During Liberty University’s 39th Commencement on Saturday, May 12, presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney told graduates that their Christ-based education has well equipped them for the challenges they will face in the world.
“You leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor,” he said. “You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know whom you will serve.”
The ceremony, held under sunny skies at Williams Stadium, was the largest ever for Liberty, with more than 34,000 in attendance.
This year, Liberty graduated about 14,000 students, a 25 percent increase over last year. The 2012 graduating class was larger than the total student body of Liberty in 2002. This year’s graduates came from all 50 states and 70 foreign countries. The Class of 2012 included more than 2,000 members of our nation’s armed forces.
The university is expected to reach an enrollment of 100,000 students in the next 12 months. As of graduation, Liberty had more than 77,500 students enrolled in its online program and about 12,400 in its residential programs.
Liberty currently is the largest private, nonprofit, four-year college in the United States and the largest Christian university in the world. It is also the largest college in Virginia and the nation’s seventh largest university.
Romney’s appearance gave Liberty one of its most prestigious graduation speakers in its history, which includes then sitting-President George H.W. Bush and the Rev. Billy Graham.
Romney said Liberty has continued to build on the Christian heritage envisioned by its late founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
“Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence,” he said. “But it will be among the most prized qualities of your education here. Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world searching for meaning.”
Romney said standing by your beliefs is sometimes tough.
“Your values will not always be the subject of public admiration,” he said. “In fact, the more you live by your beliefs, the more you will endure the censure of the world. Christianity is not the faith of the complacent or the comfortable or the timid.”
Romney, who is the presumptive Republican challenger to incumbent President Barack Obama in November, laid down a gauntlet for Obama on social issues such as same-sex marriage.
“What you believe, what you value, how you live matters,” Romney told the graduates. “As fundamental as these principles are, they might become the topic of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”
Romney said the political debate has been extended to include religious freedom itself. He pointed out that religious freedom is the first freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
“It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem,” he said. “It is something that America is stuck with instead of being blessed with. Perhaps, religious conscience upsets the design of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government. But from the beginning this nation has trusted in God, not man.” In his address to graduates, Liberty President and Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., talked about the fondness that he and his wife, Becki, have for the Class of 2012. “Becki and I are so proud of you, the Class of 2012, and so thankful to God for your achievement,” he said. “We have enjoyed getting to know many of you during your time here.”
A week before graduation, the Falwells hosted more than 1,000 graduates at their farm for a picnic.
“This class is special to us because it was one of the first classes of students that enrolled at Liberty after I became president,” Falwell, Jr., said.
At Commencement, Falwell recognized the parents and spouses of graduates and the role they played in their success.
Falwell, Jr. talked about the faith and perseverance that was responsible for Liberty’s survival of many difficult years. Falwell joined his father at Liberty in 1988 after obtaining his B.A. in Religious Studies from Liberty and his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.
“I was in the trenches with my father as chief legal counsel and trying to find the financing to keep the dream of Liberty alive,” he said.
Falwell said, by the grace of God, the school which once struggled to make payroll is now on the cusp of $1 billion in net assets.
He said researchers told him Liberty will be the youngest university in American history to reach this tier.
“It took Harvard University 329 years (1636 to 1965) to build financial reserves topping $1 billion,” he said.
He admitted that many thought it would take a generation or more for Liberty to reach that goal.
“Over the last five years, though, God has taught us all that there is no limit to what He can do,” Falwell said.
Falwell bestowed an honorary degree on Worth Harris Carter, Jr., the founder of Carter Bank & Trust, which served as a pivotal financier for Liberty projects in its formative years.
“Worth is a quiet and humble man who has always shied away from the large crowds and public recognition we are giving him today,” Falwell said.
Falwell also presented honorary degrees to S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, and Romney.
Gov. Mitt Romney’s visit was no doubt a memorable one. Chancellor Falwell recounted the event on CNN Newsroom the Monday morning after Commencement. The interview was filmed on campus.
“Many of our graduates said after his speech that they were worried it would be a campaign speech, they didn’t want their graduation speech to be political and they were very pleased that it was not political — it was about them, it was about their future and I think in that sense, he made a lot of friends here Saturday,” he said.
Later in the month, Falwell, Jr. said he was reminded of the thoughts of Ted Kennedy, spoken at a Liberty Convocation in 1983:
“ ... because the Moral Majority has worked with members of different denominations, one fundamentalist group has denounced Dr. Falwell for hastening the ecumenical church and for ‘yoking together with Roman Catholics, Mormons, and others.’ I am relieved that Dr. Falwell does not regard that as a sin, and on this issue, he himself has become the target of narrow prejudice. When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways.”
Falwell, Jr. said he was pleased with the cooperation between the departments and students to execute Liberty’s largest Commencement.
“I saw a demonstration of how Liberty University students, faculty, and staff live as Jesus taught by treating others as they would want to be treated,” Falwell said.
He said a Secret Service agent told him it took about two hours to process the graduates through metal detectors.
“The agent said that, in a previous experience at a secular university, it took over six hours to process fewer students because of a lack of cooperation,” Falwell said. “The agent told us that his colleagues were pleasantly surprised by how well they were treated at Liberty and by how kind and polite our staff and students were to them. He said many agents commented about how there really is something different about Liberty University. Hearing observations like that warms my heart and confirms that Liberty is fulfilling its mission of Training Champions for Christ.”
Andrew Claudio, a student who serves as a manager at Liberty’s student radio station, 90.9 The Light, said he spoke with a Secret Service agent during the ceremony.
“She told me that she was very impressed with our school and how her time here this week exceeded all of her expectations,” he said. “She then said, after [the chancellor’s speech], ‘It is amazing just how much this school has grown under his tenure. That’s no disrespect to his father at all because you can see how passionate he is about his father’s vision and making it a reality.’ I cannot even begin to explain the feeling of pride I felt for my school after this conversation.”
Many said the ceremony was a fitting tribute to the school’s founder.
On May 14, 2007, the night before he died, Falwell, Sr. was served at a local restaurant by a waitress who told him of her struggle to pay for school and he agreed to help her with a scholarship.
That student was Ashley Mooney, who graduated in May with a B.S. degree in Health Promotion. Barry McChesney, her grandfather, wrote an email to Liberty, thanking the Falwell family “for the gift Jerry [Sr.] gave our granddaughter as his last wish.” “We can never thank you and your family for this miracle,” he said, “but you and your family will forever be in our prayers and hearts. God bless you all and thank God for Jerry Falwell.”