Opinion | The Worst Scandal in American Higher Education Isn’t in the Ivy League

Those of us who write about higher education can pay too much attention to America’s elite universities. Schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford are seen as virtual cultural superpowers, and the battle over these schools is sometimes seen as a proxy for battles over the future of the country itself. It’s not that this argument is wrong, exactly. That’s why I’ve written about these schools myself. But it’s incomplete.

In rightly ascribing importance to the Harvards of the world, we can forget that other schools in other contexts also exercise immense influence, and their virtues and flaws can sometimes be more consequential than anything that happens in the Ivy League.

In fact I’d argue that the moral collapse at Liberty University in Virginia may well be the most consequential education scandal in the United States, not simply because the details themselves are shocking and appalling, but because Liberty’s misconduct both symbolizes and contributes to the crisis engulfing Christian America. It embodies a cultural and political approach that turns Christian theology on its head.

Last week, Fox News reported that Liberty is facing the possibility of an “unprecedented” $37.5 million fine from the U.S. Department of Education. The education department has been investigating violations of the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires federally funded colleges and universities to publicly report data about campus crime. To put that number into perspective, consider that Michigan State University paid $4.5 million for its own “systemic failure” to respond to the infamous Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, in which Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing dozens of women in his care. While Liberty’s fine is not yet set, the contents of a leaked education department report — first reported by Susan Svrluga in The Washington Post — leave little doubt as to why it may be this large.

The report, as Svrluga writes, “paints a picture of a university that discouraged people from reporting crimes, underreported the claims it received and, meanwhile, marketed its Virginia campus as one of the safest in the country.” The details are grim. According to the report, “Liberty failed to warn the campus community about gas leaks, bomb threats and people credibly accused of repeated acts of sexual violence — including a senior administrator and an athlete.”

A campus safety consultant told Svrluga, “This is the single most blistering Clery report I have ever read. Ever.”

If this was the only scandal at Liberty, it would and should be a national story. But it’s not the only scandal. Far from it. I’ve been following (and covering) Liberty’s moral collapse for years, and the list of scandals and lawsuits plaguing the school is extraordinarily long. The best known of these is the saga of Jerry Falwell Jr. Falwell, the former president and son of the school’s founder, resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving himself, his wife and a pool boy turned business associate named Giancarlo Granda.

Falwell is nationally prominent in part because he was one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most enthusiastic evangelical supporters. Falwell sued the school, the school sued Falwell, and in September Falwell filed a scorching amended complaint, claiming that other high-ranking Liberty officers and board members had committed acts of sexual and financial misconduct yet were permitted to retain their positions

But that’s not all. In 2021, ProPublica published a comprehensive, gut-wrenching report describing how Liberty mishandled claims of sex abuse and sex harassment on campus and used its strict code of conduct, the Liberty Way, against victims of sex abuse. If, for example, a victim had been drinking or engaged in any other conduct prohibited by Liberty policies, those details in their sex abuse complaint could be used against them in school disciplinary proceedings.

Liberty has faced a series of lawsuits related to those claims, and last year it settled one of those cases. Throughout these controversies, Liberty has responded by denying many of the worst allegations against it. Liberty claims, for example, that the education department’s preliminary report is marred by “significant errors, misstatements and unsupported conclusions.” It has also acknowledged “historic gaps in compliance” with the Clery Act and says it is making material changes on campus, including spending millions upgrading campus security and reviewing and enhancing its Title IX procedures.

I know that there are people who will read the accounts above and be angry. They can’t believe a Christian institution could fail its students, the church and the nation so profoundly. Others will read and grow angry for a different reason. The scandals above are only a partial description of the problems at Liberty. They’ll actually think I let the campus off easy.

But there’s another group that will be angry as well — at yet another attack on an evangelical institution in a powerful secular newspaper. That anger, though, is a key part of the problem with the American church, and it’s a problem that no less a Christian figure than the apostle Paul identified almost 2,000 years ago.

In his first letter to the Corinthian church (or, as Trump might say, One Corinthians), he issued a ferocious denunciation of sexual immorality inside the church. In chapter five, he says that he’s heard of misconduct “of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” He’s condemning an act of incest within the church, but if you read the accounts of incidents at Liberty, you’ll read stories of gross misconduct that Christians and non-Christians alike should and do find utterly abhorrent.

The chapter continues in an interesting way. Paul demonstrates ferocious anger at the church’s internal sin, but says this about those outside the congregation: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’”

Not every Christian institution is rocked by scandal, and there are many Christian colleges that are healthy and vibrant, led by men and women of integrity. Yet as we witness systemic misconduct unfold at institution after institution after institution, often without any real accountability, we can understand that many members of the church have gotten Paul’s equation exactly backward. They are remarkably tolerant of even the most wayward, dishonest and cruel individuals and institutions in American Christianity. At the same time, they approach those outside with a degree of anger and ferocity that’s profoundly contributing to American polarization. It’s also perpetuating the corruption of the church.

Under this moral construct, internal critique is perceived as a threat, a way of weakening American evangelicalism. It’s seen as contributing to external hostility and possibly even the rapid secularization of American life that’s now underway. But Paul would scoff at such a notion. One of the church’s greatest apostles didn’t hold back from critiquing a church that faced far greater cultural or political headwinds — including brutal and deadly persecution at the hands of the Roman state — than the average evangelical can possibly imagine.

Why? Because he realized the health of the church wasn’t up to the state, nor was it dependent on the church’s nonbelieving neighbors. Liberty University is consequential not just because it’s an academic superpower in Christian America, but also because it’s a symbol of a key reality of evangelical life — we have met the enemy of American Christianity, and it is us.

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