Jerry Falwell Jr. has resigned as president of Liberty University after a series of personal scandals, ending back-to-back Falwell leadership eras at an evangelical institution that is a major power center for conservative Christians and politicians.
His contract entitles him to a $10.5 million severance package, Falwell, 58, told The Washington Post late Tuesday – in part because he is departing from the university without being formally accused of or admitting to wrongdoing.
Falwell said he will receive $2.5 million over 24 months, equivalent to two years salary. He agreed to not work for a competing university during that time. After two years, he will receive $8 million in retirement. Falwell said he signed a 20-page contract in July 2019 that outlined the terms.
“The board was gracious not to challenge that,” Falwell said of his decision to step down in good standing.
“There wasn’t any cause,” he said. “I haven’t done anything.”
Falwell has generated headlines in recent years for remarks and actions that were considered racist or anti-Muslim, and has been criticized for attempting to silence dissent on the university’s campus in Lynchburg, Va. He was suspended with pay early this month after posting a provocative photo on social media. Pressure for him to resign ramped up after news reports this week that alleged extramarital conduct involving him and his wife, Becki Falwell.
Jerry Falwell told The Post on Tuesday that he had not been involved in an affair, but his wife had; Becki Falwell, in the same interview, confirmed that account. Falwell said he was leaving Liberty in part because he did not want his wife’s conduct to embarrass the school. But he also said he had been bored and wanted to move on.
His resignation stands out because Falwell had seemed untouchable within the evangelical community, due both to his family’s prominence and his close friendship and alliance with President Donald Trump, who is strongly supported by White evangelicals.
Since 2007, Falwell had been at the helm of the Virginia university co-founded by his father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., a colorful televangelist who helped shape the religious right. Liberty’s board said it will form a search committee to hire a new leader. Former board chair Jerry Prevo, who became acting president after Falwell was placed on leave Aug. 7, remains in that position.
The terms of Falwell’s departure infuriatedsome in the Liberty community, including members of an alumni group called Save71 who have organized and advocated for months for his ouster.
“If they’re going to bow down and let this happen, it’s going to be an obvious statement that they care less about the interests of the university than Falwell,” said Dustin Wahl, a Save71 founder. “It might be true that for whatever legal reason he’s owed that money. If that’s true, that shows the sheer lack of accountability.”
The latest allegations about Falwell come from Giancarlo Granda, a young businessman who met the Falwells at a pool in Florida years ago and has been involved in business and social dealings with them for much of the last decade. Granda alleged this week that he had a years-long sexual affair with Becki Falwell and that Jerry Falwell sometimes watched their interactions, including video calls where Becki Falwell was naked.
In a statement Tuesday, Granda accused Falwell of being a “predator,” saying he’d sent Granda an image of a female Liberty University student exposing herself at their farm.
Falwell, in turn, called Granda a “liar” and a “criminal.” He said Granda may have been referring to an incident when he and his wife were out of town. His daughters-in-law and a friend were using the family’s guesthouse to cook a meal, Falwell said, and the friend pulled up her skirt, as a joke, while she was cooking.
The daughters-in-law were videotaping the girl, and sent screenshots around, Falwell said.”She had on, I don’t know how to say this, granny panties,” he said, saying the image wasn’t sexual.
Falwell said he sent the screenshot to several people because he thought it was funny. He said he does not remember whether he sent it to Granda.
Neither of the Falwells specified with whom Becki Falwell had an affair. She described the relationship as embarrassing and humbling. “I wish Christians, and people, would be as forgiving as Christ was,” she said.
Granda’s accusations have revived attention to claims last year by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, that he had intervened on Falwell’s behalf several years ago when someone was threatening to blackmail the Liberty leader by circulating embarrassing images.
Falwell confirmed Tuesday that Cohen had helped him. He did not say who was threatening to circulate the images, only that someone had stolen photos from his phone – of he and Becki in their backyard – and Cohen spoke to the person’s lawyers and threatened to contact the FBI if the photos became public.
“They weren’t fully nude,” Falwell said of the images. “They were just pictures of my wife. I was proud of how she looked.”
Cohen, however, implied Granda was involved. Cohen told The Post in a text message Tuesday that he had worked with Granda’s lawyer to “ensure the alleged photos were not released to the public.”
A spokesman for Granda said Granda’s attorney did not speak with Cohen.
Cohen also addressed Falwell’s 2016 endorsement of Trump, which came during the Republican primary race, after the alleged photo incident, and was a key turning point in siphoning evangelical support away from other GOP candidates.
“I asked the Falwells, as a personal favor to me, to assist with the lagging Trump campaign in Iowa,” Cohen wrote in a text.
At Liberty, where fall classes began this week, senior Payton Fedako said students were trying to focus on life on campus and not on Falwell news, which Fedako called a “political environment” that is separate.
“I’d say it’s a small minority of people who are very involved or taking action, posting on social media, reaching out,” said Fedako, 21, of Columbus, Ohio. “The silent majority of people are not involved in politics. . . . I’ve chose the latter and am very happy with the school.”
The university’s statement about Falwell’s departure offered him “heartfelt prayers” and praise for his accomplishments, including dramatically increased enrollment and more than $1 billion of ongoing or planned construction on campus. Falwell also executed his family’s long-term plan to reduce massive debt at the university and shift to more online learning.
The recent scandals have eroded support for Falwell in the evangelical community, with critics increasingly vocal about concerns including racism, nepotism and creating a “culture of silence” for those who rejected Falwell’s pro-Trump politics. The overarching complaint was that Falwell had lost sight of the school’s evangelical mission to “train champions for Christ.”
Earlier this month, Save71 called for Falwell’s permanent removal, saying he had damaged the spiritual vitality, academic quality and national reputation of the school. It asked for him to be replaced “with a responsible and virtuous Christian leader” and launched a website detailing scores of controversial moments in the most recent five years of his tenure.
“This is a reckoning for evangelicals,” said Maina Mwaura, a preacher and writer who went to Liberty. “Most people I’ve spoken with feel deeply embarrassed by this, whether they went to Liberty or not. The Falwell family has been a dynasty of the last 50 years.”
He said character issues like “the things [Falwell] said about people of color or the things he said about Muslims or calling parents stupid – none of that seemed to matter until the image became hurt” and Liberty’s reputation seemed at risk.
Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty graduate who has written books critiquing conservative evangelical culture, said sexual indiscretions were Falwell’s tipping point.
“In some ways, Jerry Falwell Jr. is living the consequences of the moral hierarchy that his dad helped to put into place,” Merritt said, adding that he did not expect any broad church fallout. “Evangelicals tend to have an individualistic view of sin, so when one famous leader falls from grace, they tend to see it as ‘one bad apple.’ “
Falwell Jr. said he thinks his father would have been amazed at what his son has built out of the university he founded. But, he said, the role of being president has taken a toll on him.
“The quote that keeps running through my mind is Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last,’ ” Falwell said.