Apr 29, 2008

Reflections on 2007-2008

by Jennifer Schmidt
He first stepped to the helm for the closing ceremonies of the 2007 spring semester. Liberty University was mourning the loss of its founder, the school’s visionary — a man who was larger than life. Jerry Falwell Jr. had spent a lifetime observing his father from the shadows — he had never personally emerged into the public spotlight. Working as Liberty’s in-house counsel for 20 years, Falwell Jr. was responsible for many of the school’s financial victories, and hardly a project was completed or a new building erected that did not bear his fingerprints. Yet, with the start of the 2007-2008 school year, his responsibilities had dramatically increased. Many students were curious to get a first look at their new chancellor, and everyone wondered how he would do. But from his first day at the podium until now, Falwell Jr. has enjoyed the same enthusiastic applause that used to greet his father every Wednesday at 10 a.m. As the months have passed, Falwell Jr. has gained a broader understanding of his position and how to measure the pulse of the student body. Here are his reflections on the past year. On how he has adapted to his new position: FALWELL: I was actively involved for 20 years in a lot of the management, but it was all behind the scenes, and it enabled Dad to be out with the students and the faculty. I was here all the time and I was watching, so it really wasn’t as much of a transition as it would have been if somebody new had come in. It’s something I’ve been preparing myself for mentally for a long time. I hadn’t done a lot of public appearances, but I had been learning by observing. An attorney friend of mine told me last year that “when you’re around something like that that much you’re picking up more than you think.” He turned out to be right. It has been a natural transition for me. I went to school here, I’ve been here all my life, I’ve watched the school from the first day, I traveled with Dad all the time when he was building the school. I’ve always been a part of it. Lately, I’ve delegated some of the day-to-day management — such as planning issues with the city and zoning. That was once a big part of my work, but I’m not involved with the negotiations like I used to be. I come in at the end and make the final decisions. On his and Becki’s involvement with the student body: FALWELL: We just really enjoy it. Becki and I are dreading seeing the kids leave for the summer. I just enjoy talking to them and having them over at the house. Going to college here was four of the best years of my life up to that point, and it’s because the students had such positive attitudes and were such a great group of kids, and it’s still like that now. We enjoy it — it keeps us young. On how he differs from his father: FALWELL: There are a lot of similarities in our personalities, but he was a pastor and the chancellor of Liberty so he had a dual-role that I don’t have. But this place is so big that it needed a full time person at the university and at the church. I don’t know how he did it all. On what he enjoys most of his job as chancellor: FALWELL: Being able to tell the students directly in convo about exciting new projects and what’s happening here — that’s really enjoyable. I used to just tell Dad and he would tell them, so now I have the enjoyment of conveying all that information to the student body, faculty and employees. It’s rewarding to see that somebody appreciates all of the hard work it takes to make these things happen. It also serves as kind of a sounding board to see what’s important to them. Much of the input from students comes from just talking with them. We adapted our master plan to the student’s input — added a lot more parking than we originally had. We have always felt that our mission is Christian education and the recreational amenities that have been proposed are just a recruiting tool and lifestyle enhancement for the studnets. Students supported the decision to never let recreation become a top priority. When everything else is taken care of, then we can focus on that. On his biggest surprise this year: FALWELL: I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I have. I thought it would just be non-stop, seven days a week, working all the time and no fun. But it hasn’t been like that at all. It’s been very fun — very rewarding. The students responded better than I thought they would, and I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would. On the role his wife, Becki, plays: FALWELL: She looks at the students as her kids. I told somebody last summer we had three kids and now I feel like we have 10,000. She feels like it’s her job as first lady of the university to support me and to help me learn what students are thinking. She interacts with students more than I do. The Adopt a Champion program was her idea and she’s urged a lot of donors to help students financially. She’s had a real passion for that, and she’s pushed me hard to get some space on campus where students can socialize and just hang out. On plans for the 90-foot tower at North Campus: Falwell: We have an architect looking at it now to see if it would be feasible to have four or five levels in there with an atrium running down the middle. It would be a multi-level student center with windows up at the top so you can look out over the city. I don’t know if the numbers will work, but we’re looking at it now. On the financial status of the school: FALWELL: It’s much better than we expected. The Distance Learning Program has grown a lot faster than we expected, so we’ve got money now that we can use for new library space, more parking lots and a perimeter road. We’ve had a tremendous giving year to endowment and capital programs. We were going to spend money on the equivalent of four dorms, but we cancelled that because they wouldn’t have been finished until September. That money will instead go into academics and social amenities. It will make life better for the students that are here, and I think that’s the right decision. On the balance between quality and quantity as Liberty grows: FALWELL: That’s what drove the decision (to not build new dorms right now). The choice was either have more students living on campus, or have the kids that were living here more comfortable. We chose the latter. We have to prioritize and put the quality of academics and life here on campus ahead. On plans for the $10 million in capital expenditures over the next three years: FALWELL: It includes all the intramural facilities, all the improvements to the athletic facilities and some other capital projects that weren’t recreation. (A recent local newspaper article left the impression that the entire $10 million was to be spent on recreational facilities.) On summer progress: FALWELL: Barnes & Noble will be under construction, paid for mostly by them. It will be two floors and 20,000 square feet. The perimeter road connecting the dining hall with North Campus will be finished, the B5 parking lot near David’s Place will be paved and the library on the third floor of DeMoss will be finished. The Towns Alumni Classroom should be finished. On academic changes: FALWELL: We’re talking about several new majors and two new programs. We’re also improving equipment for some communications labs and the drama department. On summer vacation plans: FALWELL: We haven’t planned anything for this summer — we usually plan vacations at the last minute and just go. On his vision for Liberty compared to his father’s: FALWELL: I don’t think it differs. The mission hasn’t changed. The goals are the same. I’m not in as big of a hurry as he was. I don’t have any problem slowing the growth down some if it keeps the quality where it needs to be. And I think that we’ve grown so fast that there are a lot of academic areas that need more attention, so we are going to slow down and catch up with things that might have been overlooked. We might cut off enrollment early this summer for the first time ever. But we have to have both quality and quantity. We can’t sacrifice one for the other. On the size of Liberty: FALWELL: We’re drowning in students, which is a good problem to have, but we need to make sure we take care of them all. That’s the next big challenge — to make sure we do that. The quality has to catch up with the quantity. On his love for Starbucks coffee: FALWELL: Black coffee every afternoon. I don’t even have to order, they just hand it to me. Whatever the blend is for the day — no sugar, no milk. Contact Jennifer Schmidt at jschmidt@liberty.edu.
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