Liberty University needs a new Board, not just a new President.
Despite appearances, this is NOT a post about the allegations of what Jerry Falwell did to witness and participate in a sordid affair between his wife and a former pool boy.
Instead, this is a post about what the Liberty board of trustees did for years in the face of Falwell’s other disqualifying actions.
Because those actions (Jerry’s and the board’s) are actually much the same.
The board at Liberty (or at least some members) did exactly what Jerry Jr. is now accused of doing: They sat and watched—for years—from the corner of the room, and they participated in sinful and degrading behavior by their acquiescent presence.
The Liberty board has long had a front row seat to Falwell’s racist comments, rude behavior, shameful tweets, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, late night clubbing, and shady business dealings–long before the latest bombshell.
The board watched for years as the reputations of Christ and their university were ravaged many times before this week. And while some board members surely had misgivings, the board as a whole did nothing definitive to stop it.
So their sin is not unlike Falwell’s; it’s just less titillating.
For that reason, it’s not just Falwell that should go.
A NEW BOARD, NOT JUST A NEW PRESIDENT
As a professor in Christian higher education, I realize the relationship between a board and a university can be complicated. It is not the job of the trustees to micromanage an institution. And no single board member can oust a president—especially one as powerful and nepotisticly-connected as Jerry Falwell Jr.
Still, at what point during years of bad behavior should the Liberty board have stepped in?
At what point should the board have gotten out of their collective “corner” to stop a pattern that was happening in public long before Jerry posed and posted a photo with his pants unzipped?
Perhaps some tried. I know for a fact there are excellent people at Liberty University, especially amongst the faculty, staff, and students. Unfortunately, those people have had no power to change the university’s president. That authority resides only with the board.
WHEN WATCHING IS PARTICIPATING
This point brings up a broader problem that is relevant for all of us. It has to do with how sin, power, and the idol of “proximity” often collude in broken institutions.
Humans crave influence. And we tend to see that influence as magnified by our proximity to power. So when Christian leaders show themselves to be corrupt and un-Christlike, those called to hold them accountable face a difficult choice.
If they speak up, they could lose “proximity” and “influence.” Hence, the easy path is to rationalize one’s silent “watching” as if that does not make one part of the whole sordid affair.
That’s why a new president won’t fix Liberty. Only God can do that–and that same God can even redeem the Falwells. No one is beyond hope.
But for Liberty University, a crucial further step is this: Every board member that did not speak up against Falwell’s other disqualifying actions should also be replaced. And their replacements should come from the ranks of those who were brave enough to speak truth to power long before this week.
If Falwell’s latest scandal teaches anything, it’s that silently watching from the corner can itself be a form of complicit participation.
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