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Onward Christian Snowboarders

August 25, 2009

At Liberty University, it’s time to hit the slopes for Christ.

A ski park and lodge are the latest recreational amenities at Liberty, the Lynchburg, Va.-based institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. The Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, which opened on the campus Aug. 1, is one of a series of additions made in recent years to attract students to the evangelical Christian campus. Indeed, Liberty is taking on the feel of something between a summer camp and a theme park, complete with ice skating, paintball fields, motocross tracks, indoor soccer, bow hunting and shooting ranges.

Lynchburg gets a little snow each year, but it’s hardly a ski bum’s paradise. Given that limitation, Liberty has covered its slopes with a synthetic material called Snowflex, allowing visitors to ski on the surface all year around. Lee Beaumont, director of auxiliary services at Liberty, said the ski center is part of the university’s effort to create recreational alternatives for students who don’t engage in the booze-infused partying synonymous with much of college life.

“We don’t really have Greek life here. We don’t have co-ed dorms. We don’t have these wild beer parties,” he said. “So you need to give kids a productive and clean way to enjoy themselves.”

While the goal of good, clean fun sounds noble, universities frequently take criticism for spending money on amenities that have little obvious educational value. Liberty is unlikely to be exempted from such criticism, and Beaumont says he expects it.

“Of course you’re going to get those criticisms,” he said. “But college is not just about sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor.”

“It’s about your physical, mental and spiritual well being,” he added. “If one of them is out of whack, then all of them are out of whack.”

Jerry Falwell Jr., the university’s chancellor, began investigating the idea of a ski center after he returned from a ski trip in Utah several years ago. After conducting some research on fake snow, Falwell decided to try out Snowflex for himself, taking his family to a park in Scotland. While there are about 30 Snowflex facilities in Europe, Liberty’s three slopes are the first in the United States, according to

Photo: Liberty University

The "Chalet" is decked out with rustic furnishings and big game trophies.

university officials.

“We were watching the local kids [in Scotland] who were skiing, and it was really our target demographic,” Beaumont said.

Bringing an 11-acre ski center to Liberty proved a significant undertaking. In addition to importing synthetic snow, the university built a ski lift and a two-story “chalet” that spans 10,000 square feet. The wood-floored chalet is appointed with rustic décor and, thanks to donations from a longtime supporter of the university, plenty of taxidermy. Bear, moose and deer line the walls and hang from a stone fireplace, giving the chalet the look of a big game hunter's cabin.

The project has cost the university about $4 million, according to Beaumont. Liberty can expect to make some of that money back, however. During the peak hours of Thursday through Sunday, the university will charge visitors from the general public $7 an hour, and students will pay the lower rate of $4. Additionally, Liberty expects a recruitment advantage.

“You’d be shocked at the number of hardcore snowboarders that want to come here,” Beaumont said.

A Falwell-Style 'Gimmick'

Adding a ski slope to Liberty is a move straight out of the Falwell playbook, according to Kevin Roose, a Brown University student who went “undercover” at Liberty to a write an expose on the university. While writing his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Roose interviewed the late Falwell Sr., who discussed the ski project with excitement.

During his discussion with Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority, Roose said Falwell was unapologetic about doing whatever he could to attract students.

“I don’t think he would have objected to the word gimmick [in describing the ski slope],” Roose said. “Jerry Falwell belonged to the ‘By any means necessary’ school of evangelism. He gave away cars to the first people who registered; he had a video game contest. I think if he could have gotten away with it, he would have given [new students] pieces of Noah’s Ark.”

Photo: Liberty University

Three slopes of varying difficulty are available on campus.

During his semester at Liberty, Roose said there seemed no limit to the programs officials developed to attract and retain students.

“It always sort of felt like you were at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” he said. “They were always trying new things and things other schools maybe wouldn’t try. It sort of dovetails with the sort of Southern Baptist [philosophy of] ‘Get ‘em in, get ‘em baptized, get ‘em registered.’ I can’t see Yeshiva University building a zipline for Yahweh, but I’ve learned to not count the Falwells out when it comes to doing things on the cutting edge.”

Tyler Lee, a senior at Liberty, said few of the attractions like skiing and motocross were in place when he decided to attend. Nonetheless, he’s come to enjoy the accouterments of the campus. Lee, who had no previous snowboarding experience, has spent the last month trying to master the sport. One black eye later, he says he’s gotten pretty confident on the slopes.

For Lee, Liberty’s commitment to recreational programming helps to prove a point. Students at Liberty are often in the awkward position of answering skeptics who question their college choice, he said. When students from other colleges raise that question, Lee says the ski slope provides one more answer.

“We want to show them we can have just as much fun or more fun and not have a hangover,” he said. “You can’t get this anywhere else. Nobody else in North America has what we have now, so it’s exclusive.”

 

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