The Falwell Fiasco: Where was Liberty's Board?
Former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. talks to Donald Trump Jr. about his new book "Triggered" during convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in 2019. (Emily Elconin/The News & Advance via AP, File)

Opinion: The Falwell Fiasco—Where Was The Board?

By Warren Cole Smith

Jerry Falwell, Jr., has behaved in ways that would have gotten him fired from leadership in most Christian organizations, and many non-Christian organizations.  

Despite that, the Board of Trustees of Liberty University allowed him to resign and walk away with a reported $10.5-million in severance and retirement pay.

Students and their parents, who pay Liberty University tens of thousands of dollars a year for tuition, room, and board, have expressed outrage.  Before Falwell’s resignation, alumni signed statements saying Falwell had tarnished the reputation of the school and the value of their own diplomas.  Add to that the reaction of a secular, skeptical, and cynical world, shaking their heads once again at the latest episode of the tragicomedy known as Stupid Evangelical Tricks.    

To make matters worse (if that’s possible), some of the problems with Falwell have been reported about for years, and have been largely ignored by Liberty’s board.  

Examples:  I wrote a tough profile of him in 2013 (and got a scathing letter from Falwell for my troubles).  Mark DeMoss, son of one of Liberty’s earliest and most generous donors, resigned from the school’s board back in 2016 over concern about Falwell’s leadership.  Even the relationship Falwell and his wife Becki had with a “pool boy,” a relationship that was the proximate cause of Falwell’s downfall, has been previously reported, by Rolling Stone in 2019, and BuzzFeed in 2018.

Despite all of this, Liberty University’s Board of Trustees remained resolutely clueless that they had a problem with their president.

The Role Of The Board

The Board of an organization has fiduciary responsibility for the overall governance of that institution.  “Fiduciary” is a fancy word for: “The buck stops here.”  Boards are the ultimate stewards of an organization.  They are responsible for the organization’s well-being.  And – more to the point here – boards have the ability to hire and fire only one person:  the president. 

One could argue – given the examples above — that the board of Liberty University should have exercised that right, fulfilled that duty, years ago.  But even giving the board the benefit of the doubt on timing, it should not have allowed Falwell to resign.  It should not have allowed Falwell’s version of events to stand unchallenged, when audio recordings and photographs tell a plainly different story. 

Nonetheless, Falwell told The Washington Post:  “There wasn’t any cause,” he said.  “I haven’t done anything.”  Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that statement departs from the truth.

Falwell told The Washington Post:  “There wasn’t any cause . . . I haven’t done anything.” Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that statement departs from the truth.

However, one thing he told The Post was at least half-true:  “The board was gracious not to challenge that.”

I say “half-true” because Falwell was right that the board didn’t challenge him.  The half that was not true was his use of the word “gracious.”  That is not the word that comes to mind to describe the board’s behavior.  Other words come to mind, including “wasteful,” “impotent,” and “cowardly.”  The board’s unwillingness to “challenge” Falwell will now apparently allow him to walk away with $10-million in donor, student, and alumni funds.

The board should have fired him, for cause.

If you don’t want to accept my verdict, consider the judgment of Everett Piper.  Piper is a well-known author and speaker, and he was a long-time college president before his recent retirement.  He often aligns with Falwell on matters of politics and educational policy.  However Piper said, “Only five words suffice:  This man should be fired.  As a university president, had I ever done anything remotely close to this I would have so diminished the dignity of my position that my board’s only recourse would have been to demand my immediate resignation. That is of course if I wasn’t man enough to offer it before asked.”

What’s Wrong With Liberty’s Board?

Part of the problem with Liberty’s board is that it is too big.  It has 33 members, and in the recent past it has had as many as 41 members, much too large for efficient decision-making, or for dissenting voices to be appropriately heard.  

Opinions vary widely about the optimal board size.  According to the Corporate Library’s study, the average board size is 9.2 members, and most boards range from 3 to 31 members. Some analysts think the ideal size is seven.

Secondly, Liberty’s board is, for the most part, what is called a “pay to play” board.  It is made up mostly of either big donors or pastors of big churches who have the ability to use their platforms as “bully pulpits” for Liberty – using their influence to recruit students to attend and alumni and donors to give. 

Liberty’s board is, for the most part, what is called a “pay to play” board.  It is made up mostly of either big donors or pastors of big churches who have the ability to use their platforms as “bully pulpits” for Liberty . . .

Most non-profit boards exhibit some degree of this “pay to play” phenomenon, and it’s not always a bad thing.  Big donors (and “opinion influencers” such as pastors) are people who care enough about the institution to make big commitments, even sacrifices.  They invest their dollars, their time, and their reputations.

But boards, especially boards of large and complex organizations such as Liberty do – or are supposed to do – real work.  Sometimes that work is complicated, technical, time-consuming.  It requires real professional expertise, not people who will merely rubber-stamp staff recommendations.  

I’m sure the vast majority of Liberty University’s board members are well-meaning people, who care about the school.  But being an effective board member for a $750-million enterprise requires much, much more than good intentions.  The bottom line here is hard to say, especially hard for me because I know some of the board members and they are good people.  But it must be said:  The failure of Liberty University was not just a failure of Jerry Falwell, Jr., it was also a failure of the Board of Trustees.

The failure of Liberty University was not just a failure of Jerry Falwell, Jr., it was also a failure of the Board of Trustees.

  

Liberty University’s trustees failed the school’s students, faculty, administration, and parents.  They failed donors and alumni.  They failed to hold the one member of the Liberty staff that reports to them to the Biblical standards of leadership, or even to the standards that every member of the Liberty community must live up to.

If Liberty is to experience true healing and a positive path forward, Jerry Falwell, Jr., should not be the only person who departs.  All, or a substantial number of, Liberty’s board members should follow him into retirement.

Disclosure:  Warren Cole Smith’s daughter is a junior at Liberty University.

Warren Cole Smith is president of MinistryWatch.com, a donor watchdog group. Prior to taking on this role, Smith was Vice President-Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Warren also hosts the weekly podcast “Listening In,” a long-form interview program heard by tens of thousands of subscribers each week. 

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18 thoughts on “Opinion: The Falwell Fiasco—Where Was The Board?”

  1. I am not an expert but my understanding- please anyone who knows more than I do chime in- a Board that does not practice its duty can be personally liable. Let them pay the 10.5 million if it must be paid

    1. Unfortunately, there’s “director’s insurance”, which is standard to protect directors from liability for negligence. When I was on a school board of trustees, I thought we shouldn’t have it, because it mainly protects irresponsible directors and I wanted us all to take extra care to be responsible, but the others all looked at me like I was crazy.

  2. People need to realize that being on a Board is not just an honor, it’s a duty. It can hurt your reputation, especially if you’re to blame for a problem— and you are—“the buck stops here” really applies to the Trustees more than the President, since one of their main duties is to replace the President if he’s not up to the job. It’s not necessarily a time-consuming job, but being a Trustee is an important one, and if you’re offered the job but you don’t want to take on the responsibility and potential blame, turn them down. Do this, especially, if whoever is offering it to you tells you you don’t have to do much— you still have the legal and ethical responsibility, and he may well be trying to pack the board with trustees who won’t pay attention to what he’s doing, so you’re especially likely to lose your reputation.

  3. It is not that difficult to understand. Many secular boards are in the pockets of the administrators. The same was true of the elder board of Harvest Chicago. The majority were .Macdonald’s minions. Here they were Jerry’s minions.

    1. At Harvest Bible Chapel, remember how disgraced pastor Fired with cause James Macdonald tried to dilute the power of the Board/Elders by increasing their numbers ?

      Jerry Falwell Jr and James Macdonald are 2 ravenous wolves who are very similar in their core beliefs —

      Which is that Christianity and Playing Church are viewed as Transactional .

      It means nothing more to them, other than as a means, a set of Transactions to get ahead, make boatloads of money.

      If you think I am wrong here….

      Why have Not both Ravenous wolves ever reached out directly to the countless numbers of people who were blamed, who were shamed, who were accused of sowing division by telling the truth about these wolves!!

  4. I wonder if we will learn of any Board resignations in the aftermath of this big payout to somebody who should have been fired for cause. Or if all 33 of them are complicit in this.
    A small college I’m aware of re-hired a previous President who had left several years earlier after adultery with a faculty member; they wanted him back because he had been a good fundraiser. Several members of the Board who were on the losing end of that vote resigned.

  5. Julie wrote: “It requires real professional expertise, not people who will merely rubber-stamp staff recommendations.” Boards are probably legally necessary, but in my opinion, most boards are totally inadequate. They are mostly guided by what a director or president tells them, and they are ever so easy to fool, to lead on, and to mislead. We know this happened at Moody.The same is true for most church boards. We know it happened at Harvest and Willow Creek to name just two recent examples. In fact, with church boards, we have even less qualified people to know and discern what needs to be done. They are usually good people with a desire to serve the Lord, but they have an almost impossible task. They can’t get enough information in their brief meetings to really help. Most board members I have seen are extremely reluctant to “rock the boat” with tough questions. Perhaps they are leaders in their own organizations, but they are weak, compliant, and often silent as board members. If an institution has an ethical, moral, and spiritually mature leader, all can go well. However, that doesn’t mean the boards have much to do with the organization’s success. In my experience, the bottom line is that institutions succeed in spite of their boards.

  6. Good evening everyone,

    There is another story that should be reported on before the dust settles too much.

    Where/What was Trey’s position in the financial dealings with Ms. Falwell’s paramour? It is my understanding that his is name was on the LLC and he was the ‘business partner’. Given the hostels rather unsavory reputation in the Politico story, he has some answers to cough up.

    In today’s revelations on another of Ms. Falwells adventures with Treys band members, the young man detailed a lot of drinking and the alcohol was provided by the Falwells.

    I believe that Trey needs to come up with some answers before the dust settles. I can see the heir apparent bring Daddy back in as an advisor when he gets the big seat in a couple of years.

    Best regards,
    CJ

    1. I’ve had the same questions involving Trey’s involvements with Liberty over the past few years. That latest scandal – whilst no fault of the son’s – did leave me pretty surprised with the revelations of alcohol abuse. It appears to have been normal in that household.

      There needs to be an extensive third party investigation into all things Fallwell, now. Just based on the little I’ve heard over the years, Trey is unfit for leadership – and that’s completely aside from his drunkenness as a student. The shady business dealings in Miami and the discounted selling of property by LU to Trey come to mind. And to think Trey is the least of the school’s current problems.

  7. Without the Lord, the immoral injustices are an overwhelming weary burden to bear.

    Isaiah 5
    “20 Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
    who turn darkness to light
    and light to darkness,
    who replace bitter with sweet
    and sweet with bitter.

    21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.

    22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
    and champions in mixing beer,
    23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe
    and deprive the innocent of justice.

    24 Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes the straw,
    and as dry grass shrivels in the flame,
    so their roots will decay
    and their blossoms will blow away like dust;
    for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of Hosts
    and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

    But Isaiah 40 goes on to remind us…

    “But those who wait upon the LORD will renew their strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” Amen and God bless.

  8. Where was the board? They weren’t giving away $10.8 million – they expect something for that money. But what is it?

  9. I think we should withhold judgment here; what needs to be investigated (independently, as Rachael Denhollander notes) first is the question of what the board knew and when. There is more and more evidence coming out that the Falwells had some “very interesting” sexual practices, and that the Falwells were at about the same time doing some “very interesting” business deals, ones that I would never wish on an enemy.

    The question is then how well they covered their tracks prior to now. The main thing I know the board “should have known” was the rather odd interaction around the youth hostel which seems to be at the center of the sexual allegations involving Mr. Granda. I would hope that if I became aware that a pastor/leader had such involvement, I’d (as a deacon in my church) at least ask questions. I would tend to think that I’d suggest as well that if the place were not cleaned up–a marijuana haze shouldn’t be in a youth hostel, for reasons of health as well as intoxication, etc..–the Falwells ought to have divested that years ago.

    (and that would have brought out, I believe, the sexual allegations years earlier)

  10. I’m a Liberty grad and I’ve served on the board of small Christian school that does not have a “pay to play” selection process and I have experience with boards that do have that in place. There are two immediate red flags with boards that require skin in the game: First is the potential for conflict of interest (is this not explicitly obvious to people?) Secondly, the selection of board members is narrowed to generally wealthy, powerful people. First and foremost, a board needs wisdom, not a built-in revenue/marketing stream.

    Wealthy and powerful men can be wise, no doubt, but so many fall prey to trusting mammon above the Lord. Tangible signs of success can seem to indicate the Lord’s blessing while they really mask the rot underneath.
    Jerry Prevo, prior to the resignation of Jerry Jr., said something to the effect of “Jerry has done incredible things and grown this school to crazy new levels…” While I don’t remember the exact quote, it seemed to prove my point. Bigger is not always better, Christians.

  11. I’m an old advertising man and every so often during my career I’d see a headline someone else wrote for a client and I’d think, “Man, wish I’d thought of that.” One of my favorite examples involved an ad for a life insurance company that focused on “term” insurance over “whole life.” The headline read, “Your Whole Life Has Been a Big Mistake.” In recent years that’s sort of how I have felt about my evangelicalism. This site is so needed and at the same time so heartbreaking.

  12. I think at this point the only wise thing to do is have every single member of the Board of Trustees at Liberty step down. I fully realize that not everyone on the Board of Trustees has been complicit in enabling Falwell and his family. However, I think the only way for Liberty to restore its credibility going forward is to have a complete overhaul of the senior leadership team and the Board of Trustees. It’s the only way.

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