SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Jerry Falwell Jr. is a close ally of President Trump and the leader of Liberty University, a conservative Christian college in Virginia. Falwell is under renewed scrutiny after reports from several news outlets raised questions about his activities, including a lengthy investigation published in Politico this past week. It pulls together multiple claims of business dealings by Liberty University which sources say directly benefited Falwell's family and friends, inappropriate comments allegedly made by Falwell to colleagues and apparent attempts to mobilize students on behalf of Falwell's own political goals.
Politico quoted one unnamed university official as saying of Liberty, quote, "we're not a school - we're a real estate hedge fund. We're not educating. We're buying real estate every year and taking students' money to do it." The piece relies heavily on anonymous sources. And we can't address all of the allegations today, but Falwell has denied several of them and told the Associated Press that he's asking the FBI to investigate what he sees as a smear campaign by former employees and board members. Liberty also released a lengthy document in which Falwell defends his business decisions and argues that they are in the best interest of the university. We reached out directly to Liberty for a statement, but a spokesman declined to comment further.
Given these allegations against Jerry Falwell Jr., we thought we'd check in with Liberty University students to discuss how the reports are being received on campus in Lynchburg, Va. We're joined today by Elizabeth Brooks and Sutton Roberts, both juniors at Liberty University.
Welcome to you both.
SUTTON ROBERTS: Hey. Great to be here.
ELIZABETH BROOKS: Hi. Thanks for having us.
MCCAMMON: So I want to start by getting a sense of what the mood is like on campus in light of these recent allegations. Sutton, I'll start with you. How much do you think students are paying attention?
ROBERTS: I think that most students are at least loosely aware of the articles. But I think a lot of students really haven't read the articles, haven't really digested the information that much except from what they've heard from their peers. There are quite a few students that are really interested on one side or the other, but I think the vast majority don't really care.
MCCAMMON: Elizabeth, do you agree?
BROOKS: I would have to disagree. I think that there is a lot of buzz that has been generated from this article. I would echo Sutton's response in saying that while they may not know the contents of the article, they do know that something is going on. A lot of my friends from different sides of the political spectrum are caring more and more about this.
MCCAMMON: And, Elizabeth, you organized a protest on campus this past week. Can you tell us why?
BROOKS: Yeah. We organized this protest in response to both articles that dropped this week. We really are protesting President Falwell's habitual behavior of - various allegations of misconduct, especially ones of sexual harassment, and the habitual abuse of his subordinates as well as students and various Christian leaders that he's attacked on Twitter as well.
MCCAMMON: And, Sutton, were you aware of the protests? And what's your reaction to it?
ROBERTS: Yeah, I was aware. I went by and checked out and talked to a couple people there. I feel like they're just trying to be seen. They're trying to get attention. I don't think that they're really expecting to get a lot done, especially since it's kind of the Falwells' university. and I don't think that 15 or 20 protesters is really going to change the university's minds on a really successful president.
MCCAMMON: Elizabeth, do you want to respond to that? I mean, was this was this a serious effort to change something? Or was it just sort of a - to make a statement? What was the goal?
BROOKS: Honestly, we did do it in order to call attention to all that's going on because President Falwell has faced very little repercussions, whether in the media or, of course, on the board or anything. And I would say that I thought it was a decent turnout. You know, it just started out as me and five other friends, and it turned into - we had about 35 kids at the max of it.
You know, I would say that, you know, we're not doing this because we want to oust President Falwell, or we want him to resign or anything like this. We're really calling for an investigation to see if these allegations are true. That's really what we're after here - is the search of the truth.
MCCAMMON: Which allegations do you find most troubling? There's a lot in these reports, and I outlined some of them.
BROOKS: There are. Yeah. Specifically, the ones of sexual harassment in the university's office, whether he's talking about his wife and sexual manners - certainly disheartening to hear. Specifically, though, we are protesting the habitual abuse of various students and whether he refers to them as retarded - you know, a horrifying slur to hear from your president. You know, we're protesting really President Falwell's behavior.
MCCAMMON: And just to elaborate on that a little bit, the Politico report said that Falwell had sent explicit photos of his wife to Liberty employees, and he's denied that. It also claims that he would brag to employees in graphic detail about his sex life with his wife. He didn't respond to questions from Politico about that. I want to ask you, Sutton, what you make of those allegations.
ROBERTS: I think that the alleged comments are certainly somewhat inappropriate about him describing his sex life with his wife and whatnot. But I don't believe that that's necessarily sexual harassment since he's really just talking about his wife. He's not discussing someone else. He's not making moves on a student or faculty member. He's really just talking about his wife.
For the comment about the student, I don't think that that's - I think I feel like that's more taken out of context. When I read the email, he does describe a student as that, but it's really private correspondence between him and a faculty member. And the exact next sentence is him describing the student as a nice kid. He just doesn't want him to get pushed over. He's really not using it in a derogatory manner as far as I can tell. I don't have the full context of the email chain or anything.
MCCAMMON: And Elizabeth, you alluded to what the political report describes as a culture of fear that some current and former employees have described it - a sense that Falwell is someone with a lot of unchecked power, and aides are afraid to push back or speak out. I want to ask both of you, based on what you hear and see on campus, how does that fit with what you know about Falwell and Liberty? And, Elizabeth, I'll start with you.
BROOKS: Yeah. As the person who organized this protest, it was absolutely terrifying the night before. You know, I'm thinking of all the legal ramifications or what could happen. Or, you know, in the back of my mind, I'm wondering if I'm going to lose my scholarships, wondering if I'm going to be able to stay on this university. It is something that a lot of my fellow peers were worried about as well taking part of it. You know, my own roommates who were totally in support of me would not join the protests because they were afraid that they would get kicked out. And this is certainly something that I've heard from a lot of various students.
MCCAMMON: And, Sutton, what's your experience?
ROBERTS: I would have to agree and disagree with her. I think that certainly, I mean, if you're organizing a protest that's protesting the president of a private university, I'm sure that there is some worry and fear behind that. But, I mean, this is not the first protest that's been hosted on campus. There's been several others in the past. And as long as it's by students, it's always been allowed to go on unhindered as far as I'm aware. And then I'm also familiar with quite a few professors, and I don't believe that they're necessarily afraid all the time either
BROOKS: Yeah. I actually met with a couple of my professors before deciding to do this, and both of them strictly warned me. There's also been a number of times in the protests that LUPD has intervened and has asked people to disperse. So that's what we were really worried about.
MCCAMMON: That's the local police department at Liberty.
MCCAMMON: How did your professors warn you, Elizabeth? What'd they say?
BROOKS: They were just saying, like, you know, you need to be careful. You need to make sure that you know the ramifications of this, both on the university and legally off-campus as well.
MCCAMMON: Now, scrutiny of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University is nothing new. There's been a lot of attention on Falwell over the past few years, in particular because of his support for President Trump. And I want to ask you both how you feel about that.
ROBERTS: I'm all for it, to be honest. I mean, I'm a supporter of the president. I'm a supporter of the - our college's president as well. I think that it's certainly within his right as a private citizen to endorse whoever he wants for president. And I think that it certainly looks good on a conservative college to have a president that also believes in conservative values.
BROOKS: Yeah. I would really like to echo that. This is - this whole thing that we're doing, that I'm doing - this is not about Trump. This is not about his support of it. I'd really like to make that clear because many of the people who were at the protest were supporters of Trump. I personally would agree with Sutton. I would think that President Falwell can - whoever he wants to support, that is his right. I would just err to the side of caution and say that I don't know how I feel about the university supporting him. But, you know, like I said, this isn't about Trump at all.
MCCAMMON: I want to ask, finally, what do each of you hope will come from all of this attention and controversy and scrutiny of your university?
BROOKS: For me, I hope that this brings awareness to the issue. I believe that, you know, we need to call for an investigation into these allegations. I think that's something that's certainly necessary. I'd like to see President Falwell himself address it. I really want people to know, and I want people to know why I did this. It's not because I hate President Falwell. It's not because I hate Liberty University. I was born and raised in this area. This university is something that I care deeply about, and I just want it to be the best place that it can be and have its impact for Christ that it has.
ROBERTS: I agree mostly with what she just said. I do think that while she may not have a personal vendetta against the president, I think that a lot of the students that did participate may have. And I think that the articles are also very one-sided and don't necessarily portray the whole thing, especially because he's a supporter of Donald Trump.
MCCAMMON: That's Sutton Roberts and Elizabeth Brooks, both juniors at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Thank you both so much.
ROBERTS: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.