Students at Liberty University in Virginia gathered Friday to protest in the wake of news reports containing allegations that school president Jerry Falwell Jr. improperly benefited from the institution and disparaged students in emails.
Students joined together at the private evangelical university known for being an influential hub in conservative politics and held up signs calling for accountability and an investigation.
Elizabeth Brooks, a junior majoring in politics and policy, told The Associated Press by phone that a recent Politico Magazine story as well as a Reuters report prompted the protest at the school in Lynchburg. She said about 35 students were involved.
“I couldn’t stay silent anymore,” the 20-year-old said. “I would like to see President Falwell address this himself and for there to be an investigation into the allegations to see whether or not they’re true.”
At least one student held a sign that read: “I TRUST JERRY.”
The Politico story contained allegations that Falwell “presides over a culture of self-dealing” at Liberty that has improperly benefited him and his family. The story cited unnamed sources described as current and former officials or Falwell associates.
Falwell told The AP on Tuesday that he wasn’t going to “dignify the lies that were reported” in the Politico piece, calling the reporter for the story a “little boy.”
Falwell said he would ask the FBI to investigate. He also said Liberty has hired “the meanest lawyer in New York,” whom he declined to identify, to pursue civil cases.
Brooks said student protesters were particularly upset about quotes of emails in the Reuters story posted Thursday in which Falwell allegedly referred to one student as “emotionally imbalanced and physically retarded.”
David Corry, Liberty’s general counsel, told Reuters that Liberty wouldn’t respond “without knowing the details or seeing email chains in their entirety.”
Brooks grew up in Lynchburg and said she remembers when Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., died in 2007. She referred to the elder Falwell’s often-used quote about the school: “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.”
“I am a Christian,” Brooks said. “And that quote from Jerry. Sr. really does embody our mission. We didn’t come out here to be angry or militant. We honestly just wanted to show the student body that there are people like them who care and who want to see this place be the best it can be.”
Following Friday’s protest, Falwell Jr. tweeted that he was “so impressed with how @LibertyU students conducted themselves today at the protest!”
“The ones who had concerns and the ones who supported me were both respectful and not angry – very Christ-like in their behavior,” he continued. “Our students are an example the world can learn from!”
Liberty was founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell Sr. with just 154 students. It now boasts an enrollment of more than 100,000, including those in its massive online education program.
Falwell Jr.’s early and ardent support of President Donald Trump created a rift on campus during the presidential campaign and has sparked controversy since.
An earlier version of this report had an incorrect spelling of Elizabeth Brooks’ last name.