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School of Aeronautics’ first female administrator gives online program wings

Dr. Julie Speakes brought impressive credentials into her role as Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics’ first online dean when she arrived in July 2019. (Photos by Ellie Richardson)

Were it not for a phone call to Liberty University from a Ph.D. student in Mississippi, two of Liberty’s newest aviation online programs — the Master of Science in Aeronautics and Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Aviation Management — might never have gotten off the ground.

Julie Speakes was pursuing her Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi 20 years ago when she called Ernie Rogers, Liberty’s executive director for enrollment management, at a time when Liberty was establishing itself as an early innovator in online education.

“I got a call from Julie out of the blue wanting some data for her dissertation she was working on,” said Rogers, who later served as an associate dean for the School of Aeronautics. “At that time, I knew we were going to start the aeronautics program and needed to get my master’s in aeronautics, and I asked her if she knew anywhere that offered that degree online.”

She directed him to Delta State (Miss.) University, where she had earned her Master of Commercial Aviation and was serving as an associate professor. Rogers took classes from Speakes there, never imagining she would eventually wind up at Liberty.

“She was instrumental in me and many other (Liberty SOA faculty) receiving their master’s degrees,” said Rogers, who retired in 2015 but still serves as an online adjunct professor at Liberty. “She’s been a leader in collegiate aviation.”

Speakes, who previously worked as a commercial pilot and a certified flight instructor, was hired as the School of Aeronautics’ first online dean in 2019. One of her first tasks was starting Liberty’s own Master of Science in Aeronautics last fall, which offers four specializations: safety, education, leadership, and a general track. Speakes teaches graduate-level classes on top of all of her administrative duties.

“She was the perfect person to come in to design the program,” Rogers said. “She had a background in doing it and teaching it and got her doctorate in it, and she gave me the opportunity (with my master’s degree) to help kick off Liberty’s program the right way.”

Speakes has also contributed to the School of Aeronautics’ growing Flight Training Affiliate (FTA) program, where close to 3,500 pilots are training online and with instructors at nearly 90 locations across the United States and around the world.

Speakes never had expectations that she would one day land in Lynchburg, Va., but a number of Liberty professors she had instructed encouraged her to consider it, and former SOA dean Jim Molloy convinced her to come aboard.

“I was never truly believing that God was moving us here and when He did, everything fell into place very, very quickly,” Speakes said. “At just the right time, God will make it happen, and He did. Every reason I had to say ‘no’ pretty much vanished.”

Speakes helped launch Liberty’s M.S. in Aeronautics and B.S. in Aviation Management degrees last fall.

She received the University Aviation Association’s prestigious William A. Wheatley Award in 2011 for her outstanding contributions to aerospace education, later serving as president of the UAA and currently as secretary of the Aviation Accreditation Board International.

Molloy realized Speakes’ credentials could help elevate Liberty’s online program to new heights.

“She brings a lot of industry experience — both field experience, from flying corporately when she first started out years ago, and really valuable academic, higher education experience,” he said. “She didn’t have a learning curve. She knew the ins and outs of accreditation after having served on visiting teams and starting programs and is highly competent in running academic programs as an administrator.”

Rogers said the online aviation program, part of the largest faith-based aviation school in the country, is experiencing explosive growth even in the midst of an industry downturn caused by COVID-19, and Speakes brings a unique perspective as a woman in a male-dominated profession.

“We’ve always tried to find female academic personnel, but it never worked out for us until she came along. She will be a role model.”

On top of her professional qualifications, Molloy said her biblical worldview made her a perfect fit.

“Probably the highlight (on her resumé) is her heart for the Lord,” he said. “That was absolutely key, having a heart for the Lord, serving others, and blessing others.”

“She has an incredible gift, and she loves the Lord,” added Dean Rick Roof. “We’re really blessed to have her here. She felt God has called her here.”

Speakes — whose email signature reads “Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.” — has enjoyed the cultural change and the spiritual climate at Liberty.

“Coming to a faith-based institution is more than I could have imagined,” she said. “Through biblical integration, we can point students to Scriptures that are helpful in everyday life, so that along with aviation skills, they are also receiving life skills that are biblically based. It helps us to minister to the students and to meet them at their needs and where they are, especially during this time of COVID, to have that unique faith aspect that other students don’t get at other institutions.”

She considers aeronautical education, and the aviation industry as a whole, tremendous mission fields — both for students going through Liberty’s residential and online programs and for commercial, military, and missionary pilots sent out into the world.

“Our students are not required to be Christians to come here,” Speakes said. “We get students from various beliefs and have an opportunity to witness to students who would otherwise not hear the Gospel. We might be the only example they ever have in their lives to see the hands and feet of Jesus. We want to carry out the mission that was started so many years ago, to Train Champions for Christ, in aviation and aeronautics.”