UPDATED: After back and forth, Falwell has resigned from Liberty
University's trustees accept letter of resignation, effective immediately
Updated 2:30 p.m., Aug. 25
Liberty University confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Jerry Falwell Jr. has resigned as president, chancellor and member of its board of directors. According to a news release, the embattled evangelical leader sent a letter of resignation late Monday to members of the Board of Trustees’ executive committee.
The Board of Trustees accepted Falwell’s resignation, which came after a scandal-ridden day of personal revelations about his marriage. He was already on an indefinite leave of absence that began Aug. 7 at the request of the board.
Falwell agreed to resign immediately Monday after the board asked him to do so, according to statements by the university, but then reversed course later in the day and “instructed his attorneys to not tender the letter for immediate resignation.” However, he then changed his mind a second time and had his attorney send the resignation letter to executive committee members late Monday night, according to Tuesday’s news release.
Conflicting reports about his future with the Christian institution emerged Monday evening, with several news outlets reporting he had already resigned or was about to do so. However, in a brief telephone interview with Virginia Business Monday night, Falwell said the reports were “completely false” and that he had not agreed to leave the post permanently.
Falwell, who took the reins in 2007 at the Christian university founded by his televangelist father, Jerry Falwell Sr., said in an interview with ABC News that was posted online just before midnight Monday, “I was never called to be a pastor. My calling was to use my legal and business expertise to make Liberty University the evangelical version of Notre Dame.”
Falwell also spoke to The Wall Street Journal late Monday night, confirming he had resigned and said he was still due his full compensation as president, which reportedly reached $1 million.
According to Liberty’s news release, “Falwell’s severance compensation was dictated by the terms of his pre-existing employment agreement without any adjustment by the university or its board.” The university did not give further details about the contract.
The board also expects to select a search committee for its new president at its next meeting, scheduled in late October. Jerry Prevo, former chairman of the Board of Trustees and a retired evangelical pastor from Alaska, is currently acting president.
“Our students are ready to be world changers as champions for Christ,” Prevo said in a statement Tuesday. “Their spirit is strong as they look to the future. I intend to do all I can to nurture their spiritual side as they grow academically and enjoy all our campus has to offer.”
“The university’s heartfelt prayers are with him and his family as he steps away from his life’s work,” the news release concluded.
Falwell’s resignation comes after a Reuters report Monday afternoon that alleged he and his wife, Becki Falwell, were involved in a years-long affair with a former business associate from Miami, Giancarlo Granda. Although Falwell acknowledged in a statement Sunday night to the Washington Examiner that his wife had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a former friend, who then went on to blackmail the couple, he denies that he participated by watching them have sex on multiple occasions, as Granda alleged in his interview. Falwell did not name Granda in his statement.
Granda, for his part, said he did not try to extort money from the Falwells but said he was trying to extract himself from a soured business deal and relationship with the couple. He told Reuters the sexual relationship began in 2012 when he was a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel and met the Falwells, who were there on vacation. Over the next six years, Granda says they met several times a year in Miami, New York and at the couple’s home in Lynchburg.
In 2013, a shell company, Alton Hostel LLC, purchased a Miami Beach youth hostel for $4.65 million, with Jerry “Trey” Falwell III listed as its sole manager. According to a 2017 Politico article, Granda managed the hostel, and Falwell III was given the money to purchase the property by his father, Falwell Jr.
Granda told Reuters that he had a falling-out with Jerry and Becki Falwell in 2018 after he wanted to “negotiate a buyout” and sever ties with the couple. In a text message from this June to Falwell that was shared with Reuters, Granda wrote, “Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route. It really is a shame because I wanted to reach a peaceful resolution and just move on with our lives but if conflict is what you want, then so be it.”
However, Falwell characterized the situation as a “Fatal Attraction” scenario, referring to the 1987 movie. Falwell said in his phone interview with Virginia Business on Monday that the Reuters story was “90% false,” and that “all you have to do is see what we sent to the Washington Examiner, and you’ll see what’s correct.”
Falwell already was on an indefinite paid leave of absence as president and chancellor of the university. The move followed an uproar over an Instagram photo Falwell posted of himself and his wife’s assistant. Taken at a yacht party, the photo shows Falwell with his arm around the woman, while both of their pants are partially unzipped and Falwell is holding a glass of dark liquid that he said was “black water” and “a prop.” According to a Politico story last week, the yacht belongs to NASCAR mogul Rick Hendrick, with whom the university has a sponsorship deal.
Several people connected with Liberty called for Falwell to resign after the photo surfaced, with some noting that it violated several rules of conduct at the conservative institution.
The photo was just one of a series of controversies around Falwell this year, including a tweet depicting Gov. Ralph Northam’s infamous blackface yearbook photo that prompted some Black employees and students to leave Liberty, and Falwell’s decision in March to invite students back to campus after spring break, when most other colleges and universities were telling students to stay at home in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With more than 110,000 students enrolled, most of them online, Liberty is Virginia’s largest school by enrollment and is the nation’s second-largest online university, behind the University of Phoenix.
Falwell, who was the university’s general counsel before becoming president in 2007, is broadly credited for bringing Liberty out of deep debt to its current financial strength, including a $1.59 billion endowment as of 2019. The university also dramatically increased online enrollment during his tenure, saw more than $1 billion in construction projects and built an impressive athletics program.
The university — and Falwell himself — became well known for its connection to President Donald Trump, whom Falwell endorsed early in 2016 during the Republican primary season. He was the first prominent evangelical leader to throw his support to Trump, and the newly inaugurated president spoke at Liberty’s 2017 commencement.