Cuts at Liberty Hit Divinity

Divinity is chopping faculty slots and has lost students steadily in recent years at evangelical university, which has long said religion is central to its programs.

June 17, 2019
 
Liberty University
Liberty University's Freedom Tower opened as the home of its divinity school in 2018.

A dozen faculty members at Liberty University’s Rawlings School of Divinity learned at the end of May they would not have their contracts renewed, representing significant cuts to the on-the-ground instructional work force of the Christian university in Lynchburg, Va.

At first glance, the cuts would seem to come at an odd time for both Liberty and its School of Divinity. The university and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr. (at right) have never been more prominent culturally or politically. An online education boom has helped fuel massive construction projects on campus. Just last year, the university opened a 275-foot-tall, 17-story tower serving in large part as the home of its divinity programs.

But on-campus and online enrollment in Liberty’s School of Divinity, which were among the university's largest programs in 2013, have been falling in recent years. The declines came as freshman applications to study on Liberty's campus plunged after 2016 -- and as enrollment across the university’s vast online offerings fell by almost 10 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Liberty, where Falwell raised eyebrows by being a key early backer of the Trump campaign and continuing to defend the president through controversies when others stayed silent, has in recent years cast itself as a wildly successful university at the intersection of politics and religion. President Trump spoke at commencement in 2017, President Carter spoke at commencement in 2018 and Vice President Pence spoke at commencement in 2019. First Lady Melania Trump spoke at one of the university’s thrice-weekly convocations in 2018.

Beyond the glamour of the big names, Liberty has put significant changes in place. It’s overhauled its online operations recently and is now making the changes to its School of Divinity, one of the core pieces of its identity as a university.

Those changes haven’t been widely publicized, nor have they been universally well received by those who care about Liberty. Some of those let go were well-loved professors who’d been at Liberty for over a decade. The terms of their departures include offers of severance and also nondisclosure agreements.

Some changes were likely overdue, Falwell said in an interview Friday. He believes the divinity school needed to adapt to a changing culture where students are less likely to work full-time for churches. Consequently, they're interested in different programs and are more likely to pick minors in religion or divinity than the majors they may have chosen in the past.

“The move we made not renewing those contracts is probably a move we should have made -- as purely a business decision, it’s a move we should have made three-four years ago,” he said. “It’s a cultural shift from full-time ministry workers to Christians in all professions working to make a difference.”

Falwell has been unapologetic about running the university as a business. By many metrics, he’s been successful. Liberty has remained massively profitable, increasing its net assets by more than $950 million between 2014 and 2018 while never making less than $188 million in any year during that time frame.

Yet the latest round of cuts may also reflect a university that’s had to fight harder to keep its success rolling than it has previously acknowledged.

Restructuring the School of Divinity

Unlike most universities, where faculty members can earn tenure and the job security that comes with it, almost all Liberty faculty members teach under one-year contracts that are renewed annually. Only the university’s law school offers tenure protection, which is an accreditation requirement of the American Bar Association.

Divinity faculty members whose contracts weren’t renewed at the end of May were offered severance agreements, the terms of which the university didn’t disclose. They have the option of picking up classes to teach online, something many Liberty faculty members already do while teaching on campus under contracts. They were also asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Circumstances surrounding the divinity changes drew attention from a range of people who are or who have been affiliated with Liberty University, several of whom agreed to speak with Inside Higher Ed on a condition of anonymity. Some pointed out the timing of the nonrenewals came long after the academic hiring cycle’s peak, potentially making it difficult for affected professors to find full-time employment. Others wondered about the use of nondisclosure agreements, which academic freedom experts view with skepticism.

Affected professors either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment when contacted. Some divinity school faculty members had acknowledged the cuts in public postings on social media, however.

“I was brought into a room and informed that my position is being terminated (along with those of 11 other faculty in the School of Divinity) as part of a ‘restructuring’ of the SOD,” read one post from a longtime faculty member. “When I asked what the criteria were for terminating my particular position, I was not told what the criteria were but what they weren’t. My position was not terminated based on performance, ethics, student feedback or anything personally related to me or how I impacted the university.”

Comments on the posts reflected concern for the professors.

“I knew it was that time of year again and I’m heartbroken that you are on the list to go. It’s a sad loss for the students. Keeping you and your family in prayer,” read one comment.

“Definitely not out of the norm in LU’s history, but very upsetting -- and one of two of my favorite divinity professors to lose their position at the same time,” read another.

A dozen employees being let go would represent about a fifth of the different deans, faculty members, program chairs and staff members listed on Liberty’s School of Divinity faculty page in early June. But administrators said the actual portion is far smaller, in part because the website doesn’t list adjuncts or others teaching divinity classes.

A former Liberty administrator speaking on a condition of anonymity remembered nonrenewal notices going out earlier in past years so that faculty members would be able to look for another job after the spring semester ended. At the time, nonrenewals were rare and tended to only come after someone failed to perform basic job functions, the source said. Over time, nonrenewal notices crept later as the university moved toward a year-round cycle of program development and hiring instead of a traditional academic calendar.

Liberty’s provost, Scott M. Hicks, said he’s not aware of the timing changing.

“This is the way we’ve functioned since I’ve been provost, and before that, so I'm not aware of how far back it changed,” he said. Hicks became provost in 2018 and was named vice provost of graduate education in 2017. He started at Liberty as a professor in 2007 and became dean of its business school in 2012.

Nondisclosure agreements are good practice, according to Falwell.

“I think that’s just a standard procedure within any school of our size,” he said. “That would be the advice of any labor attorney.”

Nondisclosure agreements have been controversial elsewhere. Purdue University Global said last year that it would stop requiring a confidentiality agreement as a condition of employment after the American Association of University Professors campaigned against nondisclosure agreements and forced arbitration. Purdue Global’s administrators called the nondisclosure requirements boilerplate and said they were inherited from the institution’s predecessor, the for-profit Kaplan University. The agreement had been criticized for forcing professors to waive rights to courses they created.

Nondisclosure agreements also drew scrutiny when Vermont Law School deployed them while trying to close a large budget gap. Faculty members who did not want to be terminated were offered several restructuring options, all of which required them to sign nondisclosure agreements, according to an AAUP report.

Liberty’s case is different because it deals with nondisclosure agreements for faculty members losing their jobs -- faculty members had to sign the agreements when they were signing paperwork for their severance packages. Still, the AAUP associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure and governance expressed some reservations about the practice.

“When it comes to severance, it's of course impossible to answer the question how common NDAs are (since they're confidential),” said the associate secretary, Hans-Joerg Tiede, in an email. “We view a minimum amount of severance (depending on length of service) as a right under our principles, as opposed to something that one obtains in exchange for signing an NDA.”

‘World’s Largest School for Religious Studies’

Liberty’s evangelical identity, string of successes and sheer size combine to play a crucial role in the way it portrays itself -- and in the way at attracts new students. It used to call itself the largest private, nonprofit university in the country and the largest Christian university in the world.

It could claim those mantles in large part because of the enormous scale of its online operations, which enrolled more than 51,000 undergraduates and almost 44,000 graduate students in 2014. Liberty’s on-campus student body was much smaller, at about 12,600 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students.

The university’s roots date back to 1971, when it was founded by the pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. as Lynchburg Baptist College. Liberty dabbled with distance education on VHS tapes in the 1980s but fell upon hard times in the 1990s, nearly closing under a heavy debt load.

But the college pulled through, steered by Jerry Falwell Jr. After the elder Falwell died in 2007, his son took over leading Liberty. Online programs were beginning to boom. Total online enrollment would spike from 36,740 in 2009 to 92,537 in 2013.

Liberty’s resulting prosperity has been a key part of the story supporting Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership, even as some longtime university backers balked after Falwell endorsed Trump. For his part, Falwell plowed money back into Liberty’s facilities in Lynchburg, including a new home for the divinity school.

In February 2018, Liberty opened the 17-story Freedom Tower at the heart of its campus, calling it the home of the Rawlings School of Divinity. The tower would be a testament the Liberty’s heritage as a Christian university and “will really make a statement to everyone for years to come about what the school is all about,” Falwell said in a news release at the time.

A year later, the Liberty Journal -- a university publication that lists Falwell as its publisher -- called the tower a “bold tangible sign of Liberty’s commitment to preparing students both academically and spiritually.” The seventh floor of the tower held a lab for “students to sharpen their preaching and public speaking skills,” the Journal noted. The 13th floor held an executive conference room. The facility was not only the “architectural centerpiece of campus,” it was also home to “the world’s largest school for religious studies and ministerial training.”

Against that backdrop, the recent divinity faculty cuts may seem jarring. But the divinity school has in fact been enrolling fewer residential students over much of the last five years.

In the 2013 fiscal year, Liberty’s School of Religion -- which was later combined with its seminary to create the School of Divinity -- had 1,619 residential students, counting undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students. That was 13 percent of Liberty’s resident student body, making the School of Religion the second-largest academic program at the university, behind a grouping of health sciences and nursing.

In 2015, the Rawlings School of Divinity had 1,078 residential students, or 7.4 percent of all students attending class on campus. By 2018, residential enrollment had fallen to 992, or 6.1 percent of all students on campus. The divinity school was then the sixth-largest school or college on campus.

Liberty’s online religion and divinity programs initially held enrollment steadier. But by 2017, they were also shrinking in both total number of students and share of Liberty’s online enrollment.

In 2013, the School of Religion enrolled 19,286 students online. At the time, the school accounted for 21 percent of online enrollment. In 2015, the divinity school had 19,727 students online, or 20 percent of Liberty’s online enrollment.

By 2017, the Rawlings School of Divinity’s enrollment had dropped to 13,688 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, or 15.8 percent of Liberty’s online enrollment.

Reached by telephone after being presented with those figures Friday, a Liberty spokesman said they were inaccurate. He said he had nothing “quotable” to offer in an interview. Inside Higher Ed informed him that the conversation was on the record. The spokesman reiterated that the numbers were not correct.

“You can publish them, and the day after you publish them, we’ll let the world know your enrollment numbers aren’t correct,” he said. “You might want to go back to your source and say, ‘Button down your numbers.’”

Inside Higher Ed had not disclosed the source of the information. The enrollment figures came from annual disclosure reports Liberty is required to file for bondholders who lent the university money, including through tax-exempt bonds issued through a state agency in 2010. The introductions to the reports bear the signature of Liberty’s senior vice president of finance.

In a telephone interview later, Falwell and several other administrators acknowledged the statistics as correct.

“We’re still the largest school of divinity out there,” Falwell said.

Coupling Ministry With Other Careers?

Fewer students want to study strictly to be ministers than have in the past, Liberty’s leaders said. Instead, they are seeking to pair spiritual work with other careers.

“The world out there is seeing less and less full-time vocational ministers, even in the way that mission is happening on a global front,” said David Nasser, Liberty’s senior vice president for spiritual development. “More people are going in the mission field, and they’re bankers in Hong Kong while they are missionaries.”

In that paradigm, Liberty would be well suited to attract students. The university’s students are exposed to religious study and work in several ways while on campus, taking divinity or religion courses, attending frequent convocations, or volunteering.

“We do have fewer students who are coming here to study to go into full-time ministry, because churches are not what they used to be,” Falwell said. “I don’t know if the numbers are down or if they just changed in their focus. Maybe they’ve taken to heart what Liberty has always said our mission was, and that is to charge students to go into every profession and lead by example.”

Nonetheless, Liberty’s online enrollment trends for divinity may be out of step with other universities'. Many prospective students are focusing on the study of religion, according to Bob Atkins, founder and CEO of Gray Associates, a consulting firm that works on education and technology issues and tracks student demand for programs.

“Gray's data on student inquiries for divinity and ministry programs posted a 19 percent annual gain last year and another 19 percent annual gain through May of this year,” he said in an email. “Inquiry growth was particularly strong for bachelor's degree programs, which experienced 33 percent annual growth; master's degree growth was a more modest 15 percent. But this growth is not coming to a campus near you. Over 90 percent of divinity and ministry inquiries were for online programs. We also noticed that interest seems to be particularly high in the silver segment -- that is, students over 60 years old.”

Falwell predicted Liberty's divinity programs will grow again in the future. The university plans to add a requirement for full-time divinity students to take business courses so they can learn important skills for running a church.

"Learn how to run the business side of the church, how to do what my father did back in the '50s and '60s," Falwell said. "That is, he was sort of a P. T. Barnum -- he'd bring in the world's tallest man, the world's strongest man, if it had some sort of Christian basis. He'd bring in country music stars. He brought in Colonel Harland Sanders one time. I remember that I was 10 years old. He made it entertaining."

Falwell also promised a new focus for full-time divinity students.

"The other thing that we're going to start emphasizing is that these kids going into full-time ministry have to love the people that they're ministering to," he said. "That was the key to my dad's success: he poured everything into those people. He made it entertaining, and he took risks like a businessman would take, and that's not something our divinity school has focused on in recent years. Once we put those measures in place, I think you'll see it grow back to what it was before."

Divinity programs are a significant source of revenue for Liberty. They are among some of the largest Liberty programs for which newly released preliminary data on average graduate loan debt are available from the U.S. Department of Education.

The preliminary data aren’t exact -- they don’t distinguish between debt for graduates of online programs and on-campus programs. Nor do they count debt among nongraduates or graduates of small programs. But they do make it possible to estimate total debt taken on by graduates of certain large programs over a two-year span, and therefore to get a rough sense of how many federal loan dollars a university is collecting from some programs versus others.

Liberty’s master’s degree in theological and ministerial studies had 1,422 graduates between 2015 and 2016. Average debt per graduate was $44,656. That means graduates of the program borrowed a total of $63.5 million in the two-year span.

A total of 1,081 students received bachelor’s degrees from Liberty in religion or religious studies over the two years. Their debt averaged $31,906 at graduation, so total federal borrowing by those students was $34.5 million.

In total, Liberty’s religion programs that were large enough to have data released had 2,966 graduates borrowing a total of about $111.7 million over two years. That’s about 18.7 percent of all borrowing by Liberty students for programs for which data was available. Liberty students in the divinity programs accounted for 16.7 percent of all students for which borrowing data was available.

The federal debt data don’t directly represent revenue collected by Liberty. Some federal loan dollars that are disbursed don’t go to pay tuition or university fees but instead go to students to help them pay for expenses related to their education, like rent or books.

Liberty students across all programs typically receive more than $600 million per year in federal loan funds and more than $100 million annually in federal Pell Grants. In 2018, the university’s students received $617.2 million in federal loan funds, $104.3 million in Pell Grants and another $16.4 million in Virginia Tuition Assistance Grants.

Again, the funds from loan programs don’t necessarily equate to revenue collected by the university, because some of the money is distributed back to students for other expenses.

Struggles Online and a Shrinking Applicant Pool

Liberty’s universitywide online head-count enrollment fell for three straight years after hitting a high of 98,513 in 2015. It fell all the way to 85,848 in 2018. (The illustration at right shows how the online program promotes itself.)

Online enrollment has improved markedly this year, Falwell said. When the 2019 fiscal year closes at the end of June, Liberty could post a record online enrollment of nearly 100,000 students. (Update: Falwell provided new information Monday afternoon indicating online enrollment will total 95,000 at the end of the fiscal year. It still includes the "largest incoming new student class in LU Online history," he said.) 

The university put in place major changes to spark the turnaround, Falwell said.

“We had to fire some people,” he said. “There was some bad management going on. We cleaned house and we brought in the right people and it’s incredible how much they turned it around in two years.”

One person who has worked for Liberty’s online operations declined comment when contacted by Inside Higher Ed but went on to say the experience was “terrifying” and that people had been laid off with “absolutely no warning and no reasoning.” The person went on to explain that current employees would likely not comment because they were “walking on eggshells, trying not to do anything wrong.”

Back on campus, Liberty has been increasing its resident programs’ enrollment. Fall head-count enrollment for undergraduate and graduate students totaled 12,932 in 2013. It rose all the way to 15,549 in 2017. Falwell said overall enrollment continued to grow this year, rising by 400 and potentially pushing Liberty’s campus over the 16,000-student mark.

Freshman applications, on the other hand, are sharply lower than they were in prior years. A total of 28,872 applications came in for students who wanted to study in the fall 2014 semester. Just over 21 percent were accepted, and about 44.2 percent of those accepted matriculated.

Applications rose to 32,115 in 2016, with acceptance and matriculation rates holding roughly steady. But the next year, applications fell to 23,231. They fell further in 2018, to 16,262, meaning applications fell by 49.3 percent in two years.

Even so, Liberty actually raised the number of students matriculating between 2016 and 2018. The university’s acceptance rate jumped to 39.1 percent in 2018, and 49.1 percent of those students matriculated.

Falwell chalked up the steep drop in the number of applications to the university instituting an application fee. He couldn’t say when exactly the fee was put in place. Data in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System indicate Liberty has charged application fees for at least a decade, but the fee could have been waived or deferred in some years.

Administrators also pointed out that Liberty has high retention rates. Freshmen retention from fall 2016 to fall 2017 was 87.4 percent.

Liberty’s six-year graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate students who started in the fall of 2011 and sought an undergraduate degree was 52 percent.

Application trends for residential transfer students, law students and most graduate students have not shown the same recent drop as undergraduate applications. Transfer student applications dropped about 9 percent between 2016 and 2018 to 5,194, law applications rose by almost 16 percent to 279, and graduate applications increased by more than 130 percent to 3,301. Applications to the College of Osteopathic Medicine fell by 41 percent, however, to 2,431.

Liberty reports application and enrollment information for most graduate students separately from graduate students for the divinity school. The School of Divinity has received more applications every year since 2015. Between 2016 and 2018, applications rose by 70 percent to 558. The acceptance rate fell 20 points to 34 percent, and the matriculation rate slipped from 53 percent to 46 percent.

Despite the ups and downs of the different on-campus programs and the struggles with online enrollment, Liberty has posted more than $200 million in profit in every year since 2016. The university’s net assets rose by $276.5 million in 2018, with operating revenue rising year over year by $57.8 million to almost $900 million, versus operating expenses rising by only $27.3 million to $678.3 million.

The current fiscal year, 2019, is shaping up to be better, Falwell said.

“Expenses are way down, and so is the amount we’re spending per student to recruit,” he said. “The bottom line of all that means that this June 30 will be our best year, financially, in the history of the school.”

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