Editors’ Notes: Editorial reposted from the Roanoke Times, August 12, 2020.
There is much that can be said about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s abrupt and indefinite departure from the presidency of Liberty University, surely far more than the 47 words in the university’s terse formal announcement late Friday afternoon.
This being 2020, a lot of those things got said pretty instantaneously on social media.
Here are some things, though, we haven’t seen said but perhaps should be, because these are lessons that apply not just to Falwell and Liberty, but to any other organization in the land.
1. Leaders can’t be bigger than the institutions they serve. If they are, those institutions probably won’t outlive them. Liberty is often synonymous with the Falwells. Liberty, though, is not Falwell family property. That brings us to this corollary: When the interests of the leader conflict with the interests of the institution, the interests of the institution must prevail. If the institution is built well, it will survive the departure of a founder — even a forced departure (and in this case the founder’s son). It’s hard for an institution to prosper if its leader is constantly embroiled in controversies, especially controversies unrelated to the institution’s mission.
In 1986, then-Gov. Gerald Baliles shocked the state when he went to Virginia Tech and used his commencement address to demand that the school’s Board of Visitors address a scandal that had unfolded there — or he’d replace the board. Many board members were accustomed to honorific appointments – prime seats at football games, but no real work. Baliles demanded that board members be a real board of directors. Baliles was good for his word, too. He did replace some of Tech’s board members that year.
2. Governing boards must take the governing part seriously. The surprise for some is that Falwell was forced out — into an indefinite leave of absence — by his own governing board. That’s shouldn’t be a surprise. College presidents report to a governing board, not the other way around. The only surprise is that often the power dynamic is reversed, with supine boards content to rubber-stamp whatever the president is doing. We see this far too often with the governing boards at Virginia’s public colleges. In 1986, then-Gov. Gerald Baliles shocked the state when he went to Virginia Tech and used his commencement address to demand that the school’s Board of Visitors address a scandal that had unfolded there — or he’d replace the board. Many board members were accustomed to honorific appointments – prime seats at football games, but no real work. Baliles demanded that board members be a real board of directors. Baliles was good for his word, too. He did replace some of Tech’s board members that year. His admonition about the proper role of board members remains true — for the boards at public universities, for the boards at private universities such as Liberty, for the boards at any non-profit. Here, Liberty’s board members took their governing role seriously — as they should.
3. Liberty is unusual among colleges for how little change it’s had at the top. Jerry Falwell Sr. led the school from its founding in 1971 to his death in 2007— a span of 36 years. Until his leave of absence, Falwell Jr. had been president for 13 years. The most recent survey by the American Council on Education found that the average tenure of a college president is 6.5 years, down from 8.5 a decade before. There’s no right or wrong number of years for a college president to serve but 49 years under the same family is highly unusual, to say the least. Maybe Falwell returns, maybe he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, that means Liberty will likely be governed more like a normal university.
4. Be careful what you post on social media. This is a lesson even many middle-schoolers know but somehow still eludes many otherwise responsible adults in positions of authority. Falwell’s infamous Instagram post wasn’t the only social media scandal in Virginia last week. The mayor of Luray made news — the wrong kind — when he posted on Facebook: “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.” What Barry Presgraves saw as a joke others saw as racist — or, at the very least, poor publicity for the town. At least one fellow member of Luray Town Council called on Presgraves to quit: “You are accountable for your words and decisions as the leader of The Town of Luray and your recent actions have caused me and many citizens to lose faith and confidence in your capacity to effectively and justly serve as Mayor of The Town of Luray,” Leah Pence wrote. Presgraves didn’t resign. Instead, his town saw a protest march and unfavorable news coverage by even conservative-leaning national news organizations. Think what you will of Presgraves’ “joke”— it did, indeed, put his town in a bad light. Luray is a tourism-driven town; it will take a lot of state tourism grants to undo that kind of attention. Likewise, Falwell’s Instagram post showing him with his pants unzipped next to a young woman who was not his wife was the kind of post that would have caused employment problems for any other college president in the country. When will people learn not to post things like that on social media? Here’s the irony that will make Falwell’s situation a textbook example: He wasn’t brought down by “the liberal media.” He was brought down by his own actions, which offended even his own conservative governing board.