Racial Insensitivity Incites Severe Backlash at Liberty University

How a tweet from the school's president sparked an exodus of black students, faculty, and staff

BY ANDY HAMMEL | PUBLISHED JULY 2, 2020

LeeQuan McLaurin, former Director of Diversity Retention at Liberty University, one of a growing number of black faculty and students to have departed from the school after the university president’s recent comments. Photo: Steve Helber/Associated Press

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Liberty University is a private, evangelical Christian school based in Lynchburg, Virginia. It has a campus that hosts around 15,000 students, but nearly 100,000 more students - covering the United States and beyond - are enrolled in the school's online program. This gives the school a level of influence that, alongside their commitment to being a socially conservative, Christian institution, makes it and its leadership a constant subject of attention.

On May 27, 2020, that attention was focused on a now-deleted tweet by university President Jerry Falwell Jr., featuring a picture of a facemask emblazoned with a notorious image from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook, featuring one man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. While the tweet was intended to be at Northam's expense, it was received especially poorly by Liberty's African American community.

Percent of student enrollment and graduation rates at Liberty University, by race, as of 2018.

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The day after the tweet was posted, Dr. Christopher House resigned from his position as a professor at Liberty University online.

"Falwell used anti-Black images in a public spat with the governor of Virginia, at the expense of Black people," House wrote for Religion News Service. "For Falwell, the images were a Halloween costume he would simply remove when he was done with his political fight. He would never stop to consider the enduring, often violent consequences of the photos."

House was among the first both to denounce the tweet and renounce his position at the university over it, but he was far from the last.

On June 1, 35 alumni co-signed an open letter to Falwell, saying not only that the tweet was beneath his position as an evangelical and a poor representation of Jesus Christ, but that his political commentary in the tweet and past actions was a detriment to his school's students and alumni.

This sentiment was echoed in the public statements of other black students and faculty leaving the school – the tweet, bad as they found it, was only a recent exhibit of an institutional problem.

“I cannot encourage students of color to go to that university the way that it is,” LeeQuan McLaurin, who resigned from his post as director of diversity retention at Liberty on June 2nd, told Ruth Graham of Slate.

Falwell deleted and apologized for the tweet two weeks later, but faculty and students have cast doubt on his sincerity and continued to leave the school. It remains to be seen how many more will.