In a series of tweets two days later, Falwell defended his stance, saying he didn’t want to send students home to parents or grandparents more susceptible to COVID-19. One man on Twitter questioned the move and said he is the father of three Liberty students. Falwell tweeted back at him and called him a dummy.
But then Northam announced a new order limiting public gatherings to fewer than 100 people. With that—and after more than 9,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Liberty to cancel in-person classes—Liberty announced it would transition nearly all academic programs online, except for aviation classes and labs. A cascade of operational decisions slowly brought Liberty in line with what other colleges and universities were doing. But some differed from common practices of other institutions.
Most other colleges and universities immediately limited who could come to campus after transitioning to online-only education. Covenant College in Georgia, Dordt University in Iowa, Cedarville University in Ohio, and many other schools closed dorms. Students who had nowhere else to go safely had to get special permission to be on those campuses.
Not so at Liberty. Falwell allowed any student who wanted to come back to campus to do so—at a time when public health officials encouraged “flattening the curve” with social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders. Liberty sent an email to students on March 17 “encouraging you to consider staying home” but three days later sent students another email, walking back some of its language: “It was not an endorsement or recommendation of that particular course of action. Liberty University’s position is that all residential students are welcome to either stay in place or return to campus” with safety measures in place.
In a message for students he recorded before Liberty moved classes online, Falwell again questioned whether the pandemic was really a political hit on Trump: “It’s always an election year” when pandemics hit, he said. He referred to it as the flu several times, then deflected concern about its seriousness: “We’re all mortal. We’re all dying from the day we’re born.”
On March 18, Falwell told radio host Todd Starnes: “It’s just fortunate this flu doesn’t have a high mortality rate for young people, because they’re the ones that are not worried about it. I’m not worried about it.” Later in the interview, he said: “That’s what I’m afraid of: We’re going to have 18 new agencies in the federal government to deal with disease from here on out. That would be the worst tragedy.”
More controversy arose when English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote a March 22 op-ed for Religion News Service asking Liberty’s board of trustees to stop Falwell and the administration from giving all students the option to return to campus, and forcing faculty to hold in-person office hours on campus. Falwell later mocked Baggett on Twitter and said faculty could have obtained approval to hold office hours remotely. But I examined emails administrators sent to faculty before Baggett wrote her op-ed—they did not give a “remote office hours” option.
Another decision: Whether Liberty would refund students who finished the semester at home. Many colleges made decisions early to refund room and board expenses to students after closing campuses. Liberty held off on deciding until March 27, days after online classes began and about 1,900 students had returned to campus. Liberty decided it will give students who don’t finish the semester on campus a $1,000 credit for next year’s room, board, and tuition. Graduating seniors will get the credit this year. Students who don’t return for the fall 2020 semester aren’t eligible. Liberty’s undergraduate tuition this year was $23,800. Room and board ranges anywhere from $4,600 to $7,500, with two dining plan options adding around $4,000 more.