Government

A Task Force With Falwell Is Happening, White House Says

June 11, 2017

Jerry L. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, will be part of a White House task force, an official from the White House told The Chronicle on Sunday.

Liberty U.
Jerry L. Falwell Jr., president of Liberty U., said he has been in contact with the White House recently about the make-up of the panel.
The news is the first official comment from the White House on the topic since Mr. Falwell told The Chronicle in January that President Trump and others in his inner circle had asked him to head up a task force on reforming regulations related to higher education.

Even so, information on the task force’s role, membership, purview, and timing is still scant.

"We are working on a task force that Jerry Falwell will be involved with," was all the official would say on the topic for now. He is someone who was authorized by the White House to speak on the subject but not be named.

Until now, Mr. Falwell had been the only person publicly saying that he was to be part of a White House task force — a circumstance that has prompted months of speculation and anxiety about the purpose of the task force, how it might fit with other deregulatory efforts announced by the Trump administration, and, frankly, whether it would materialize at all.

The official’s statement is in line with information that Mr. Falwell shared with The Chronicle last Thursday and Friday. He said that during the past week the White House had called him and "asked me to be one of 15 college presidents to work on the task force."

"They wanted to go over the list with me," Mr. Falwell said.

A representative for Mr. Falwell said that during the Liberty president’s conversations with White House officials, Mr. Falwell was told that his point of contact would be Joshua H. Raffel, who was recently hired by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Mr. Raffel’s duties include handling communications for the Trump administration’s new Office of American Innovation. (Last week Mr. Falwell told The Chronicle that Mr. Raffel was one of the White House officials with whom he had already spoken. But on Monday, Mr. Falwell’s representative said that he had been mistaken, and corrected that account. Mr. Falwell’s calls with the White House had actually involved other officials.)

Mr. Falwell said he and others at Liberty have also been developing position papers on various higher-education topics which he has shared with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education. At the White House, he said, he’s been sending the papers to Andrew Bremberg, who is an assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, a White House agency that has under prior administrations exerted considerable influence on higher-education policy.

The Education Department is pursuing its own review of regulations, in response to an executive order that President Trump issued in February. Members of Congress, and others, have questioned whether the department’s review would involve Mr. Falwell. A letter from a top official at the department sent to Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and provided to The Chronicle and other news outlets seems to suggest that Mr. Falwell is not involved in that effort. The letter says: "Within the department, the requirements of the executive order will be carried out through a collaborative effort by both political and career staff."

On Thursday, based on that letter and what its reporters said were "multiple sources," Politico Pro wrote a story that sought to debunk the existence of a Falwell task force. The article was only available to subscribers of Politico Pro, but a reporter’s tweet about the story drew the attention of the Twitterverse — and its assertion that the Falwell task force "isn’t happening after all" was repeated by other news outlets.

But a few hours after publishing its initial article, Politico published a second story that included comments from Mr. Falwell about his expectations for being involved in the 15-member task force.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

Clarification (6/12/2017, 1:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that Mr. Falwell said he already had spoken with Mr. Raffel, a White House official. After publication, a representative for Mr. Falwell corrected the Liberty president’s account, and said that Mr. Falwell’s calls with the White House had actually involved other officials. The article has been updated to clarify the nature of Mr. Falwell’s interactions with Mr. Raffel and those officials.