(RNS) — In the wake of reports alleging objectionable rhetoric and conduct by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., about 200 students at the evangelical Christian school gathered at a protest on campus Friday (Sept. 13), with student organizers estimating that about 60 of the demonstrators were there to demand an investigation of the president and his administration.
“We are not calling for Falwell to resign right now,” said Elizabeth Brooks yesterday evening (Sept. 12), a sophomore at the school and the main organizer of the student protest. But in a mission statement Brooks wrote, she stated that the official position of the demonstration is to “bring to light the truth of these allegations of various misconduct.”
Brooks did not elaborate on the allegations, only stating that the protest comes in response to an article by Brandon Ambrosino that appeared in Politico this week that quotes current and former members of Falwell’s “inner circle” describing Liberty as a “dictatorship” and more of a “real estate hedge fund” than a university.
The article portrayed Falwell bragging about his sex life with employees, attending a nightclub and later denying it, claiming photos of him at the club were altered. He is also accused in the article of dealing university contracts to friends and family.
Some of the allegations had been reported in other outlets over the past few months, but after the most recent revelations, described as based on emails and interviews with Falwell aides and employees, Brooks and her fellow student Ian Parish, who is assisting with the protest’s efforts, said they have seen a shift in the student body against Falwell that hasn’t been seen in the school’s recent history.
“The mood is changing from ‘We wish Jerry would keep quiet’ to ‘We wish we had better representation for our school,’” Parish said before the protest. “Jerry doesn’t have our best interests at heart. He doesn’t share Liberty’s mission statement to train champions for Christ.”
Falwell and Liberty University declined to respond to requests for comments about the protest. Afterward, Falwell tweeted congratulating the students for their conduct. “The ones who had concerns and the ones who supported me were both respectful and not angry — very Christ-like — in their behavior.”
Brooks said that she met with student members of the Student Government Association to talk about her plan Thursday morning. In prior protests students have planned on campus, the SGA has pressured protesting students to cancel demonstrations in favor of remedial solutions.
But in this instance, Brooks said, “SGA declined to give us public support, but they were very receptive to what we were saying, asking, ‘What can we do to listen to you better, to help you get this (request to protest) through?’ They were definitely receptive to our mission.”
Current students and alumni also voiced support on social media after the protest was announced. “LU students, we cannot stand for this anymore,” wrote current Liberty student Rachel Mayer on Twitter on Thursday. Eric McGowan, who called himself “another proud alumni,” cautioned, “Watch out for LUPD (Liberty University Police Department). They have been used by admin to … harass past efforts similar to this led by me and my friends.”
Brooks and Parish, whom Falwell has blocked on Twitter for his repeated criticism, had said that they anticipated a turnout of no more than two dozen students.
Brooks doesn’t expect the protest to result in an immediate investigation into Falwell’s conduct. Rather, she and Parish said they believe it is important to inform Liberty administrators where students stand. They hope to provoke a public apology from Falwell concerning degrading emails he reportedly sent about a Liberty student and faculty members in years past, according to a Reuters article this week.
In one email, according to the article, Falwell called a student “retarded” and in another called Liberty’s current police chief, Richard Hinkley, a “half-wit.”
“It’s sickening to see your university president saying these things and not facing any repercussions,” Brooks said about the emails.
Brooks, who said Falwell should not resign before an investigation into his behavior is carried out, said she believes Falwell’s father and the founder of Liberty, the late Jerry Falwell Sr., was a “great man,” but that Falwell Jr. is “mismanaging the university.”
Brooks said that Liberty’s senior vice president for spiritual affairs, David Nasser, announced that the Politico article will be addressed in convocation — Liberty’s thrice-weekly gathering of students — on Wednesday.
On Thursday afternoon, Liberty also released a statement responding to the article, which included “Omitted statements of Liberty University regarding business transactions recently questioned in media.”
The “omitted information” includes 19 pages of purportedly unredacted transcripts of interviews of Falwell with Ambrosino and other journalists, along with an email from Liberty Chief Operating Officer Randy Smith, which Liberty claimed journalists “refused to print.”
Liberty University’s official Twitter page, which shared the release, also tweeted: “The truth about Liberty that the press refused to print in recent articles, is now published here: #FakeNews.”
Brooks said she had not received any pushback from Falwell, the administration or the campus police officials regarding the protest; she said she was told by Liberty University’s Student Activities that she did not need a permit to stage the protest on campus, despite the administration’s history of shutting down student actions for lacking a permit from the Liberty University Police Department.
Brooks and Parish say this protest feels different from those before, though. “I’m really hoping for students to see that it’s OK to stand up,” Brooks said. “There needs to be a change on Liberty’s campus.”
(Will Young is a Liberty University graduate. In 2017-2018, he was editor-in-chief of the Champion, the school’s newspaper, which often experienced criticism from the administration about its coverage. He was the last student editor before the administration took control of the publication.)