It’s been a tense last couple of weeks for one of the nation’s largest evangelical colleges, Liberty University. The president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., initially resigned, then, according to him, ‘never really resigned.’ Then, later in the week, he resigned (again), this time personally and, apparently, officially. The resignation comes as the embattled former university head faces major scrutiny from his evangelical, conservative base, as well as university trustees, because of reports of his involvement in a years-long affair his wife had.
The fall from grace has been both fast and steep, as Falwell had been, until very recently, one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country, as well as a personal confidant and ardent supporter of the current presidential administration. But, from a PR perspective, not only was the exit a bad look, how the exit happened only made it worse. According to the university, Falwell “initially resigned” on Monday of that week, just hours after multiple news outlets broadcast clips of an interview with Giancarlo Granda, who claims he had both a business and a “personal” relationship with the Falwells. Granda says his relationship began with Becki Falwell, but that her husband sometimes watched. In the wake of that news story, the university announced that Falwell had resigned.
The next day, Falwell released a statement saying he did not resign and had only considered it to protect his school from the consequences of his wife’s actions. “The only reason I resigned is because I don’t want something my wife did to harm the school I’ve spent my whole life building… I never broke a single rule that applies to staff members at Liberty… So, I want everybody to know that.”
Despite putting all the blame on his wife, she seemed to come out in support of her husband, saying, “(We) are more in love than ever… We have the strongest relationship, and Jerry is the most forgiving person I’ve ever met… It’s a shame that Christians can’t give us the same forgiveness…”
A few more days of big headlines and growing Public Relations issues for both the Falwells and the school led Liberty to announce they had, again, accepted Falwell’s resignation. This time, he didn’t object, saying: “I’m 58 years old, and I think there’s something else in the cards for me… The board was gracious in accepting my resignation. It’s time to move on.”
For the university, Falwell’s departure is a potentially clean start after what had become a recurring PR problem. Falwell, Sr., who founded the college, was mostly well-liked and appreciated by the staff, students, and board. Falwell, Jr., apparently less so, according to repeated media reports. Junior was criticized for his lifestyle, staff treatment, and acerbic comments on social media. Earlier this year, he was castigated for “encouraging” students to return to campus after a COVID shutdown. At the time, his version of events did not match up with what some faculty and students had said. During that time, Falwell was called out for mocking a former Liberty professor. He neither apologized nor relented.
Now, the university has an opportunity to move past these PR issues and reaffirm its place and position in the higher education marketplace. Doing so will require some deft messaging, both internally and to the public.
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