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LU President Jerry Falwell Jr. taking leave of absence

LU President Jerry Falwell Jr. taking leave of absence

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Jerry Falwell Jr.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks to former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during convocation at the Vines Center on Nov. 15.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. is taking an indefinite leave of absence starting immediately, the university announced Friday.

In a statement, the university said Falwell agreed to step aside after the executive committee of Liberty’s Board of Trustees requested he take a leave of absence.

In a statement issued late Friday night Jerry Prevo Chairman of the Liberty University Board of Trustees noted the growth and success the college has experienced since Falwell Jr. took the helm but said “Unfortunately, with this success and the burdens of leading a large and growing organization comes substantial pressure.”

“Today, my colleagues and I on the Liberty University Board of Trustees and Jerry mutually agreed that it would be good for him to take an indefinite leave of absence. This was a decision that was not made lightly, and which factored the interests and concerns of everyone in the LU community, including students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, leaders of the Church, as well as the Falwell family.”

Prevo further asked the community to pray for Falwell so “he may be able to fulfill God’s purpose for him.”

Falwell’s departure comes two days after he apologized for posting — and quickly deleting — a photo on Instagram showing him with his pants partially unzipped and his arm around a woman with her pants also partially unzipped.

In an interview Wednesday with radio station WLNI, Falwell said the photo was taken during a costume party while on vacation and the woman standing next to him was his wife’s assistant. He said he had apologized to “everyone.”

“I should have never put it up and embarrassed her,” Falwell said. “I’ve apologized to everybody. I promised my kids I will try to be a good boy from here on out.”

Falwell, who did not return requests for comment, faced intense criticism for posting the photo, including from Liberty students who accused him of violating the school’s own honor code. Among other things, the code bars students from being in “any state of undress with member of opposite sex.”

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, the Vice-Chair of the House Republican conference and a former Liberty instructor, called on Falwell to resign. Walker was joined by evangelical leaders across the south, including Colby Garman, a Dumfries pastor and a member of the Virginia Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee.

It is unclear how long Falwell will be on leave, or if he eventually will resume the position before in-person classes begin Aug. 24. An interim president has not publicly been named.

It is also unclear if Falwell will collect a salary during his time away from the school. As president and chancellor of Liberty, Falwell generally makes around $1 million a year, according to tax filings. He has led the school since his father, Liberty founder the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., died in 2007.

Members of Liberty’s Board of Trustee’s six-person executive committee, which has the power to act on behalf of the entire board, did not respond to requests for comment and a university spokesperson declined to comment.

When reached by phone Friday evening, Allen McFarland, the vice-chair of Liberty’s Board of Trustees, said he was not aware that Falwell had agreed to take a leave of absence. McFarland, who is not a member of the board’s executive committee, declined to discuss the committee’s decision. Other members of the board include Jonathan Falwell and William Graham IV.

Friday’s abrupt announcement sparked cheers from current and former students who have long pressed Liberty’s Board of Trustees to rein in the 58-year-old university president.

“I am excited that the necessary changes are finally beginning to occur,” said Dustin Wahl, a 2018 Liberty graduate and longtime vocal critic of Falwell. Although the news came as a surprise, Wahl called the decision overdue.

Before the announcement, Wahl was preparing to launch a public pressure campaign aimed at convincing Liberty’s Board of Trustees to remove Falwell from his position. He said the campaign might be retooled to encourage the board to choose a qualified replacement for Falwell.

“They need to pick a permanent president who is going to be a Christian leader and who is going to represent Liberty well,” he said. “I don’t trust them to do that but I hope and I pray that they will.”

For much of the last year, Falwell has been the subject of a series of controversies.

Last fall, he was accused of leveraging the university’s business interest to enrich himself, family members and friends. In the spring, he faced a fierce backlash — and a class-action lawsuit — for his decision to invite students to return to campus dorms after spring break amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent months, he has battled accusations of racism after posting a tweet invoking Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal to mock coronavirus-related restrictions. The ensuing scandal prompted several prominent Black student-athletes and faculty members to leave the school and provided fuel for riotous activity in downtown Lynchburg.

“It’s been a snowball effect,” LeeQuan McLaurin, Liberty’s former director of diversity retention who was among those who left the school after Falwell’s blackface tweet, said. “Everything’s just been picking up and the people who should have been standing up to Jerry and holding him accountable have finally decided to do just that.”

Still, McLaurin is not yet ready to join the students celebrating the announcement. After leading a campaign to help Black Liberty employees find new jobs, McLaurin is skeptical the university will address issues he has raised in the past, including a lack of diversity among the student body and administration.

“I’m hesitant to celebrate too early, only because Liberty has a lot of institutional issues that they need to fix,” he said. “I just hope that they plan on following through on those and that they don’t stop with the removal of Jerry.”

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