An Impressive Visit To Liberty U

Former POW Jerry Coffee speaks recently at Liberty University’s Vines Center. Susan Page photo

Former POW Jerry Coffee speaks recently at Liberty University’s Vines Center. Susan Page photo

I knew little about Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., except that it was founded by the late, sometimes controversial evangelical pastor Dr. Jerry Falwell. I was curious to see what Liberty was about on this trip with my husband, Jerry Coffee, who was to speak at one of its weekly convocations. This was one dedicated to honoring active-duty American military servicemen and women.

We arrived on campus and immediately were delivered to Vines Center, a Stan Sherriff Center-sized multi-event arena. Our 5-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Emma, who lives in Virginia, and I were led through a tunnel onto the floor of the impressive, state-of-the-art sports arena and into our seats.

A who’s who list of high-profile, mostly conservative speakers from all walks of life speak here regularly, including sports figures, entertainers, presidents and presidential candidates, Christian pastors and newsmakers. A few of their diverse speakers are Kauai’s “Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton; Justin Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette; Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson, legendary Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden; hip-hop artist Lecrae; and internationally renowned pastor Rick Warren. More than 10,000 students, faculty and guests attend these campus convocations three times a week.

The place was packed. OK, yes, it is mandatory for the students.

At first Jerry seemed a tiny figure behind the lectern until Emma looked up and saw “Bapa” on the four-screen jumbotron. I often wish we adults could once again see things through the eyes of a 5-year-old. Such sheer wonderment, such unbridled amazement. Later, when asked, she did say her favorite part of Bapa’s talk was “when he introduced me and Mimi.”

Nonetheless, Jerry’s message of faith in self, fellow man, country and God as his keys to surviving seven years as a Vietnam War POW resonated with this audience enough for a sustained standing ovation, which also impressed Emma.

Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. started out as a Lynchburg Baptist pastor and in 1971 founded what was then a small, nonprofit Baptist college funded by private donations, mostly from church members. It later changed to Liberty University when it received university status accreditation. Televangelist Falwell was one of the founders of the “Moral Majority” in early 1980 and was a popular spokesperson for the religious right wing of the Republican Party. Falwell was outspoken and unyielding when it came to issues such as abortion, feminism, homosexuality, restoring school prayer and later what he believed was the reason for the 9-11 attacks.

In 2007, he died at his executive office desk and Liberty’s leadership role was assumed by Jerry Falwell Jr. Under his watch, Liberty has grown to more than 12,500 campus students and 95,000 online enrollees, making it the largest university in Virginia.

In a Sept. 23, 2013, article in The Washington Post, “Jerry Falwell’s Legacy: A Thriving Liberty University,” Mary Beth Marklein writes, “Most private nonprofit colleges have remained cautious with their budgets amid lingering economic uncertainty, but Liberty University is in the midst of a $400 million, four-year spending spree. Its endowment this year topped $1 billion. And its business strategy, including competitive tuition and attention to customer service, is earning praise from financial analysts.” It’s been given Moody’s highest credit rating.

What I saw last week was impressive. I saw (and talked to) ethnically mixed students (met some from Hawaii) who were polite and enthusiastic, a burgeoning campus evidenced by construction leading to a soon-to-open Osteopathic Medical School and a ultra-modern library, which uses robots to retrieve books, a successful sports program and, yes, a strong Christian mission and ministry emphasis.

After all, it is a Christian university. There are no hidden expectations regarding lifestyle, spiritual growth and evangelism. I like the fact that you know what your child is getting in the classroom. Many parents today are horrified at the anti-American teachings at major Christian-founded universities.

Liberty hires most of its professors on contract, which means fewer tenured types who feel safe to espouse their own often-radical political views.

Little Emma’s too young to be thinking about college now, but she knows what she wants to be when she grows up: a singer. Given the amazing Liberty choral group that sang the national anthem at the convocation, it’s worth checking out. Who knows what it will tout in 2026?