Leadership & Governance

Trump’s Liberty U. Commencement Speech Will Pair Anti-Establishment Brands

May 12, 2017

Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jerry Falwell Jr. (right) appeared onstage with Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses.

On a recent visit to the Oval Office, a question occurred to Jerry L. Falwell Jr.: What would happen if President Trump pushed that big red button?

The president indulged Mr. Falwell’s curiosity, mashing the button on his desk. A moment later, a waiter entered the room, carrying an iced glass of cola on a tray.

"Everybody thinks that’s the nuclear button," Mr. Falwell recalls the president saying. "But that’s how I get my Coca-Cola."

President Trump’s mischievous rapport with Mr. Falwell, the president of Liberty University and namesake of the firebrand preacher who for years mobilized the faithful to elect conservative candidates, attests to a curious political partnership. Days before the Iowa caucuses last year, when few conservatives — much less evangelicals — had publicly supported Mr. Trump’s presidential run, Mr. Falwell formally endorsed the real-estate mogul turned reality-television star.

President Trump's visit to Liberty marks a natural culmination of a relationship forged in the crucible of an ugly campaign.
As president of the largest Christian university in the nation, Mr. Falwell has weathered withering criticism for standing by President Trump, even after he made offensive comments about women and immigrants. The president will reward that loyalty Saturday, when he delivers the keynote address at Liberty’s commencement ceremony.

President Trump’s visit to Liberty marks a natural culmination of a relationship forged in the crucible of an ugly campaign. And the commencement represents the pairing of two anti-establishment brands, both of which are, all the same, reliant on establishment groups to achieve their goals. After years of blasting away at the Beltway elite and the judicial system, President Trump finds his agenda ever-more dependent on the cooperation of Congress and the blessing of the courts. Mr. Falwell has similarly played up Liberty’s outsider status, while positioning the university within mainstream higher-education groups, including the American Council on Education and the NCAA’s elite Football Bowl Subdivision.

Sometimes begrudgingly, Liberty has adopted standards of higher education that it might not particularly like. In 2004, for example, the university extended tenure status to professors in its new law school, a requirement for accreditation with the American Bar Association. Otherwise, however, the university has held firm on its stance against tenure, which Liberty’s leaders view as a threat to a conservative curriculum that requires, among other things, courses in "young earth" creationism.

From time to time, Mr. Falwell acknowledges, even anti-establishment figures must bend to the will of the establishment.

"I understand he has to be pragmatic," Mr. Falwell said of President Trump. "And we have to be pragmatic to accomplish what we want to accomplish for evangelical young people. We’ve never shied away from being pragmatic. There are certain core beliefs and doctrines we will not compromise, but you can go as far as you need to go without compromise."

It was the hope of the Rev. Jerry L. Falwell Sr., Liberty’s founder and Mr. Falwell’s father, that Liberty University would one day become to evangelicals what Notre Dame is to Catholics — a common point of pride that extends beyond alumni. Competing in big-time college football is one step in that direction; having a sitting president in his first term deliver a commencement address is another.

Four of the past six presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter — gave commencement addresses at Notre Dame during their first years in office. But the university broke with tradition this year, announcing that Vice President Mike Pence, not President Trump, would do the honors. Prior to the announcement, thousands of students, alumni, and faculty members had petitioned the university not to invite President Trump, saying he did not share the university’s values.

Mr. Falwell suggested in a recent interview that Liberty may become a natural first stop for newly elected presidents — an unlikely scenario, at least for Democrats.

"It might be a symbolic passing of the torch," he said.

Like President Trump, Liberty is an anomaly. In the realm of private, nonprofit higher education, there is nothing quite like it. The university enrolls about 15,000 students on its residential campus in Lynchburg, Va., and 66,000 more students are enrolled exclusively online, federal data show. No other private, nonprofit college has as many students taking online classes as Liberty.

To put Liberty’s online enrollment numbers into perspective, consider that Purdue University’s recent acquisition of Kaplan University, a for-profit company, could add about 32,000 online students at Purdue — still less than half of what Liberty enrolls.

Liberty’s enviable market position has paid dividends. The university, a darling of credit-ratings agencies, has generated operating surpluses equal to more than 20 percent of its nearly $1-billion revenue, according to its latest public tax filings.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Falwell is highly critical of government regulation. At the same time, Liberty, which is tax exempt, relies heavily on federal tax dollars that are provided to its students in the form of financial aid. In 2015, Liberty students received more than $800 million in federal aid, up from less than $20 million in the late 1990s, a Washington Post analysis found.

Mr. Falwell bristles at the notion that Liberty is unduly propped up by the same federal government that he often describes as meddling.

"The argument is very disingenuous," he said. "Of course it’s a huge amount, simply because we have so many students. It’s a play on the total amount, hoping people will be stupid enough to say Liberty gets more than anybody else. Everybody gets the same per student."

"I’m not against" federal student aid, he added. "I think it’s great that the government helps kids go to college across the country that otherwise couldn’t afford to go."

‘Birtherism’ and Lewd Talk

Mr. Trump is likely to receive a warm reception at Liberty, a conservative institution without a strong culture of protest. But some students have objected to Mr. Falwell’s embrace of the president, and there is concern that President Trump lacks the humility to shift the focus away from himself toward the accomplishments of Liberty’s graduates.

"He’s going to come and advance an agenda, and that agenda is going to be a political agenda and not encouraging graduates," said Jacob R. Broadway, a senior who plans to attend the ceremony.

Mr. Broadway is among a group of students who see President Trump’s style and policies as antithetical to the Christian values Liberty espouses. He was particularly disappointed to see Mr. Falwell continue to support President Trump after The Washington Post last fall released a now-infamous recording of Mr. Trump making lewd comments about women.

"I know many women who refused to vote for President Trump simply because of those tapes," Mr. Broadway said. "They were disappointed in President Falwell. As an evangelical and as the president of our university, we wish he’d taken a stand."

At the height of the controversy, Mr. Falwell fell back on Scripture: We’re all sinners, he said.

The beginnings of the Falwell-Trump alliance can be traced back to 2012, when Mr. Trump first spoke at Liberty’s Convocation, a thrice-weekly event that students are required to attend. By that time, Mr. Trump had publicly flirted with the notion of a presidential run. But his ambition, such as it was, was written off by most people as a publicity stunt.

Still, Mr. Falwell insisted during his introduction, Mr. Trump should be regarded as "one of the most-influential political leaders in the United States." After all, Mr. Falwell told his students, Mr. Trump had "single-handedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate."

Applause ensued.

In the years before, Mr. Trump had publicly questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States, never presenting any evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t until last September, about two months before the election, that then-candidate Mr. Trump affirmed: "President Obama was born in the United States — period."

Throughout their relationship, Mr. Falwell has praised Donald Trump for speaking fearlessly, even when others would say he was speaking falsely. The "birther" issue, Mr. Falwell said, was one such profile in courage.

"He was brave enough to say something that was so politically incorrect," Mr. Falwell said. "I had no idea where Obama was born or if he had a birth certificate; I didn’t have an opinion on that. But just the fact that he was bold enough to challenge Obama on something like that, because you didn’t see the press challenging Obama much. And so that impressed me that he was bold enough to do it."

Pressed on his own beliefs, Mr. Falwell said, "The birth certificate says Hawaii, so I believe it."

“Just the fact that he was bold enough to challenge Obama on something like that, because you didn't see the press challenging Obama much.”
From that first meeting, in 2012, a personal and political relationship was born. For Mr. Falwell, there were drop-ins at Trump Tower, surrogate appearances on conservative talk shows, a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, and even talk of an appointment as secretary of education — a job that Mr. Falwell said he turned down because he could not commit to a years-long appointment away from Liberty.

What this relationship means for national policy is unclear. Mr. Falwell has said that President Trump wants him to lead a higher-education task force aimed at deregulation, but nothing has been formally announced, and a White House spokeswoman said this week that she could provide no updates about it. Nonetheless, Mr. Falwell stands out as a university leader with an uncommon level of direct access to the president of the United States.

The two men do not talk as regularly as they used to, Mr. Falwell said. But Mr. Falwell describes familiar exchanges with the president that bear few of the formal trappings one might expect with a head of state.

During a meeting with President Trump in March, Mr. Falwell suggested that the president might have lost some weight.

"He said, ‘I don’t know. They don’t have any scales in the White House, so I can’t weigh myself,’" Mr. Falwell recalled. "And he said, ‘They only serve two meals a day. I used to snack between meals all day long, but now I can’t do that. I have to go sit down and eat in one room and work in another, so I probably have lost weight.’"

United on Guns

Days before his most-recent appearance at Liberty, in January 2016, Mr. Trump issued a call to arms. As president, he said, he would do away with gun-free zones on college campuses and in schools.

"You know what a gun-free zone is to a sicko? That’s bait," Mr. Trump said. "My first day, it gets signed."

The president, who later softened his position, has signed no such law or executive order.

The candidate’s comments on guns suggested further political alignment with Mr. Falwell, whose advocacy for campus-carry laws sets him apart from most college presidents.

The issue took center stage for both men after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., which were carried out by a married couple who had exchanged private messages about jihad and martyrdom, according to the FBI.

It was in the days after the tragedy, in 2015, that Mr. Falwell would call on his students to arm themselves against terrorists, and that Mr. Trump would make one of the most-controversial pledges of his campaign: a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

The shootings created a nexus between two of the issues that most set Mr. Falwell and President Trump apart from the academic community. The travel ban that the president eventually put forth, which would bar people from six predominantly Muslim countries, has been blocked in federal court and is roundly criticized by higher-education leaders. Similarly, college leaders and professors tend to oppose legislation allowing guns on campuses.

Mr. Falwell finds refreshing Mr. Trump’s challenges to higher education’s old guard, an establishment that Liberty at once defines itself against and relies upon for legitimacy.

“There's millions in contributions that we've received only because I supported Trump publicly -- multimillions just in the last six or eight months.”
Given the chance, Mr. Falwell said, he would not change anything about his role as a surrogate for President Trump, whom he describes as a "dream president" for evangelicals. If anything, the campaign has been a windfall for Liberty, Mr. Falwell said.

"There’s millions in contributions that we’ve received only because I supported Trump publicly — multimillions just in the last six or eight months," he said.

And Mr. Falwell has given something to Mr. Trump that he values, too: flattery. Appearing on Fox News’s Hannity during the Republican primary season, Mr. Falwell complimented several of the candidates in the race. But he reserved special praise for Mr. Trump, who he said "reminds me so much of my father."

Weeks later, speaking at a Liberty convocation, Mr. Trump let everyone know that he was listening. And he liked what he’d heard from his friend.

"I will say this," Mr. Trump said, "When Jerry was telling, you know, nice things about other people, and he was saying this one’s very smart and this one’s good, this one’s good — and Trump reminds me of my father; I said that’s the best compliment of all. That’s much better than any of the other people got. So I was extremely happy about that, I will tell you."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.