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Nearly five years to the day after his father died and he became president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. told a local newspaper his leadership style differed from that of his father, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell Sr.: “I think it’s good that my profile’s lower because the less dependent Liberty is on a family or personality, or a name, the healthier it is for the school.”
But by the time Falwell Jr. resigned on Aug. 25, Liberty University was most often in the news because of his personal scandals.
Even at the end of his tenure, Falwell Jr. grabbed attention with his on-again, off-again resignation—first indicating to Liberty officials he was resigning on Aug. 24, then withdrawing his resignation, then telling a Wall Street Journal reporter he was resigning after all, then on Aug. 25 submitting that resignation to Liberty’s board of trustees.
The last scandal was the most salacious: Reuters reported on Aug. 25 that a former pool boy from a luxury hotel in Miami says he carried on an affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki, for seven years. He also claimed Falwell would sometimes watch the two have sex. Both Falwells denied Jerry Falwell’s involvement but admitted the affair. (Becki Falwell did not return my phone calls and text message. Jerry Falwell Jr. told me he couldn’t talk when I reached him.)
Three weeks before Reuters published Giancarlo Granda’s claims, Liberty’s trustees placed Falwell on an indefinite leave after he posted to Instagram a photo from on board a yacht. The photo showed Falwell draping an arm around an assistant to his wife. Both had their bellies exposed and pants unzipped. Falwell later deleted the photo and said it was for a spoof movie trailer they filmed and admitted he shouldn’t have posted it.
But Falwellian scandals had snatched headlines long before his resignation, with Falwell’s brand overshadowing Liberty’s. His personal business dealings with Granda—the two bought a Miami hostel together—and Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s involvement in helping cover up racy photos of Jerry and Becki Falwell attracted criticism. The fight spilled into Florida courtrooms before the two settled in late 2019.
Falwell repeatedly jabbed at Christian leaders and shunned his role as a spiritual leader. He told Pastor David Platt on Twitter to “grow a pair” in 2019. He removed the tweet but in response said he’s not a spiritual leader: “I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” he tweeted. “The faculty, students, and campus pastor … are the ones keeping LU strong spiritually.”
In May 2020 he faced more backlash when he protested Virginia’s COVID-19 face mask mandate: He tweeted a photo—showing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in medical school dressed in blackface, standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe—superimposed over a face mask. Black Liberty alumni responded with a letter asking Falwell to apologize and retract the tweet. He did so more than a week later, after several black employees resigned. Several student-athletes also transferred from Liberty.
When confirming his resignation on Aug. 25, Falwell said: “The quote that keeps going through my mind this morning is Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.’” Former longtime Liberty English professor Karen Swallow Prior—who this year joined Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s faculty—said Falwell’s behavior didn’t match a Christian university president’s: “It’s a great relief that Liberty no longer has a leader who clearly no longer wants to be in that position. … His behavior for a long time has not been that of a spiritual leader.”
With Falwell’s larger-than-Liberty behavior behind it, the school’s board of trustees now faces the task of choosing a new leader. But given Falwell’s longtime behavior and the $10.5 million Liberty’s board of trustees allowed him to walk away with, many question whether the board is up to the challenge. Mark DeMoss, who chaired the board’s executive committee, resigned in 2016, and Forbes reported in 2019 that “remaining board members appear to have let Falwell reap personal profit from the university and have kept silent, having signed non-disclosure agreements that remain in effect even after leaving the board.”