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Colleges & Universities Opinion

The Falwell Fiasco: Where Was The Board?

Warren Cole Smith

Jerry Falwell, Jr., has behaved in ways that would have gotten him fired from leadership in most Christian organizations, and many non-Christian organizations.  

Despite that, the Board of Trustees of Liberty University allowed him to resign and walk away with a reported $10.5-million in severance and retirement pay.

Students and their parents, who pay Liberty University tens of thousands of dollars a year for tuition, room, and board, have expressed outrage.  Before Falwell’s resignation, alumni signed statements saying Falwell had tarnished the reputation of the school and the value of their own diplomas.  Add to that the reaction of a secular, skeptical, and cynical world, shaking their heads once again at the latest episode of the tragicomedy known as Stupid Evangelical Tricks.    

To make matters worse (if that’s possible), some of the problems with Falwell have been reported about for years, and have been largely ignored by Liberty’s board.  

Examples:  I wrote a tough profile of him in 2013 (and got a scathing letter from Falwell for my troubles).  Mark DeMoss, son of one of Liberty’s earliest and most generous donors, resigned from the school’s board back in 2016 over concern about Falwell’s leadership.  Even the relationship Falwell and his wife Becki had with a “pool boy,” a relationship that was the proximate cause of Falwell’s downfall, has been previously reported, by Rolling Stone in 2019, and BuzzFeed in 2018.

Despite all of this, Liberty University’s Board of Trustees remained resolutely clueless that they had a problem with their president.

The Role Of The Board

The Board of an organization has fiduciary responsibility for the overall governance of that institution.  “Fiduciary” is a fancy word for: “The buck stops here.”  Boards are the ultimate stewards of an organization.  They are responsible for the organization’s well-being.  And – more to the point here – boards have the ability to hire and fire only one person:  the president. 

One could argue – given the examples above — that the board of Liberty University should have exercised that right, fulfilled that duty, years ago.  But even giving the board the benefit of the doubt on timing, it should not have allowed Falwell to resign.  It should not have allowed Falwell’s version of events to stand unchallenged, when audio recordings and photographs tell a plainly different story. 

Nonetheless, Falwell told The Washington Post:  “There wasn’t any cause,” he said.  “I haven’t done anything.”  Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that statement departs from the truth.

However, one thing he told The Post was at least half-true:  “The board was gracious not to challenge that.”

I say “half-true” because Falwell was right that the board didn’t challenge him.  The half that was not true was his use of the word “gracious.”  That is not the word that comes to mind to describe the board’s behavior.  Other words come to mind, including “wasteful,” “impotent,” and “cowardly.”  The board’s unwillingness to “challenge” Falwell will now apparently allow him to walk away with $10-million in donor, student, and alumni funds.

The board should have fired him, for cause.

If you don’t want to accept my verdict, consider the judgment of Everett Piper.  Piper is a well-known author and speaker, and he was a long-time college president before his recent retirement.  He often aligns with Falwell on matters of politics and educational policy.  However Piper said, “Only five words suffice:  This man should be fired.  As a university president, had I ever done anything remotely close to this I would have so diminished the dignity of my position that my board’s only recourse would have been to demand my immediate resignation. That is of course if I wasn’t man enough to offer it before asked.”

What’s Wrong With Liberty’s Board?

Part of the problem with Liberty’s board is that it is too big.  It has 33 members, and in the recent past it has had as many as 41 members, much too large for efficient decision-making, or for dissenting voices to be appropriately heard.  

Opinions vary widely about the optimal board size.  According to the Corporate Library’s study, the average board size is 9.2 members, and most boards range from 3 to 31 members. Some analysts think the ideal size is seven.

Secondly, Liberty’s board is, for the most part, what is called a “pay to play” board.  It is made up mostly of either big donors or pastors of big churches who have the ability to use their platforms as “bully pulpits” for Liberty – using their influence to recruit students to attend and alumni and donors to give.  

Most non-profit boards exhibit some degree of this “pay to play” phenomenon, and it’s not always a bad thing.  Big donors (and “opinion influencers” such as pastors) are people who care enough about the institution to make big commitments, even sacrifices.  They invest their dollars, their time, and their reputations.

But boards, especially boards of large and complex organizations such as Liberty do – or are supposed to do – real work.  Sometimes that work is complicated, technical, time-consuming.  It requires real professional expertise, not people who will merely rubber-stamp staff recommendations.  

I’m sure the vast majority of Liberty University’s board members are well-meaning people, who care about the school.  But being an effective board member for a $750-million enterprise requires much, much more than good intentions.  The bottom line here is hard to say, especially hard for me because I know some of the board members and they are good people.  But it must be said:  The failure of Liberty University was not just a failure of Jerry Falwell, Jr., it was also a failure of the Board of Trustees.  

Liberty University’s trustees failed the school’s students, faculty, administration, and parents.  They failed donors and alumni.  They failed to hold the one member of the Liberty staff that reports to them to the Biblical standards of leadership, or even to the standards that every member of the Liberty community must live up to.

If Liberty is to experience true healing and a positive path forward, Jerry Falwell, Jr., should not be the only person who departs.  All, or a substantial number of, Liberty’s board members should follow him into retirement.

Disclosure:  Warren Cole Smith’s daughter is a junior at Liberty University.

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Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine and has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 20 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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