Students at Liberty University have issued a statement criticizing their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for endorsing and continuing to stand by Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. A statement issued by students Wednesday night said that Falwell is damaging the reputation of their university and that they are speaking out to "regain the integrity" of the institution.
Under the name Liberty United Against Trump, students issued a statement that illustrates deep divisions on the campus over Falwell's active work on behalf of the Trump campaign. And while Falwell has always stated that his endorsement was not on behalf of the university, the students say that Liberty has in fact been implicated by his actions. Falwell was one of the earliest evangelical leaders to back Trump, and he did so well before the outcome of the Republican primary race was clear.
"In the months since Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him, Donald Trump has been inexorably associated with Liberty University. We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him," the statement says.
The statement goes on to cite evidence that Liberty students have rejected Falwell's endorsement. Liberty University, which encourages students to be politically engaged, has an on-campus polling place so that students can vote easily. Only 8 percent of those who voted there backed Trump in the Republican primary, while 44 percent voted for Marco Rubio and 33 percent for Ted Cruz.
"Donald Trump received a pitiful 90 votes from Liberty students in Virginia’s primary election, a colossal rejection of his campaign," the statement said. "Nevertheless, President Falwell eagerly uses his national platform to advocate for Donald Trump. While he occasionally clarifies that supporting Trump is not the official position of Liberty University, he knows it is his title of president of the largest Christian university in the world that gives him political credentials."
The recent recordings of Trump boasting of his ability to sexually assault women raise issues for Liberty as a college and as a Christian institution, the statement says.
"Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense -- taking the name 'Liberty University' with him," the statement says. "'We’re all sinners,' Falwell told the media, as if sexual assault is a shoulder-shrugging issue rather than an atrocity which plagues college campuses across America, including our own. It is not enough to criticize these kinds of comments. We must make clear to the world that while everyone is a sinner and everyone can be forgiven, a man who constantly and proudly speaks evil does not deserve our support for the nation’s highest office."
The statement does not endorse Hillary Clinton or advocate any particular stance in the election, but opposes Falwell's activities on behalf of Trump.
"We Liberty students are often told to support Donald Trump because the other leading candidate is a bad option. Perhaps this is true. But the only candidate who is directly associated with Liberty University is Donald Trump," the statement says. "Because our president has led the world to believe that Liberty University supports Donald Trump, we students must take it upon ourselves to make clear that Donald Trump is absolutely opposed to what we believe, and does not have our support. We are not proclaiming our opposition to Donald Trump out of bitterness, but out of a desire to regain the integrity of our school."
Falwell issued a statement to The Washington Post responding to the students. “I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds but I’m afraid the statement is incoherent and false,” he wrote. “I am not ‘touring the country’ or associating Liberty University with any candidate. I am only fulfilling my obligation as a citizen to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ by expressing my personal opinion about who I believe is best suited to lead our nation in a time of crisis. This student statement seems to ignore the teachings of Jesus not to judge others but they are young and still learning.”
News coverage indicates, however, that Falwell has appeared at multiple events for Trump and he also has been among the evangelical leaders defending him in the wake of the recently leaked recording. On WABC Radio, after the leak of the recording, Falwell speculated that the leak might be part of a conspiracy by establishment Republican leaders: “I think this whole videotape thing was planned, I think it was timed, I think it might have even been a conspiracy among the establishment Republicans who’ve known about it for weeks and who tried to time it to do the maximum damage to Donald Trump."
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed just before he addressed the Republican National Convention in July, Falwell stressed that he did not endorse Trump on behalf of the university, but said that his experience at Liberty -- which experienced financial struggles before more recent, massive growth -- made him see Trump as the best candidate.
“I just saw so many parallels between what Liberty was back then and where our country is now,” he said. “And then in the last 10 years, Liberty’s become the most prosperous and successful Christian university in the world.”