Q&A with the Chancellor
Questions and answers adapted by Ashley Bollinger from an interview conducted by Andrew Claudio of 90.9 The Light.
How has the university changed since you were a student?
When I was a student, we hiked through the ravine from the dorm circle and up the steep hill to class. The Vines Center had not been built and we would often slip and fall in the mud on the way to class. I complained to Dad and we finally got a staircase – the one that still exists. We saw that as a major campus improvement in my day. It is quite a contrast to see what God has done at Liberty since the 1980s. Now, we are starting construction on a small lake to beautify that muddy ravine and a new basketball practice facility behind Vines that will have a lawn on the roof allowing students to walk from the dorm circle to the classrooms on level ground. Construction on this facility will start even before the library construction.
Liberty’s construction team has repeatedly amazed other universities with the speed they are able to complete new projects. For example, many university presidents are shocked when I tell them that Liberty completed the renovations to Williams Stadium between football seasons (relocating only one game to City Stadium) and constructed the Tower Theater during the same nine or 10 month time period.
What is the vision behind the Welcome Center?
We made a decision after construction began on the Welcome Center to greatly enhance the interior finishes. The goal is to “put our best foot forward” and create the best possible first impression with every prospective student, their families and other visitors to campus. One of our slogans at Liberty over the years has been “if it’s Christian, it should be better” and we want our visitors to experience that at the new front door of our campus. The materials required to upgrade the interior of the building were not readily available so the completion of the Welcome Center had to be delayed by a few months.
How is the on-campus construction regarding the tunnel progressing?
The new perimeter road is now under construction. It will run from the existing railroad crossing, parallel to the railroad tracks, over the new pedestrian tunnel, across the dam of the new lake behind the Vines Center and on to the dorm circle. The exterior finishes are being added to the Wards Road side of the pedestrian tunnel now and the tunnel should be open to students at the beginning of next semester. A new fence along the railroad tracks will make the pedestrian tunnel the only option for students to cross the tracks by foot.
Our agreement with the railroad for the pedestrian tunnel requires that the new vehicular tunnels at Harvard Street be completed within two years. We are moving ahead to meet this deadline.
What can Liberty expect with the construction of the new library?
Locations have now been found for all the offices in Schilling and, as soon as Schilling is empty, demolition will start on the section of Schilling where the basketball teams now practice. Then, construction on the library will begin. The library will offer the finest design and quality of construction to Liberty students and faculty. It will be a clear statement of Liberty’s commitment to academic excellence. The automatic book retrieval system will use a robotic mechanism to deliver books to students allowing the new book collection of 500,000 volumes to be stored in 1/9 of the space required by traditional stacks. This will create more quiet study space, more group study space and space for a food court to replace the Hangar. Dr. Carl Merat and his staff have worked with our architects and consultants to create a truly state-of-the-art plan for Liberty’s new library. The new vehicular tunnels will replace the existing at-grade crossing at Sonic allowing trains to pass by without sounding their horns and interrupting students in the library. The library will have two levels underground and students will be able to use the elevator to access the lower level that will lead to the pedestrian tunnel.
New gyms for Kinesiology classes are now under construction adjacent to the LaHaye Fitness Center and the Thomas Indoor Soccer Complex at Green Hall. These gyms will serve as the replacement for the northern section of Schilling Center across from the Hangar and Reber-Thomas when it is demolished to make way for new academic buildings.
Can you explain the changes in the sports facilities?
The new baseball stadium planning has been progressing nicely. We had hoped to start construction this Fall but decided to make other changes in the area to improve the final design. For example, the outdoor track is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. Rather than replace it in its current location around the soccer field, we decided to relocate it, probably to the other side of US 29/460 across from Candlers Station and below Snowflex.
This allows us to enlarge the soccer field to the maximum NCAA size and move the field closer to the stands. That change allows us to shift the baseball stadium more to the northeast, which creates the most optimal conditions for spectators and players. This eliminates the direct sunlight that we now have in Worthington Stadium on the stands that run along the first base line. It also allows us to shift the stadium away from David’s Place slightly, making it possible to use David’s Place for locker rooms and batting tunnels without attaching the stadium to the building (except at one corner). Merging the David’s Place building with the stadium itself would have been much more costly.
The shifting of the soccer field and relocation of the track also creates a nice building pad (with the removal of some dirt) between the David’s Place parking lot and the soccer field. We are discussing possibilities for that site now. Students may also have noticed that dirt is being removed from the hill between the band practice field on the dorm circle and the highway. That dirt is being used to build the new perimeter road and is part of a plan that our Staff Engineer, Maggie Cossman, and Charles Spence, our Director of Construction, worked out with the Virginia Department of Transportation to beautify the cut and fill slopes between campus and the highway.
Also, architects and engineers have determined that adding an upper deck of seating in Vines would be relatively inexpensive. The second deck would hang from the ring that supports the dome (amazingly, without columns that would block views in the seating below) meaning the back row of the second deck would be at the ring level which is at the base of the dome and the second deck would extend out over the existing seating. Sight lines would work well and the upper deck would be accessed by a series of staircases around the arena.
This expansion would, however, prevent us from using the facility for convocation or games for a year or more during construction. Moving convocation and basketball games to the new Civic Center temporarily would make the expansion of Vines more feasible. With an enhanced seating capacity, Vines would serve as a Convocation Center only avoiding any set up and tear down costs for athletic events. This would represent a major cost savings for the university.
The new upper deck and reconfiguration of the existing seating to meet new codes (that allow more seats and less aisle space) could increase the Vines seating capacity from 9000+ to over 14,000. Using TRBC as a satellite location, Vines should meet our convocation needs for many years to come. Likewise, a Civic Center that seats 10,000 should accommodate the needs of our basketball program well into the future and, while students might have a short walk through the tunnel and/or a short shuttle bus ride to the new Civic Center, unlike Vines, the new center would have easy access from Wards Road across the new bridge that Liberty built at the airport a few years ago and it would have on-site parking for local residents and commuters.
Plans to move Tilley Center to main campus are also being discussed. The space where Tilley Center is now located would be converted into a 2500-3000 seat facility for a more intimate and competitive for events. The better attended women’s basketball and volleyball games would be played at the Civic Center.
What is the biggest complaint you get from students?
Lately, the number one complaint, by far, has been parking difficulties. Liberty has far more on-site parking available than most universities of its size but our commuters, staff and faculty live in a small town where they are generally able to drive up to and park near the front door of most businesses that they visit. That creates an expectation that does not exist in larger cities but it is hard to match on a densely populated campus. Liberty is densely populated like a big city and that requires habits to change. The new Civic Center proposal could be a great help. We would likely lease the 2500-3000 new spaces there during the day. Bus service would be very efficient between those lots and the Campus East tunnel – a very short ride.
Given the recent results from the survey on solving the parking problems, what can students look forward to?
I kept getting complaints from commuter students this semester saying they had to drive around campus for 30-45 minutes before finding a parking space so I came up with a plan that would have assigned each commuter to a certain parking lot on campus by random drawing. Each lot would have been gated and every commuter would have been guaranteed a space even if they arrived only five minutes before class started. Surprisingly, commuters voted 87% – 13% against the new plan in favor of keeping the current parking system. Even though the current system will remain in effect, significant changes will be made to improve parking options for commuters in the Spring.
We have been asked for years to consider not allowing freshmen to bring cars to Liberty. Liberty is proud that freshmen are allowed to bring cars to school so we did not want to restrict that privilege. We did, however, decide to relocate certain resident student parking (mostly lower classmen) by assigning those students to lots that are more distant from classroom buildings. This will create more spaces for commuters to park in lots that are served by regular bus service. We are also adding over 600 new parking spaces on campus by January. The new plan is not perfect and we will continue to make adjustments. Next Fall, we may assign commuters to certain lots and price the lots according to location and popularity.
How are the plans for the Civic Center advancing?
Lynchburg’s studies on the new Civic Center are finding that the Lynchburg region will support a new Civic Center. If built, it will likely be located just to the west of the new lacrosse and field hockey fields at the edge of Campus East. Liberty will use the Civic Center for basketball games, concerts and other events.
With the new gun policy on campus, what would you say to parents to ensure that this is still a safe campus?
I am a Liberty University parent and I feel that students are much safer now that some faculty and staff will be carrying concealed weapons in our buildings. If a shooting occurred like the one at Virginia Tech, one of our faculty or staff members might be able to intervene. I honestly believe that, if a few responsible people (maybe even just the pilots and crew) had been carrying guns in the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, that tragedy could have been averted.
Is there a long-term goal for the school as far as growth?
And if so, does this mean new dorms and expansion?
The new plan for dorms and classrooms could easily accommodate 20,000-25,000 students. The national economy will affect how long it takes Liberty to reach that enrollment goal. We intend to watch national trends closely as we grow and adjust as necessary so that we do not over-build or build too quickly.
What is one criticism of the school that you would say is unfair?
At this holiday season, I think we need to reflect on how blessed we are at Liberty. God has blessed this school in ways that have never been seen before.
One of our professors, Dr. Karen Prior, recently sent me a link to an article quoting one of the national rating agencies about the difficulties many smaller Christian colleges in the U.S. are experiencing recruiting new students. The professor had no idea that the senior rating analyst quoted in that article had been on campus recently to evaluate Liberty’s credit rating. The timing of Dr. Prior forwarding me the article was quite remarkable since that same rating agency was and is in the midst of re-evaluating Liberty’s credit rating.
I took the opportunity to reiterate to the analyst how unique Liberty’s mission among Christian colleges and universities has always been. I told him: The colleges you referenced in this article all were founded with the expectation that they would remain small and would provide a very focused educational experience for their students. Liberty, on the other hand, was founded with the goal of becoming a world class university for evangelical Christian young people.
We believe the huge student demand that we are enjoying at Liberty while other Christian colleges seem to be declining is evidence that there is a real need for an evangelical Christian equivalent of Notre Dame or Brigham Young.
By distinguishing itself as the only evangelical Christian university that provides a wide variety of academic offerings, NCAA Division I athletics, a great number of student activities and world class facilities, Liberty has removed itself from the fierce competition for students faced by many smaller Christian colleges who all offer very similar academic programs and student experiences. In addition, being a larger university with diverse course studies has resulted in Liberty University attracting students of other faiths that share similar values.
I also wanted to note that, when you asked me recently why so many universities that were founded with Christian missions similar to Liberty’s had strayed from their missions over time, I replied that tenure was the major cause of the shift. I was reminded recently of another major factor that has historically caused Christian universities to change course and that factor has been a tendency by Christian colleges to bow to the pressure of donors in order to receive needed contributions. Many Christian colleges have allowed their donors to become board members even when those donors do not share the Christian values of the institution and those donors have used the promise of donations to influence other board members to change the doctrinal foundations of the institutions.
I believe that Liberty’s uniqueness in being funded by a business plan rather than by donors will insulate it from similar donor pressures and will allow us to retain our Christian foundations. I believe that, if Liberty continues to be good stewards of the resources God has provided to us, the resulting financial strength will give us the ability to resist pressures to change our mission.
If you could say one thing to a high school student that would convince them to come to Liberty, what would it be?
Repeated surveys tell us over and over that the two main reasons that students choose Liberty are its Christian mission and emphasis and its affordability (Liberty’s tuition and fees rank it in the bottom 25 percent of all private colleges). We intend to keep both of those factors that distinguish Liberty from other schools at the top of all our priority lists.