The Royals of Regent
Christian university has broad political influence
Although Lynchburg’s Liberty University has grabbed plenty of headlines in recent years, Virginia Beach-based Regent University can more than hold its own as a politically influential private Christian institution.
Founded and still run by the 92-year-old televangelist and culture warrior M.G. “Pat” Robertson, Regent now has 11,000 students, 80% of whom are enrolled online. The average student’s age is 37, and the university’s programs are squarely focused on the Bible — to the point that law classes are 10 minutes longer than usual to allow time for Christian devotions.
Robertson started The Christian Broadcasting Network Inc. (CBN) in 1960, and he revolutionized religious broadcasting when he launched its flagship program, “The 700 Club,” in 1966, adopting a daily newsmagazine format instead of televising sermons and church services.
Regent was incorporated as CBN University in 1977, offering only graduate-level classes at first. The next year, it welcomed about 70 students for graduate studies in communications and the arts. In 1990, CBN University was renamed Regent University, and as of 2022, the university offers more than 150 areas of study and an athletic program established in 2016 with the nickname “Royals.”
Similar to the late Jerry Falwell, Robertson was a pioneer in marrying evangelical Christianity to conservative politics, helping change the way the nation thinks about both. That connection carries through at Regent, whose alumni include Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, 53 sitting judges, hundreds of professors at various colleges and 14 university presidents.
“Before my time, no one took evangelical Christians as serious members of the political class,” Robertson said via email. “They were always on the outside looking in. Since my work, evangelicals have become a major factor in public elections and in truth make up part of a winning coalition that has seen conservatives elected as mayors, city council members, state legislators, congressmen, senators and presidents. Without evangelicals, this remarkable transformation wouldn’t have taken place.”
A graduate of Yale Law School and Washington & Lee University who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, Robertson no longer grants in-person interviews, the university says, but he’s still actively involved in the university’s operations. In October 2021, Robertson retired from hosting “The 700 Club,” handing the mantle to his son Gordon Robertson.
But the senior Robertson, who has sparked many controversies over the years for his on-air comments about everything from Islam and 9/11 to abortion and the LGBTQ community, has not forgotten how to shake things up. In February, Robertson made headlines for declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine, fulfilling a biblical prophecy that would lead to an invasion of Israel predicted in the Bible’s New Testament.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, however, Robertson doesn’t mention the prophecies and predictions that have long played a part in his charismatic ministry. “I hope my legacy will be this: ‘He served God and his generation,’” Robertson says simply.
It is not clear who will succeed Robertson as the head of Regent, when that time comes.
“The board of trustees does not want that to be public knowledge,” says Chris Roslan, a Regent spokesman, who also would not say whether members of the Robertson family might be involved in leadership roles at Regent in the years to come.
Currently, all Regent vice presidents and executive vice presidents report directly to Pat Robertson.
Like fellow Christian institution Liberty University, Regent has seen its enrollment grow from offering online degree programs, which it first rolled out in 1997.
“For 10 consecutive years, Regent’s online bachelor’s program has been recognized as the best online bachelor’s [program] in Virginia by U.S. News & World Report,” says William L. Hathaway, Regent’s executive vice president for academic affairs.
Regent has taken steps to ensure the quality of its online degrees, taking a different tack from other colleges, which set up their virtual programs to function as parallel online universities, Hathaway says. “Instead, we choose to house our distance programs or offerings in the same academic units that offer our on-campus programming. There is no difference in the curricular expectations or quality standards among the faculty in our various disciplines between our online and on-campus programs.”
However, prospective students sometimes do want to know whether being taught from a Christian perspective will impact the quality of education they receive.
“They want to make sure our education really is a distinctively Christian education without compromising the standard professional or disciplinary training that is being received, even if they are not personally identified with some Christian tradition,” he says. “In short, they hope our Christian mission is a ‘value-added’ component to the education.”
While Regent is a Christian university, its students represent many denominations. “From Roman Catholics to Pentecostal, we have a wide range of faith expressions here,” Hathaway says.
The preponderance of classes at Regent are taught by adjunct faculty, who represent about 80% of the university’s nearly 1,500 faculty members.
Because students involved in distance education are taught by faculty who are located away from Virginia Beach, the university has a greater pool of qualified faculty to draw from — as well as a financial consideration. Adjunct faculty complement the full-time faculty and add “substantial, cost-effective capacity to our university, allowing us to keep tuition and other costs competitive,” according to Hathaway.
In a region dominated by military installations, Regent also has been active in enrolling and supporting veterans and their spouses.
While Regent’s scholarship and educational offerings represent conservative perspectives more than many other colleges and universities, its students represent a range of sociopolitical perspectives because they are drawn from a pool of applicants both national and worldwide, Hathaway says.
However, a lesbian Regent law student joined a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education last year to challenge the religious exemption to Title IX, which the 40 plaintiffs say allows discrimination against LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities.
Among Regent’s faculty are some Republican Party luminaries, including former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who sought the GOP nomination for president in 2012.
Bachmann is the dean of Regent’s Robertson School of Government, which offers master’s degrees in five subjects: American government, national security studies, campaigns and leadership, public administration, and international development.
Bachmann, who grew up in a Democratic family, supported and campaigned for Democrat Jimmy Carter for president but switched her allegiance to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
A mother of five, Bachmann has been a vocal opponent of abortion and once introduced a proposed constitutional amendment in the Minnesota Senate to bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriage. News accounts have characterized her as a vocal skeptic of global warming.
But Bachmann says the Robertson School of Government — which has 174 students in its master’s programs, the majority of whom study online — encourages students to form their own opinions.
“Our students come to us from all over the world and from diverse backgrounds,” she says. “At RSG, we work hard to offer the finest instruction possible in accordance with biblical principles. Students form their own personal and political viewpoints.”
A rising GOP star, Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears received a full scholarship to attend Regent’s School of Business & Leadership, from which she earned a graduate degree in organizational leadership.
One of the takeaways from her Regent education, the lieutenant governor says, was the idea of servant leadership.
“You have to earn respect; you don’t demand respect,” she says. “But once you sit in the big chair, you better be able to lead, so you better know what you’re doing. So, I got that from Regent.”
Another big-name faculty member at Regent is former Virginia governor and attorney general Bob McDonnell, who attended Regent when it was known as CBN University.
McDonnell was a decade away from his graduation from the University of Notre Dame — having served in the military for four years and later worked in business — when he began thinking about taking advantage of his G.I. Bill and getting more education.
“I also really became interested in the integration of faith and learning and the founding of our country, and I wanted to find out more about government. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was always interested in how faith affects all aspects of life, especially government,” McDonnell says. “I thought Regent would be a great place to learn.”
He earned a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree from Regent. Today, McDonnell teaches a limited number of law classes at Regent’s law and government schools. He also continues to practice law and provides consulting services.
“I practiced law for 33 years, and I have experience in government. I am able to translate to the students between the theoretical and academic versus the practical world of politics and government,” McDonnell says, adding that he also helps students find internships and make connections with those who might help them in their careers.
Regent is best known perhaps for its School of Law. Founded in 1986, Regent’s law school has launched many prominent careers, particularly in conservative politics.
Regent Law is led by Dean Mark Martin, a former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice who was also an informal legal adviser to President Donald Trump during his attempts to contest the 2020 election.
According to The New York Times, Trump told Vice President Mike Pence that Martin had counseled Trump that Pence could stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College results in the weeks following the 2020 election. Pence affirmed that the vice president doesn’t have the power to overturn a presidential election.
The Regent law school’s start was unusual, recalls Bachmann, who was enrolled at Oral Roberts University’s O.W. Coburn School of Law in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when that school closed in 1986 and moved to Virginia Beach to become a part of what was then CBN University.
“Virtually the entire law school was put on a moving truck,” Bachmann recalls, noting that she and her husband moved with the law school to Virginia, where she went on to receive a Master of Laws degree in taxation from William & Mary. “I shared the same moving truck as the law school.”
Today, with 861 students enrolled on campus and online, Regent’s law school offers a variety of study opportunities. Its structure demonstrates the close relationship between the university’s academic programs and its mission to provide “Christian leadership to change the world.”
“Every law class is 10 minutes longer than required to have time for a devotion,” notes Associate Dean of Administration and Admissions S. Ernie Walton. “The devotion often focuses on biblical principles that are relevant to the material that will be studied. During class, professors spend time not just teaching the substantive law, but analyzing and debating the law in light of Christian principles.”
Looking back over the development of Regent University from its origins 45 years ago to where it is today, founder Pat Robertson continues to hold to his original concept for the school.
“The vision of Regent is to be the most influential, transformational university in the world,” he says. “My goal with Regent is to see it not just rival Harvard and Yale, but to rival Oxford and [the] Sorbonne in the Middle Ages as a school that can impact the whole society. I believe that Regent is just getting warmed up, and the best is yet to come.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the fact that Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears earned her graduate degree from Regent’s School of Business & Leadership, not the Robertson School of Government, as originally reported.
At a glance
Regent was founded in 1977 by televangelist M.G. “Pat” Robertson as CBN University, a nod to the school’s close ties to the Christian Broadcasting Network, which Robertson started in 1960. The school was renamed Regent University in 1990.
The university’s 70-acre campus is dotted with stately neo-Georgian red brick buildings, including Robertson Hall, home to Regent’s School of Law and Robertson School of Government.
Average age: 37
35.75% male; 64.24% female
42.42% full-time students;
57.57% part-time students
46.2% graduate students
510 staff members
Full-time faculty: 134
Part-time faculty: 675
Tuition and fees, housing and financial aid
Tuition and fees: $18,820
Room and board: $7,004
Average need-based financial aid awarded to first-year students seeking assistance: $5,417
SOURCE: U.S. News & World Report data for 2021-22 school year