The former director of diversity retention at Liberty University has raised more than $18,500 to help Black employees leave their jobs at the religious institution now embroiled in controversy.
LeeQuan McLaurin, who resigned earlier this month after Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. invoked Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal to mock new coronavirus-related measures, said he hopes to use the funds to help at least 15 former employees stay afloat as they search for new work. His ultimate goal is to raise $30,000.
“No one should have to be subject to racial trauma or workplace trauma in order to make a living,” McLaurin said in an interview, noting the pandemic and economic downturn has made finding a new job especially challenging.
McLaurin, a former student at Liberty and employee since 2015, said high-ranking officials at the school refused to publicly acknowledge the national unrest over racial injustice. He submitted his resignation letter after Greg Dowell, the director of Liberty's Office of Equity and Inclusion, demanded social media posts from university-operated accounts with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” be deleted.
“I cannot continue to ask Black and brown students to come to this university and ask them to stay at this university, knowing the very real harm that is being perpetrated against them,” McLaurin said. “I don't think that anybody who has a child of color should send their student to Liberty for the foreseeable future.”
McLaurin is among a handful of Black employees who have publicly stepped down from their positions at the school in the wake of Falwell’s tweet.
Falwell has since apologized for his remarks, saying on Twitter he understood the May 27 tweet “refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point.”
But in an interview with Lynchburg broadcaster Andre Whitehead, Falwell dismissed the resignations of Black employees as a small fraction of the overall workforce.
“It's three out of 9,000 who quit,” Falwell said in the June 9 interview. “Three out of 9,000.”
As of last week, the number of Black employees who have publicly announced their resignations has risen to four. It is unclear if others have departed from the institution. Liberty officials did not return requests for comment.
Christopher House, an online LU instructor who also teaches at Ithaca College, was among the first to quit. In a resignation letter, he called Falwell’s actions “inexcusable and abhorrent.”
“I cannot remain part of an institution whose senior leader would engage in such actions at any time, but then have the unmitigated gall to do so at a time when Black communities are again grieving over recent instances of racial violence,” House wrote.
Keyvon Scott, an online admissions counselor, and Thomas Starchia, an associate director in Liberty's Office of Spiritual Development, both resigned earlier this month, citing frustrations with the school's leadership in public social media posts.
The high-profile departures come as Black student enrollment at Liberty threatens to fall to its lowest levels in more than a decade.
As of 2018, the share of Black enrollment for undergraduate residential students has dwindled to about 4%, according to internal figures provided by McLaurin. That's a steep drop from the 10% share of Black enrollment in 2007.
The decline mirrors an overall drop in Black enrollment among online and residential undergraduate students, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. In 2011 the share of Black enrollment peaked at nearly 20% but fell to nearly 11% in 2018, the data shows.
McLaurin said the decline closely tracks with Falwell's assumption of the school's presidency in 2007 and the conservative backlash to the the candidacy and later the presidency of Barack Obama.
“Black students were afraid,” McLaurin said. “They were afraid because of the hate that was being spewed on campus about Barack Obama's election.”
Falwell has invited Democratic politicians to speak on campus and some have accepted those invitations, including then-governor and current senator Tim Kaine who stumped for Obama in 2008 before a crowd of Liberty students. But critics say those invitations are made to create an appearance of impartiality and pale in comparison to the large number of conservative figures who visit campus.
Eric Carroll, a Richmond pastor and a graduate of the class of 1991, said he believes Liberty has purposefully allowed Black enrollment on campus to decline.
“For a university our size, we should have a lot more representation for African Americans and other ethnic minorities and we just don't have it,” Carroll said. “And that's by choice. I refuse to believe that it's just that nobody wants to apply.”
Nationally, Black students made up 15% of students enrolled in colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Carroll was among 35 Black alumni who signed a letter denouncing Falwell’s tweet, saying it brought disgrace to the university community.
“There are many Christians of color who worship in our churches and communities; we will not recommend their attendance at L.U. as long as you continue the unChristlike rhetoric,” the alumni wrote.
Faculty members aren’t the only ones who have left Liberty in the wake of the school’s most recent controversy.
Asia Todd, a rising sophomore standout on the women’s basketball team, announced earlier this month she would transfer, becoming the first student-athlete to depart Liberty in response to Falwell’s tweet.
“The basketball program, the coaching staff and my teammates at Liberty was amazing. I developed life-long relationships that I will cherish forever,” Todd, clad in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, said in a video announcement posted on Twitter. “However, due to the racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture, it simply does not align with my moral compass or personal convictions. Therefore, I had to do what I felt was best within my heart and stand up for what is right.”
Earlier this week, Tayvion Land and Kei’Trel Clark, a pair of sophomore defensive backs on the Liberty University football team, announced Monday they are entering the transfer portal and leaving the Flames program because of “racial insensitivity” and cultural incompetence “in the leadership of the university.”
In a virtual news conference last week, Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze said the team has taken steps to grapple with the national reckoning of racial injustice.
“In my talks with my players, the issue around race is real," Freeze said. "We are committed to being very open and transparent with our players and talking to them about any issue, and how we can understand and how we can help, and I’m thankful we’ve been able to have those honest conversations with our kids. I’m thrilled that the feeling among our team is that they haven’t felt anything but acceptance and grace here at Liberty University. That starts with our leadership. That’s the message that we have. Come get to know our people, not just what you read about them or see about them, but come get to know them.”
Still, other Black students are now wrestling with their future at the school.
Trae Christian, a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in strategic communication, said Falwell’s actions have at times made him ashamed to be a Liberty student. He's concerned he may face a difficult time finding employment with Liberty on his resume.
“I don't want people to see that I go to Liberty and think that I agree with everything that he said, because that's not true,” Christian, who also attended Liberty as an undergraduate student, said. “It really breaks my heart to see things like this tweet give it a bad reputation because Liberty has been an amazing place. And I've enjoyed my time there. I just really want to see changes.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.
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