Commentary

My Liberty University Diploma and Me

August 23, 2017

AFP/Getty Images
Jerry Falwell Jr. looks on as President Trump speaks at Liberty U.'s commencement in May.

The first time I heard Jerry Falwell Jr. speak, I was a freshman sitting with thousands of other students in Liberty University’s weekly convocation. Just months after the sudden passing of his father, many of us were eager to help solidify the university’s new leadership and new direction forward.

Where I came from, Liberty University was considered progressive. I couldn’t help being a little excited at the prospect that Liberty’s new leadership could help us remedy some of our university’s previous errors and scandals. As Falwell Jr. addressed us all during that first week of class, it was clear that he lacked his father’s comfort with public speaking. But he had a lovable, goofy quality to him that captivated many of us.

I stayed at Liberty University after receiving my bachelor’s degree, even having the opportunity to teach while I worked toward an M.A. in communication studies. I don’t have as many horror stories as you might think. Sure, Liberty was political. It always had been, and I knew it always would be. But I was always encouraged to think critically and be open to all sides of an issue.

As a graduate teaching assistant, I was given a lot of flexibility on how I approached my courses. My professors were intelligent, kind, and supportive. And despite what you may read, my degrees weren’t a joke. I worked hard for them, and they set me up for success. I went on to receive my Ph.D. at the University of Kansas and am now a faculty member at another good university.

But it hasn’t always been easy to have "Liberty University" on my CV. I was fortunate to have several job prospects when completing my doctorate. Yet at every single on-campus interview, whether over dinner or in the interview itself, I was asked about my experience at Liberty. Sometimes it was posed as an innocent question, but more often it was framed as something that I needed to defend. And I couldn’t help wondering: If I had to defend my credentials at every interview I landed, then what colleges weren’t even giving me a shot once they saw those credentials?

Recently Liberty has made the news again. President Falwell, a vocal Trump supporter, came out in support of the president’s comments on Charlottesville, in which he laid blame on "all sides" for the violence and chaos surrounding the planned removal of a Confederate statue.

As Trump doubled down on this accusation, Falwell doubled down on his support of the president and his comments. That was the final straw for many alumni, who convened on Facebook to discuss their heartfelt — and respectful — disgust. Charlottesville is just down the road from Lynchburg, the wonderful town that is home to Liberty. The life lost and the damage done don’t reflect Central Virginia, and they certainly don’t reflect the voices of all Liberty alumni.

Therein lies the problem. There are many of us who carry Liberty University with us wherever we go. I’ve not tried to hide my Liberty credentials or degrees, partly because that time in my life brought so many great memories. Those memories aren’t political, nor are they controversial. I did grow there as a scholar and as a critical thinker. But this growth isn’t what most see when they look at my degrees. They don’t see an educational institution — they see a political enterprise.

In a recent mass campaign, many alumni have rallied to make it known that President Falwell’s comments do not reflect their own beliefs. In response and protest, many alumni are planning to mail their diplomas back to the university.

I am not one of them. I won’t be sending my diplomas back, because they weren’t something given to me — I earned them. But I can’t help acknowledging the ethical struggle I face as a scholar, teacher, and supporter of diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do I convey my support for students of color when the credentials behind my name might suggest otherwise? How meaningful and sincere are my gestures taken to be, considering that the very credentials that helped build the platform on which I express them are seen as invalidating them?

As Liberty — once again — gains attention, many of us are — once again — forced to be accountable for words that are not our own but still define us. Many of us knew we were signing on with a controversial institution. I accept the responsibility on my end. I wish that President Falwell would do the same — accept responsibility for ill-spoken words and deeds and return to focusing on education, not politics.

As Liberty University gains attention, many of us are forced to be accountable for words that are not our own but still define us.
I don’t regret my time at Liberty University. I found the love of my life, made lifelong friendships and connections, and, perhaps surprisingly, gained my commitment to diversity and inclusion while there. Having to fight as an ideological underdog helped me develop the moral character and integrity I hope to continue to refine as a diversity-minded professor and scholar. Now I am well-versed in how to navigate complex topics and demonstrate an openness and appreciation for all sides.

But racism shouldn’t be addressed from all sides. There’s only one side, and Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of suggestions that there are others disappoints and saddens me as an alumnus. He is free to use his voice to support whatever and whomever he pleases. But I beg him to consider the consequences that his words have for many of us.

Phillip E. Wagner is a faculty member and chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee.