As colleges across the country have closed their doors and told students to finish the semester online, one university in Virginia made headlines when its president told students they were welcome to come back on campus, much to the chagrin of local officials.
Last week, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. “welcomed” students back to campus through a schoolwide email. In a follow-up statement to the media, once the news was leaked, Falwell’s team said Liberty would be “working hard to comply” with all state restrictions while also “providing safe and reliable accommodations” for returning students. In response – and anticipation – of critics, the statement included: “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall if coronavirus is still an issue…”
While some students heralded the idea to get back together with friends from school, local Lynchburg officials were less thrilled with the invitation. City Manager Bonnie Svrcek told the Associated Press, “We could not be more disappointed in the action that Jerry took in telling students they could come back and take their online classes on campus…”
This is not the first time during this outbreak that Liberty publicly bucked the response trend. Early on, when many colleges and universities started closing campuses, telling students not to come back after spring break, Liberty announced plans to continue on-campus instruction. It took an order from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam restricting gatherings to less than 100 for the school officials to switch to “mostly” online learning.
Now, Falwell is
speaking directly to students, telling them, “You guys paid to be here. You
wanted to be on campus. I want to give you what you paid for… We do have to be
sensitive to people with respiratory problems and to older people.”
Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy called the decision reckless: “I am concerned for
the students, faculty, and employees at Liberty University, and I am also very
concerned for the residents of the Lynchburg community…”
At present, most view this as a bad look for Liberty. “Reckless” is one of the more polite things this decision has been called. In response to the concerns and criticism, a Liberty spokesperson told the media the school had a building that could serve as a quarantine site for sick students.
Now, even some
professors are speaking out against Falwell’s stance. One, Marybeth Baggett,
called the decision “unconscionable,” adding that it is an unnecessarily risky
move that could lead to an “unmanageable” outbreak. Falwell responded by
mocking her in a tweet, saying she should be “embarrassed” about her concerns.