Jerry Falwell Jr. agreed to resign as president of Liberty University on Monday,according to the university’s general counsel, after a series of sordid scandals rocked the school he has led since 2007.
Falwell, a real estate developer who became a passionate defender of President Donald Trump, took over the Christian university his father helped found to evangelize the world in 2007. His leadership dramatically increased the school’s growth and clout, but critics increasingly worried that he had lost sight of the spiritual mission of the university.
Falwell agreed to resign from the school’s presidency and board of directors Monday but reversed course, according to a statement from David Corry, the university’s general counsel, telling his attorneys not to tender the letter for immediate resignation.
The school’s executive committee met Monday and plans to meet again Tuesday morning before a conference call with the full board of trustees.
Opposition to his presidency had been growing but came to a dramatic head after two new reports about a young man Falwell and his wife befriended at a Florida pool, went into business with and who allegedly was sexually connected to the couple. One report depicted Falwell as the victim of an obsessive affair, the other as an eager participant manipulating a naive young man. On Monday night, Falwell said a Reuters report, which described him as having watched his wife while having sex with another man, is false.
But late in the day, Falwell’s purported exit became complicated. Reached by phone Monday night, Falwell said he was not resigning. He referred further questions to his public relations team, which did not comment. According to Corry, a resignation process had begun, then broke down. Discussions between the two sides continued Monday evening.
Falwell said late Monday, in response to the university’s statement, that he did resign, but that “it’s still up in the air.”
Falwell had been placed on paid leave Aug. 7 after he posted a provocative picture of himself and his wife’s assistant on social media. Both had their zippers partially down, and Falwell was holding a dark beverage that he joked was nonalcoholic and “a prop only.” Drinking or being around alcohol as well as sexual promiscuity are banned for students under Liberty’s personal code of conduct. Liberty board members had said in a statement Friday that they were investigating.
Acting president Jerry Prevo said in a statement, “I call upon the University community and supporters to be in prayer for the University and for all its leadership, past, present and future, as we walk with the Lord through this stormy time of transition.”
Liberty University was founded in 1971 to “train champions for Christ,” and many at the school revere the memory of Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the prominent evangelist who was one of the school’s founders.
Monday was Liberty’s first day of classes.
For many years, Falwell Jr. was best known for lifting the university out of debt, shoring up its finances, improving its physical campus and leading growth in enrollment.
He made national headlines when he endorsed Trump in 2016, one of the first prominent evangelicals to do so. He also garnered criticism for the endorsement from students and graduates. A former chairman of Liberty’s executive committee, Mark DeMoss, resigned over the endorsement, saying Trump’s campaign was a rejection of the values the university promotes.
A series of scandals increased concern among some graduates, students and other supporters of the university.
At a Liberty convocation in 2015, Falwell said a San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that year could have been prevented if people had concealed-carry permits and had guns to “end those Muslims before they walked in killing.”
In May, Falwell tweeted a photo of a mask decorated with an image of a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface, in an attempt to taunt Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, over his blackface scandal in connection with a medical school yearbook. Falwell deleted the tweet and apologized, but several students and staff members left the school in protest.
The board faced pressure to take action, with pastors and influential supporters including Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a Southern Baptist minister and former Liberty instructor, calling for his resignation. A group of graduates, Save71, called for Falwell’s permanent removal. “We put no faith in riches or comfort, in status or power,” they wrote. “We put our faith in Christ alone, and we want Liberty University to follow Him.”
On Sunday night, a columnist at the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper published an exclusive statement from Falwell saying he has been seeking counseling after finding out his wife, Becki, had an affair with a man the couple met in 2012. In the piece, Falwell characterized the relationship as akin to “fatal attraction” and said the man threatened to reveal the affair if they did not pay him hefty sums.
The column quoted the man, who has been identified in previous reporting by Politico, BuzzFeed and others as Giancarlo Granda, as denying Falwell’s allegations.
On Monday, Reuters quoted Granda as saying that from 2012 until 2018 he had a sexual relationship with Becki Falwell – one about which her husband knew all along. According to Reuters, Granda denied any intent to extort the Falwells and said he was intending to negotiate a buyout from his business arrangement.
The Reuters report also said Falwell was in the room watching as his wife and Granda had sex. Falwell’s legal team denied that allegation. In Falwell’s earlier statement Sunday, he said the affair was “something in which I was not involved.”
Becki Falwell did not return calls or text messages seeking comment Monday. Efforts to reach Granda on Monday were not successful.
Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor in Dallas who also supports Trump, said he has high regard for the university and has spoken there several times. He said he was unaware of Granda’s allegations about Falwell and his wife.
“Jerry has done a great job in building a tremendous school,” Jeffress said. “The allegations, if true, should be a warning of the destructive power of sin.”
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor who worked for the university for 21 years, said morale at the school has been low under Falwell’s “authoritarian” leadership. She said that frustration has been building over the past several months, and that there were several recent incidents that particularly upset Liberty students and graduates.
She said that Falwell’s behavior often played out on social media, and that the school’s leadership was often ignorant of how he treated some people.
“It’s been months, if not years, of having a leader whose power and words have been unchecked,” said Prior, who now works for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
After graduating from the University of Virginia’s law school in 1987, Falwell became a commercial real estate developer and lawyer. At Liberty, where he became general counsel, he used his business acumen to make tireless efforts to get the school out of debt that in the 1990s was reported to be as high as $100 million.
He pursued grants, cultivated relationships with big donors and studied the market for various educational programs Liberty could start.
Part of the affinity Liberty’s students and staff had for him stemmed from the feeling that he was a big reason for Liberty’s recovery. After decades of debt, it now has endowment assets of $1.6 billion – up from $6.3 million when he took over in 2007.
Falwell’s many controversies put a renewed spotlight on the school’s board of trustees, which includes his brother Jonathan Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Billy Graham’s grandson evangelist Will Graham and Penny Nance, president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America. Members of the board did not say anything publicly for years until this month when Falwell posted the provocative photo.
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The Washington Post’s Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.