Brooke Smoke loves the education she is receiving at Liberty University, a place she says has provided “true academia,” and where she’s grown tremendously.
But this week has capped off a period of unrest for students at the largest evangelical university in the world.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based school confirmed its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned following a Reuters report that described a long-term relationship with his former business partner, Giancarlo Granda. The religious leader reportedly repeatedly watched his wife have sex with Granda as part of an arrangement that continued over several years, according to Reuters. The couple met Granda when he worked as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.
Falwell denies the allegations; he and his wife say that she had an affair but that Falwell was not involved.
Smoke says there’s an air of confusion on campus: none of her professors have mentioned it. (Liberty students started class on campus on Monday.)
“A lot of us do actually feel betrayed because there are a lot of students who actually respect and maintain the rules in place,” Smoke said as part of a series of text messages she wrote from the school’s library.
“In a lot of ways, there’s a community of true believers here who don’t center themselves on political leanings, but on faith. For me, it’s been a process of disillusionment and learning that politics and faith go hand in hand for many,” Smoke added.
The 22-year old English major from Northern Virginia hopes the transition to new leadership results in a culture that is more open and less partisan. Falwell was one of the first major evangelicals to support Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016 and is considered to be a pivotal figure in bringing him the evangelical vote.
For Smoke, the change at Liberty also coincides with change in her own personal life — she’s in the process of coming out as bisexual on a very conservative campus.
“It’s weird at Liberty. I’ve been trying to reach out to the LGBT community here but it’s barely existent — though I do have a few queer friends who are closeted. It’s there, you just have to look for it,” Smoke wrote.
Smoke has loved her Liberty education and hopes to teach literature one day.
She sees the imperfections of Liberty and said she may not have chosen the school if she had known how things would turn out with respect to her own sexuality, but she’s made lifelong friends and is hoping for change.
“I’ve experienced sexism and racism in my classes here before, I’ve experienced homophobia here before, I’ve experienced pressure to remain silent about Black Lives Matter. Bigotry is very much alive here,” she said.
While she plans to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the fall, she thinks many of her fellow students will vote for Trump or a third-party candidate.
“Jerry has consistently prioritized politics over faith,” Smoke said. “There are many students here who have long disagreed with that.”
Tavia Bruxelles, a senior majoring in international relations, echoed Smoke’s desire to unyoke their faith from politics.
“We needed to distance ourselves from all of his political aspirations, I think he had a hard time distinguishing his life as a university president and as a politician. If he wants to be a politician, that’s totally fine, but I think a lot of people felt that it shouldn’t be mixed in with the university,” she said.
“We definitely have all been hit hard by the news. It’s hard to see your university plastered all over the news for not very great things. ... You can’t expect your students to live up to standards that you yourself don’t meet,” Bruxelles said, referring to the strict guidelines students are expected to abide by.
She said she hopes the next president can “help guide us in our Christian principles and our faith and help us grow as better and stronger followers of Christ.”
Falwell had already been suspended with pay in August after posting a photo of himself and a woman later identified as his wife’s assistant on a yacht with their pants partially undone and holding a drink on Instagram. He claimed the drink was “black water” and deleted the photo.
Appearing in any kind of undress with a member of the opposite sex and drinking alcohol are violations of the “Liberty Way,” a pledge every student abides by while attending the university. Either of these violations could result in fines and several hours of community service for the students involved.
Miracle Pearsall, 23, graduated from Liberty in 2019 and has been growing increasingly frustrated as Falwell became more political after his 2016 endorsement of Trump. One of the things she loves about Liberty is the number of speakers that come on campus to address the student body during their twice-weekly convocations.
She was frustrated, however, when far-right author Dinesh D’Souza said the n-word unchecked in a quote in his convocation. As a Black student, she was disheartened by the incident and what she sees as Falwell’s increasing foray into politics.
“I just want the spotlight to be taken off my school and any stigma associated with his leadership to stop so respect can be brought back to our degrees,” Pearsall said.
The yacht photo was the last straw for Pearsall and her parents, who are both pastors.
“The drinking thing was huge because I knew of people who have gotten in a lot of trouble just for appearing in pictures with a red Solo cup. If we were to pull something like that, you would be held accountable to the fullest extent. I don't think it's fair for the president of the university to disclose himself in that way. Because we wouldn't be allowed to do it,” Pearsall said.
But more than any of the scandals that Falwell is engulfed in, she’s bothered that his behavior overshadows the amazing experience she had at Liberty and the overwhelming sense of peace says she experienced while there — a theme that echoes among the students who commented for this article.
“Liberty is trending again for something that’s not Jesus Christ and that’s a problem,” Pearsall said.
She worries that his behavior has cheapened the value of her education in the eyes of future employers.
Liberty has a good — and very affordable — master’s program, but because of Falwell’s behavior, she’s not sure she’d want to attend.
“Do I want Liberty on my resume again? I don’t know.”