Leadership & Governance

3 Things You Should Know About Jerry Falwell Jr.

January 31, 2017

Chris Tyree for The Chronicle
Jerry Falwell Jr. was Donald Trump’s most visible supporter in higher education well before the November presidential election.

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, isn't the most conventional choice to lead a task force on higher-education policy.

But, according to him, that's exactly what he's about to do. Mr. Falwell told The Chronicle on Tuesday that President Trump had asked him to lead such a panel, which would be charged with curbing federal overreach in higher ed.

Mr. Falwell has enjoyed a rapid rise in prominence over the past few years, and especially since November's presidential election. Here are three things you should know about him:

1. He sits at the head of a sprawling Christian university with an enormous online presence.

Liberty University today is something of a juggernaut.

Started by Mr. Falwell's father, the religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell, in 1971, Liberty has ballooned in size over the decades. As of 2015, the university's online program had more than 65,000 students. That expansion has come on the back of a particularly aggressive marketing strategy.

Things weren't always so prosperous for the university. The institution teetered on the brink of financial collapse throughout its early days. And the popular view of Liberty has often focused on its strict code of conduct (students cannot engage in "sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman," among other things). Read more about the code of conduct, which was updated in 2015.

For more, read this 2015 Chronicle profile of the institution.

2. He favors guns on campuses.

Mr. Falwell, a gun enthusiast himself, thinks people should be able to carry concealed firearms on campuses.

Those views have made their way into campus policy. In 2015, Liberty announced that it would begin allowing guns in residence halls. And last year, it announced that it would open an on-campus shooting range.

After the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, in 2015, Mr. Falwell was quoted as saying: "I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed." He later said the phrase "those Muslims" referred specifically to the people who carried out those attacks, not Muslims in general.

For more on Mr. Falwell's views on guns, read this.

3. His support for President Trump was unpopular among many of Liberty's students.

Mr. Falwell was probably President Trump's most visible advocate in academe over the course of the presidential campaign. On multiple occasions, he appeared on television as a surrogate for the then-Republican nominee.

Last October students organized a petition condemning their president's support for Mr. Trump. "President Jerry Falwell Jr. has been a loud endorser, a very public force for the Trump campaign, and it looks to a lot of people like he’s representing Liberty in doing that," one of the student leaders told The Chronicle.

Mr. Falwell found himself wrapped up in another controversy later in the campaign, when he reportedly censored the university's newspaper by removing a column that was critical of Mr. Trump. Mr. Falwell said later that the column was cut because there was already one critical of Mr. Trump running in the same issue.

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.