His latest actions, as well as, several of his actions over the past three years have not be in line with with the mission of the university or indicative Christian faithfulness. The time is now to take a stand and not allow him to do more damage to the community, Liberty, and the name of Jesus.

FB message: I’m finding it difficult to articulate the frustration and helplessness that I am feeling as a Liberty employee who is still expected to report to work. My role at the university is one in which I am constantly in contact with students, staff, and faculty members of all ages. The projected number of students returning to campus is sobering. At this point it feels as though transmission from returning students to “essential” university staff and faculty members is unavoidable. This whole situation is emotionally draining. I am being told that I should be thankful that we are remaining open because so many others have lost their jobs during this time. However, I cannot simply rejoice because our continued operations mean putting our entire community at risk.

FB message: As someone who falls squarely in the at-risk category for serious and potentially deadly health consequences should I contract the COVID-19 virus, I’m fearful of going into work on Monday with the thousands of faculty, staff and students who will be on campus. I’m also fearful, however, of not having my one-year contract renewed if I make the choice to work from home. I keep praying that the governor will issue a stay-at-home order like the governors of some other states are doing.

Liberty University is a very unhealthy place. Now it appears Jerry Falwell Jr. and his leadership team might expose the campus to the coronavirus.

ADDENDUM (Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 7:24pm) : It has come to my attention that Baggett has less to risk than most Liberty faculty members. According to a March 3, 2020 post on her Facebook page, she has accepted a new job teaching English and “literary apologetics”  at Houston Baptist University.