Northam calls out Falwell for bringing Liberty students back to campus
Lynchburg mayor calls Falwell's move "reckless"; governor urges him to reconsider
UPDATED 6:40 P.M., MARCH 25
As Lynchburg city officials blasted Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., calling him “reckless” for inviting students back to campus after spring break, Gov. Ralph Northam weighed in on the brouhaha Wednesday, making a public request for the controversial conservative icon to reverse course in light of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19 and this is yet another example,” Northam said during his Wednesday coronavirus news briefing. “Our message has been clear, and it will continue to be clear: Stay home unless you have to leave for essential reasons. We appreciate our colleges and universities making accommodations for students with special cases. But that is very different from inviting students to leave their homes and come back to campus.”
As virtually every college and university campus in Virginia has closed and switched to online instruction, Falwell emailed the school’s residential students, welcoming them to return back to campus, even though Falwell had announced last week that the school would begin switching over most of its classes to online-only instruction beginning March 23. About 1,110 students had returned to campus on Tuesday, according to Liberty spokesperson Scott Lamb.
Liberty issued a statement Monday that it would take extra measures to sanitize and adjust dining hall service to conform to state directives from Northam. “Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back.'” Falwell said in the statement. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if coronavirus is still an issue.”
A popular conservative figure and ardent support of President Trump, Falwell made headlines a couple weeks ago when he speculated during an interview on the Fox News show “Fox & Friends” that the COVID-19 pandemic was arranged by North Korea and China to harm the Trump administration and America.
Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement that she “was very surprised and disappointed to … learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus. We are in the midst of a public health crisis. 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. Liberty University is an important part of this community; however, I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time. It is unfortunate that President Falwell chose to not keep his word to us and to this community.”
“As we are told in First Corinthians,” Northam said, citing the Bible during his news conference Wednesday, “it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance. And it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located and our commonwealth. I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis and to please reconsider his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus.”
Liberty issued an official rebuttal to Northam’s remarks Wednesday evening. Deeming the governor’s remarks to be “false accusations,” the statement said that Liberty “has been, and will continue to be, in compliance with all of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s directives, as well as all applicable federal guidance. The governor was quoting scripture today about Christian duty to protect our students. That’s exactly what Liberty has been laboring tirelessly to do over the last couple of weeks. We really think it’s un-Christian to turn students away and push any problems off on someone else. Most of our residential campus students are not in the Lynchburg area. Only about 10% of our residential students are currently here on campus. Many of those are international students who did not leave the country on spring break and have nowhere else to go. The governor should understand that.”
The statement continued, “That anyone in the city of Lynchburg would welcome other college students from across the state — and indeed the world — to return ‘home’ to Lynchburg but expect the drawbridge should be pulled up to deny entry to Liberty students illustrates the height of hypocrisy and scapegoating that is going on today. We invite Gov. Northam to come and see our compliance for himself, rather than making false accusations in press conferences from Richmond. As the Ninth Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'”