Faced with outrage from black alumni and the resignation of at least three African American staffers, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has deleted and apologized for a two-week-old tweet that showed a face mask decorated with a photo of a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface.
The images were intended to mock the mask requirement implemented by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who nearly resigned from his office last year amid revelations that the racist photo had been featured on his medical school yearbook page.
But it upset many of the African American students, staff and alumni at Liberty, which was founded in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971 by Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., and is one of the largest Christian universities in the world.
LeeQuan McLaurin, who began as a student at Liberty in 2012 and has worked there since, resigned from his position as director of diversity retention last week. He said in an email that Falwell’s tweet on May 27 was a tipping point of larger racially related problems that he has experienced at the school, which he said have contributed to a drop in Liberty’s residential undergraduate African American population from 10 percent to 4 percent between 2007 and 2018.
“Some draw a direct line between the start of President Falwell’s divisive, insensitive, and unapologetic approach to politics and that drop,” he wrote in the email. Since President Trump’s campaign, Falwell has been one of his most prominent evangelical supporters.
On Monday, Falwell apologized for his tweet after meeting with African American board members and some alumni, including former NFL athlete Rashad Jennings, who played college football at Liberty. Falwell tweeted that he wanted to remind people of the 2019 scandal in which Northam denied that the photo was his but admitted to wearing blackface on another occasion decades ago.
“I actually refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point. Based on our long relationships, they uniformly understood this was not my intent, but because it was the result,” Falwell wrote on Twitter. “I have deleted the tweet and apologize for any hurt my effort caused, especially within the African American community.”
Following his apology, Falwell said in an interview that he was unaware of McLaurin’s resignation, as well as the resignation of another black staff member, Keyvon Scott, who was an online admissions counselor.
“I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture,” Scott wrote on Twitter. He could not be reached for comment.
Falwell dismissed staff departures, saying that the university has 9,000 employees. His wife, Becki, added that the school’s human resources told her that about 35 people stop working for the university each week.
Falwell said he did not know what percentage of residential students at Liberty are African American. Of about 79,000 students enrolled at the university in fall 2018, including students studying on campus and students studying online, 15 percent were black or African American, federal data show.
In the interview, Falwell was dismissive of a letter signed by 35 black alumni who asked him to remove his tweet, saying it was a small percentage among 360,000 graduates of the school.
“The tweet was aimed at the governor,” he said. “It accidentally offended them.”
Christopher House, an online instructor for the university’s school of communications and the arts, also resigned from his position after Falwell’s tweet. House, who is African American, said he likens Falwell’s apology to the apology from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who recently apologized after his comments about NFL athletes kneeling during the national anthem provoked a firestorm of criticism from fellow players.
“What concrete action will we see to help the recruitment and retention and valuing of black faculty members?” said House, who is also a tenured professor at Ithaca College. “What development of courses or programs will aid in understanding the construction of race and these hurtful images?”
A fourth African American staffer, Thomas Starchia, also resigned in recent days, but it was not clear why, and he could not be reached for comment.
A different Liberty staff member, who is African American and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared she would lose her job, said Falwell’s tweets were “a cherry on top” of other race-related issues at the school.
“It seemed like once donors said I’m not going to put money into your university, that’s when he says, ‘I’m sorry, I apologize,’” she said. “It’s too late!”
Staff, she said, fear losing their jobs, and faculty do not receive tenure.
“You know how back in the slavery days, black people would disobey? Or they would go against the master? They get whooped for it. They would lose a limb. That limb is you losing your job,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Sit down, shut up and do your job.’ You lose your job, lose your benefits.”
As director of diversity retention, McLaurin was responsible for retaining underrepresented student populations, overseeing cultural awareness for events around Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
McLaurin said the diversity office was moved from a prominent spot in the Montview Student Union, where the office had an overabundance of traffic, to a smaller and less accessible space in Montview. Then in April, it was relocated to a space too small to host events, in an area that is rarely frequented by his target student demographic.
“DIRT Talks” that his office sponsored, on topics such as immigration, the #MeToo movement and general discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, were eliminated, McLaurin said.
In his resignation letter, McLaurin took issue with Greg Dowell, Liberty’s chief diversity officer, who is also black, saying that he has “worked to actively denigrate and work against” minority populations. Dowell said that “it was way out of line and off base,” citing his record of working for the school on diversity issues from 1989 to 2000 and returning in 2018.
McLaurin posted an image stating “black lives matter” on official campus communications social media outlets, and Dowell said he had him take it down, encouraging him to put it on his personal page.
“From the university’s standpoint, Black Lives Matter means different things to different people,” Dowell said in an interview Monday. “I don’t want to speak for everyone.”