The Birth, Near Death, Rebirth, and Online Explosion at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University
Bill Berkowitz printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jun 09, 2015 at 10:20:45 AM EST
The Rev. Jerry Falwell envisioned a university. That university would bring young Christian men and women to a beautiful campus in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. The student body would multiply and the campus would expand. But due to Falwell-esque hubris, and the sexual scandals that took down fellow televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, that university would be brought to the edge of financial ruin. The Unification Church's Rev. Sun Myung Moon, would help bail out that university, and it would again grow, adding students, professors, and more buildings. Falwell's university would develop a first class athletic program, with a new football stadium seating over 19,000 people.

University leaders envisioned the future, and that future was online. Now, the little institute of higher learning that the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, envisioned as being the pride of Lynchburg, Virginia, and the Petri dish for developing conservative true believers and activists, has grown to become the largest private nonprofit university in the nation, the largest university in Virginia, the largest Christian university in the world, and one that has the second largest enrollment in online education courses for any non-profit university in the world.

Welcome to Liberty University, where they are "Training Champions for Christ," and where a few months back, those "champions" were mandated to hear Senator Ted Cruz announce his presidential candidacy and, later, during graduation season, many "champions" heard Jeb Bush deliver a commencement address.

The little experiment exceeded all expectations

"The little experiment that Falwell started in his hometown is a pretty big deal now, and the residential campus [which accommodates 14,000 students] here does not begin to tell the story," The Chronicle of Higher Education's Jack Stripling wrote in a story headlined "An Online Kingdom Come: How Liberty U. became an unexpected model for the future of higher education."

"Liberty's online program boasts nearly 65,000 students, more than any other nonprofit college in the United States, according to federal data. Only the University of Phoenix, the for-profit behemoth with an enrollment of 207,000, trumps Liberty."

Liberty's unprecedented online growth

Since Rev. Falwell's death nearly eight years ago, the university has come under the leadership of Jerry L. Falwell Jr. Although it has experienced its fair share of campus controversies and internal problems, when it comes to its online project, Liberty has few peers. Unlike many other colleges and universities grappling with the question of how to design their online education projects, at Liberty the question is how much bigger of a role it will play.

"From 2004-5 to 2013-14, Liberty University increased the number of its online students by more than 740 percent, with double-digit growth in eight of the past nine years," Stripling reported.

Liberty's online growth, according to Stripling, is a product of visionary leadership and an "aggressive marketing approach, which feeds a voracious appetite for worldwide online expansion, [which] might strike some as the corporatization of academe run amok. But there is no denying that the university has carved out a distinct online identity in a relatively new market and created an Internet education machine that generates revenues any college would welcome."

It is also a product of the university being able to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from America's taxpayers.

As Stripling pointed out, "the frontline of Liberty's online-recruitment operation" takes place "inside the River Ridge Mall, in what used to be a Sears, [where] ... [m]ore than 800 employees work ... crammed together in row upon row of cubicles."

Telemarketing, data crunching; selling students on Liberty

The operation is run like a standard telemarketing call-center. Employees scour lists of students who have expressed an interest in the school, they make the calls, "aim[ing] to keep [them] to an average of seven to 10 minutes." Data crunching is also standard operating procedure: "Federal rules bar colleges from paying recruiters solely for the number of students they enroll, because such incentives have led to deceptive marketing practices. But Liberty [officials] ... see[s] whether agents are getting students in the door. How long did a call take? How many times was a person put on hold? Why? All of those data points, rigorously tracked by Liberty, are 'KPIs,' [Key Performance Indicators]" Phillip Milakovic, who spent five years working in Liberty's call center, including as an associate director of admissions and is now digital-media manager at the Tribeca Marketing Group, where he advises colleges, told Stripling.

Far from its days of teetering on the precipice of financial ruin, these days the university has more than $1 billion in reserves. "Moody's Investors Service, which has a grim view of the financial prospects of many liberal-arts colleges, has described Liberty as a 'true outlier' for its enviable market position," Stripling reported. "From 2008 to 2012, when most colleges were reeling from the recession, Liberty's operating revenues grew by 630 percent, Moody's reported." In a 2013 report, Moody's citied Liberty's "remarkable momentum in revenue growth and cash flow from operations."

"We came to the realization over the last 25 years that significant cash reserves and endowment funding was needed to ensure that Liberty University could fulfill its mission to provide Christian education for generations to come. It is rewarding when rating agencies recognize Liberty's commitment to and recent successes in building those resources for the future," President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said at the time. "Going through the ratings process over the last three years has been a real learning experience for our management team. When we met with Moody's last month in Manhattan, it was gratifying to hear from them how they had noticed that Liberty had reached certain financial milestones about one year earlier than we had predicted when we met with the same Moody's folks in 2010."

As the future unfolds, Liberty University is fully invested in its online education project. Six hundred professors on Liberty's campus -- professors do not have tenure and therefore do not have much say in management decisions -- and 2,500 other instructors handle the online load.

Online courses are designed to serve what Liberty has determined as its constituency; a mid-thirties returning student who wants an education that has a touch of Christian values. The university offers eight-week classes rather than full drawn-out semesters. And while there is no religious connection to the classes, students are encouraged to pray as often as possible.

"The Liberty Way," a 20-page document, lays out moral guidelines for students on its residential campus. It bars drinking, smoking, using profanity, "involvement with witchcraft," and viewing R-rated movies, with the occasional exception made. Obviously this code of conduct cannot be enforced for its online students. However, as The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, "online students do sign an honor code, which goes beyond issues of academic dishonesty and into the touchy area of bedroom behavior. An online student at Liberty swears off 'non-marital sexual relations' and 'morally inappropriate sexual misconduct.'"

Whatever else is written about the legacy of Rev. Jerry Falwell, one must recognize that nearly forty-five years ago, it was his vision that set in motion what many now see as a model for the university of the future.

for children like the Duggars, who are not allowed out of Daddy's clutches until marriage. Sad, though, that we taxpayers are subsidizing it.

by phatkhat on Tue Jun 09, 2015 at 04:59:42 PM EST
So far, Jim Bob hasn't encouraged any of his children to get a college education, and I doubt he would support his daughters doing so. The Duggars might think Liberty University to be too liberal as they are devoted to the cult of Bill Gothard.

by khughes1963 on Wed Jun 17, 2015 at 06:52:51 AM EST

is the sort of Christianity they push.  I wonder if it's at all like the ersatz university in this area, which teaches their "ministry students" how to disrupt organizations that they don't like, and how to infiltrate churches to (as the saying goes) "steal sheep"*.  Their students are taught to force their religion into everything, and based on an experience we had a couple of years ago, anything goes... deception, unethical use of research tools to proselytize, and so on.

For instance, their education program is reported to teach new teachers "how to introduce Jesus to the classroom without triggering the suspicions of liberals".  One person I talked with a few years ago indicated that the 'counseling' program taught things related to 'de-gaying' and other unaccepted counseling techniques (but in secret so that they'd not loose their certification).  Their alternate economy is solidly in place!

Based on their graduates that I've seen create problems at my school, you're well and truly indoctrinated into young-earth creationism when you leave, but have also been taught how to keep it quiet - except that those people do sometimes get excited and loose their temper when their cherished beliefs are shown to be in error.

*- I used to hang out with the students being so trained, and had the "professors" doing the training pointed out.  A few years ago an ex-student indicated that not only did they continue, but that they'd been taught some pretty slimy tricks to block access to and disrupt organizations and churches they didn't like.  Subsequent experiences backed up the person's words.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Jun 09, 2015 at 05:37:23 PM EST

I wonder if they use the hard-sell call centers to sign up students who can't afford the tuition and aren't necessarily qualified to do the work (assuming that Liberty has some academic standards). These tactics are used by most for-profit colleges.

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