Editor’s note:Jerry Falwell, Jr. has since resigned, effective immediately, after conflicting reports about the end of his tenure as Liberty University president.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the university’s founder, was on leave after a social media controversy erupted two weeks ago. Falwell uploaded several photos on the social media platform Instagram of him vacationing, including a photograph of him with a woman who is not his wife. His arm was around the woman, with a drink in his other hand. The photograph has since been deleted from his Instagram account.
As Inside Higher Ed reported, the scandal pushed the Liberty University Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee to announce on August 7 that Falwell was placed on an indefinite leave of absence as president and chancellor “effectively immediately.” An additional statement from the board’s chairman, Jerry Prevo, noted that Falwell’s leadership of thirteen years has led Liberty University to “unprecedented success.” Prevo added that this decision “was not made lightly” and asked “our entire community lift him up in prayer.” The statement also said that the university has grown to at least 120,000 online and on-campus students under Falwell’s stewardship.
Before being placed on leave, Falwell called into a radio interview and claimed that the scandalous photograph was taken at a “costume party” and that the image was “just in good fun.” He said that the woman in the photo was his wife’s assistant and added, “I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out.”
Adding insult to injury, a sitting congressman called out Falwell and insisted that Falwell resign from the university. Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican representative, posted on social media that Falwell’s “ongoing behavior is appalling.” Walker added that because of ties to the university as a music faculty advisory board member and former instructor, “I’m convinced Falwell should step down.” He concluded that the university and its community “deserve better.”
Since being put on leave, another report emerged that Falwell may be skirting some rules when it comes to non-profit finances, gifts, and business dealings. Politico reported that Falwell may have been abusing his power as university president to use a private yacht without compensating the yacht’s owner. The yacht, known as “Wheels,” is a yacht owned by Hendrick Motorsports, a NASCAR racing company. Hendrick Motorsports is owned by Rick Hendrick, who has been instrumental in starting an auto dealership management program at Liberty University. Liberty University also sponsors a Hendrick Motorsports car since 2018, which could cost at least $6 million annually.
In non-profit compliance regulations, it is important for non-profit organizations to reimburse or pay for services rendered to avoid charges of bribery and illicit backroom dealing, such as the private, non-business use of a client or board members’ private jet, boats or yachts, venues or other services. These regulations are in place to limit conflict-of-interest or bribery issues that could arise if services are given for free in exchange for a deal or contract down the road. All activities for non-profits must be business-related and not be for personal reasons. Based on Politico’s reports, the Falwell family and Liberty University have not confirmed whether Hendrick Motorsports was compensated for Wheels’ private use by the Falwell family.
The yacht is a luxury yacht, which has “six bedrooms for guests, marble bathrooms, three wet bars and three separate sun decks.” Politico added that the luxury yacht “carries jet skis, 15 drop-down televisions, and a 19th century dining table made out of North Carolina walnut in its formal dining room” and has a space for eight crew members. Politico estimated that it costs “at least $200,000 for one week” to rent.
Falwell’s family apparently has used the yacht multiple times in the past year. This past July, Falwell’s daughter Caroline got engaged in Key West, Florida and the yacht was in the background of the proposal video. In July 2019, Falwell posted photos on social media of a vacation in the Bahamas, which vacation photos included an image of the Wheels yacht. In 2018, while on vacation in Greece, Falwell posted photos of sunbathing and jet-skiing and mentioned that they were on a yacht owned by a Liberty University supporter.
This is not the first sketchy financial dealing that the Falwell family has been involved with at the university. Politico reported last year that Liberty University hired a company owned by Falwell’s son, Trey, to manage a university-owned shopping center. In addition, the university allegedly issued “generous loans and contracts to Falwell’s friends,” which included property sales to family and friends without proper disclosure of their relationships in tax records.
Adding to these two scandals, Falwell then claimed that he and his wife were being blackmailed by a former business partner. Falwell’s wife allegedly had a brief affair with said partner before reconciling with Falwell, but the former business partner disputed details from Falwell’s account.
The university board told the press that Falwell was going to resign, but Falwell said he had not resigned. As of today, Falwell remains on indefinite leave from his role at the university.
Falwell has come under fire for being an avid supporter of President Donald Trump, as well as his past tweets about social issues and that he allegedly did not take enough safety precautions in welcoming students back to campus during the coronavirus pandemic.