On Facebook in June of 2019 a former Liberty University faculty member wrote about issues at the Christian school. He described an administration that is ethically bankrupt and treats its staff badly. This is a troubling read and raises more questions about the practices of Jerry Falwell Jr’s administration.
“Avoid dishonest gain: no price can recompence the pangs of vice.”
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Philippians 2:1-2 NIV
Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In June of 2019 a former Liberty University faculty member, Brian Melton, published a statement on Facebook that raised a lot of question about Liberty University. Chief among them is this…what does it mean to be a Christian University? This post is one of heart break and of a university administration that is ethically bankrupt.
Anyone who is paying attention to the criticism of Liberty University these days is well familiar with the charge of “Fake News.” It is a common and mindless refrain, parroted back in obedience to The Donald’s talking points and it somehow resonates with otherwise intelligent people. It is also an easy charge to levy, as most of the time when people not connected to LU hear about nefarious happenings and underhanded actions, it is as “something that happened to this guy I heard about” or the like thanks to LU’s use of the non-disclosure agreements. I never signed an NDA. So I thought I might skip the rumor mill and share my own, direct, first-hand experience with the administration’s behavior. What I can attest to is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg and not as bad as what has happened to others, but it marked the transition when, after fifteen years, I finally came to the definite conclusion that the upper administration at LUwasn’t simply self-serving or even inept, but fundamentally duplicitous. Worse, it demonstrated to me that they acted this way intentionally and with malice aforethought.
In 2014 my family and I moved to the Lynchburg area, where I occupied a position as an Instructional Mentor, acting as a bridge between the College of General Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences. Previously, I had worked for LU full-time residentially for over ten years. I served as a professor, chair of our curriculum committee, and moderator of the faculty senate during that time. I liked and respected (I still do) the people in those schools I worked with directly and at the time we intended to spend the rest of our lives there. I figured whatever else happened, we would muddle through it and would retire from LU when the time came. My point is though I of course had my frustrations with the administration on some issues but there was no ill will and I hope to keep working for them for years to come.
One peculiarity of my position at the time was that it was “part-time full time.” Technically, I was a part time worker and received none of the benefits that other faculty did, while at the same time I was counted as “full time” faculty with a terminal degree in SACS purposes via a “limited benefit” contract (the sole “benefit” was that after filling out the paperwork I could receive $400 a year to join a professional association), I knew there would be none of the standard health or life insurance, tuition assistance, etc.. going into the position and was fine with it, as we were allowed to take extra classes out of pocket. I recall speaking with my associate dean as late as 2015 and telling him I would be happy doing this job until I retired.
Of course, the lack of medical coverage in particular was a complaint that many had, but I did not see it as a significant obstacle. Yes, it was on the unfair side to be second-class faculty member who did not get the coverage others did, even though I did as much work, and getting on the school insurance would be a significant boon to our family. Still, I worked from home, was paid well, and just accepted it as a known downside to a specific job I agreed to do. There had been constant rumors that the administration appreciated us and was taking steps to give us coverage, but nothing came of it. Until the Fall of 2016, that is.
That fall I received an email on a Friday afternoon (when a few people would be expected to look at it, of course) informing me that I had worked enough to qualify for medical coverage under the university. I had one week to respond. If I didn’t I would immediately and permanently forfeit any claim to coverage now or in the future. As you can imagine, I didn’t wait! I responded immediately that I was grateful for the opportunity and to put me down for it. I also contacted both of my bosses, who were happy to hear that I received coverage. Both promised to do everything they could to do to make sure I kept it by giving me the required amount of work.
The next week I called Human Resources to find out more. I spoke with the benefits coordinator, and told him how much I appreciated the gesture. He replied that he was glad to hear it and that LU was always happy to hear from its people. As he explained the details of the coverage, he was careful to sneak in a comment that if I ever happened to fall below the required line, I would lose my coverage. “Well,” I thought, ‘that’s fair.” And so I asked what I thought to be the obvious question: “Where is the line? How much do I have to work in order to rate coverage?” His reply was shady, and you could tell by the uncomfortable tone in his voice that he knew it too. “That’s proprietary information,” he said. ” I can’t release it.” “You can’t tell me at all?” I asked. “No” was the answer. My bosses, good people that they are, also both followed up with HR and they were both given the same answer.
From that moment, I knew that this was, in reality, nothing but an intentional set up. The reason they would tell no one where the line lay was because it was mobile –no one would ever cross it again. No matter how much we worked, it would always be “unfortunately” short of the goal. In fact, Liberty has obfuscated on Obamacare as long as they could, and now they were being forced to offer coverage to all full time workings. Rather then be frank about it, they were playing the situation off like this was a friendly and helpful boon to their employees, all while laying plans to revoke the coverage at the first opportunity and blame it on said employees. It was as dishonest as it was obvious.
Sure enough within a month, we began to get notifications of sudden “policy changes” that cut the financial run out form under whole classes of faithful employees. My own turn at this came in December. In a move worthy of the counting house of Ebenezer Scrooge, four days before Christmas, I received an email informing me that I was to be locked out of any and all overload teaching effective January 1. For me, that amounted to an immediate pay cut of approximately a third of my LU income. I was given approximately two weeks – including Christmas Eve and Day — to make adjustments. Never was an apology expressed, regrets offered, or even an acknowledgement made by anyone beyond my immediate superiors (who had no say in the matter) for the obvious effect this had on people’s lives or for the manner in which it was rolled out. Over the next quarter, chaos ensued as the administration waffled back and fort about what to do next and my hapless bosses could on;y report what the whim of the day happened to be. One day I was looking at a 50% pay cut. A week later, the rumor was that my position was being eliminated. A week after that it was 20%. Then 30% . etc, etc, etc.
The following Fall, things finally settled out — as much as they do at Liberty, where things are constantly in flux as the latest disposable “rock star” tries to leave his mark. I ended up losing about 25% of my previous income potential and we were limited to a theoretical 30 hours per week of work. I emphasize “theoretical” because in fact no effort was made to track anything outside of teaching hours, which represented the hours, for which we were actually paid. At the same time, Liberty’s “Co-Provost” announced sweeping changes t our positions requiring substantially more administrative work. Since administrative hours were never counted or totaled nor paid individually, in fact our workload as a whole went up substantially while our overall pay potential dropped significantly. Perhaps worse, we were now charged with tracing faculty compliance via a tool called the “FAR” which tracked and logged every single tome a faculty member was late doing anything. While that information had been available to chairs and deans for years, now it was forced down to even the adjunct level and I, as an Instructional Mentor, was required to contact the faculty under me and ask for an explanation any and every time I saw a “red flag.” Miss posting your Monday announcements by five minutes this week? I have to demand a justification that I would log in with the university on your record. Are you a little late in grading papers the university suddenly required you to return to the students two days earlier then before? I’ll be checking up on you for an excuse why you shouldn’t be fired. And with the “Co-Provost” (What the heck is that, anyway? The real provost pretending to not be? The actual provost’s personal assistant? )constantly haranguing us with threats that there were “hundreds of people lined up for your job”, threats so thinly veiled that they insulted your intelligence as much as they frightened you, there was plenty of angst to go around.
And so I found myself in an interesting position: I was working full time hours at a part time job that had at least full time expectations, being told that I could get in trouble if I didn’t accomplish my full time work in my part time hours. I operated on a one year contract with no job security under implied threats of “non-renewal” delivered via smarmy video messages that tracked how much of each of you watched. I was part of an increasingly Orwellian surveillance system that meant I was party to inflicting all of this onto others. (Let us not forget academic standards that had fallen dramatically over recent years and about which I could perhaps write another whole article.) And I was supposed to be happy about it –sacrificing my time and my family for the university, but not being able to expect a scrap of loyalty or genuine appreciation out of anyone above the deans’ level in return. The only sage words that could be used to express serious dissent were, “Thank you sir! May I have another?” All of this was happening in the name of Christ, and every complaint was expected to be excused for the sake of the mission, a mission that it was increasingly clear the school’s own president regarded as secondary to making money and winning football games (since confirmed directly in a recent tweet). It should come as no surprise then, that, in the summer of 2017, when I was approached about an opportunity to teach in Europe, I decided to leave.
And the medical coverage? In September of 2017 I received the equivalent of a medical “Dear John” letter, regretfully informing me that since I simply hadn’t worked hard enough in the past year, the university had no choice but to end my medical coverage. At the time, my wife and I were being actively treated with expensive anti-biotics for Lyme Disease and a malarial-type of infection she had picked up on a mission trip. My new chair in LUO (my previous one had quit in disgust) went on the line for me to try and reverse the decision, but was told to sit down and be quiet –the administration didn’t care and he was risking his own position by speaking up.
In the final tally, I most likely could have made ends meet on the new salary they were offering, but money wasn’t the central problem. The most important issue for me was character. I had to be able to rely on Liberty University to trust me and others fairly and honestly if I were to bank my family’s welfare on working for them. My own personal narrative aside, I knew of many other people who were treated worse than I was — a whole list of persons that I liked and respected. If the last few years had taught me anything, it was that while there are still many excellent people to be found there, Liberty University as a whole was shifty, dishonorable, unprincipled, and hypocritical a work environment as could be offered. I could not trust my family to them and I increasingly found it to have a reputation associated with an organization that had proved itself so often without honor. (Yes I’m old fashioned that way.)
It was a hard decision. We love our friends in the Lynchburg area very much and we love the Virginia mountains. We love our church, and as I said, we planned to grow old and die there. We miss them badly, even as we travel and experience Europe. Unfortunately, Liberty’s behavior and lack of honor made it virtually impossible to stay — for us at least.
Moving into 2018, I learned that more cuts were likely. (Despite what Provost Hicks asserts, it is relatively recent thing for faculty to be completely surprised by their non-renewal. At one point there was a written agreement that faculty would be notified by January if it were a possibility, and even later people were unofficially informed.) I approached my bosses and let them know that I would be leaving at the end of the year in the hopes that if they knew it, someone else’s job might be secure. (I was told that it did save a position). In true LU style, I later received official notification in a boiler plate email that they have regretfully decided not to renew the contract I had already informed them I wasn’t seeking.
I arrived at LU in he Fall of 2003 to find earnest, if humanly fallible university making its very best effort to transform itself into the Notre Dame of Evangelicalism. I left a financially successfully behemoth where real ministry and Christian charity is carried out by earnest believers in spite of the effort and example of its upper administration to the contrary. Increasingly, LU is becoming more of the Harvard of Evangelicalism then the Notre Dame (academic standards definitely not withstanding). It is a university where the original mission has been scarified in favor of a political agenda and a secular system of situational morality, Liberty falling to the right wing in counterpart to Harvard’s left. Though the campus may be bigger and more beautiful then ever before, sadly thanks to the trajectory of its current administration, its reflection of Christ is not.