Liberty University chair Jerry Prevo appointed acting president
Prevo replaces Falwell, who is on indefinite leave of absence
The executive committee of Liberty University’s board of trustees has appointed its chairman as acting president while Jerry Falwell Jr. takes an indefinite leave of absence, which took effect Friday.
Jerry Prevo, a retired evangelical pastor from Anchorage, Alaska, has been on the university’s board since 1996 and chairman since 2003. He oversaw the Anchorage Baptist Temple, one of Alaska’s largest churches and religious schools, for 47 years. Prevo will begin work as acting president immediately, according to a news release from the university, and has stepped down as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the duration of his service as interim president.
Falwell was asked Friday to leave the presidency by Liberty’s six-member executive committee, acting on behalf of the board. The president of the Christian university and son of its founder, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., Falwell Jr. has overseen gigantic growth of the university’s online enrollment, which surpassed 100,000 in 2019, in addition to its 15,500 residential students. Under his leadership, the university has become one of the largest Christian universities in the world, with reported total assets of $3.13 billion. Its Rawlings School of Divinity is billed as the world’s largest school for religious studies and ministerial training, and the university is the largest employer in Lynchburg.
Falwell has long been a controversial figure, however.
Falwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid drew criticism from a Liberty student group that argued that Trump did not reflect Liberty’s Christian values. Falwell has said his endorsement was personal and not on behalf of the school. Nonetheless, the nonprofit, tax-exempt university later drew criticism for selling Liberty-branded Trump hats and T-shirts featuring Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan when President Trump spoke at the university in 2017.
Last year, Politico Magazine and Reuters issued reports — based on interviews with anonymous critics and leaked emails — questioning whether the university’s resources were being used for the financial benefit of Falwell friends or family members.
More recently, Falwell held a news conference with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice in January, encouraging conservative western and Southwest Virginia localities to secede to West Virginia because of the new Democratic majority Virginia General Assembly’s votes on issues such as gun control. In March, Falwell drew criticism from Gov. Ralph Northam and Lynchburg officials for inviting students back to campus at a time when many colleges were shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This summer, several Black staff members and students left Liberty, citing incidents of racial insensitivity, including a tweet from Falwell in which he posted a picture of what he said is the only face mask he’d wear. The image depicted a protective face mask decorated with the infamous blackface image from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook.
In an interview in the January 2020 issue of Virginia Business, Falwell said he “thrives” on controversy, adding, “If the right people are upset with you, it means you’re doing something right.”
But Falwell’s support among evangelicals appeared to quickly erode last week after Falwell posted a photo on Instagram of himself and a woman with both of their pants unzipped, as he held a glass with a dark liquid that appeared to be an alcoholic drink. (Falwell wrote in his post that the drink was “black water” and “a prop.”) He took the photo down quickly, but the screen-captured image appeared all over social media.
Last week, in an interview with Lynchburg AM radio station WLNI, Falwell attempted to explain the photo as a joke, taken during a recent yacht vacation in Florida. He said the woman was his wife’s assistant. He apologized during the interview, saying, “I promised my kids I will try to be a good boy from here on out.”
But former Liberty faculty members, students and others criticized Falwell for breaking several rules in Liberty’s strict code of conduct, and some called for him to step down.
The incident follows a series of other controversies this year, including Falwell’s posting on Twitter in May the racist blackface photo that was included in Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. He apologized two weeks later and took down the tweet, but several Black students and employees have left the university, publicly denouncing the tweet and other “racial insensitivities” at the institution. Falwell also received heavy criticism for inviting students back to campus after spring break, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Virginia and other colleges and universities were telling students to stay home.
“We have a world-class leadership team at Liberty University who will support me in running our operations on a day-to-day basis and fulfilling our spiritual mission unabated: Training Champions for Christ,” Prevo said in a statement Monday. “Please pray for us as well as the Falwell family as we embark on our academic year and so we may continue to be united in our common purpose and our faith in Christ.”
Prevo retired from his Anchorage church in 2019 with a farewell service that drew thousands, including Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and former Gov. Sarah Palin, according to an Associated Press report. Anchorage Baptist Temple had assets valued at $85 million and built Anchorage Christian Schools, which has about 700 students. Like Falwell and his father, Prevo has had considerable influence on Republican politics from the pulpit.
Falwell has not returned messages asking for comment, and his personal social media accounts have been quiet since Friday.
On Friday, Prevo issued a statement about Falwell’s leave, saying that although the university has “experienced unprecedented success” since Falwell took the reins of the 49-year-old university in 2007, “with this success and the burdens of leading such a large and growing organization comes substantial pressure.”