by Alec MacGillis
Three Liberty University students, a young man and two women, sat eating lunch on Wednesday afternoon at a small table in the common dining area of the student union on the sprawling campus perched high above Lynchburg, Virginia. They compared notes on the suntans and burns they’d gotten on beaches during spring break last week. They joked about what it would be like to take the college’s gun-range classes remotely. A fourth student with a backpack strolled up to the table to chat with them for a few minutes.
The young man seated at the table mentioned that he was thinking of going to a Starbucks off campus but wasn’t sure it was safe to do so given the coronavirus raging across the country, which has sickened at least 65,000 people nationwide, more than 400 of them in Virginia and a few of them in Lynchburg.
His mention of the risk was striking given the context: There he and more than a dozen other students were, sitting in clusters around the dining area despite stickers scattered haphazardly across tables: “Closed for Social Distancing.”
This is the odd tension on display now in Lynchburg, where Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. has caused a stir by keeping the campus of the large evangelical Christian university open to students despite the calls of state officials and public health experts for social distancing to slow the virus’s spread and despite the university’s having recently shifted all instruction online to conform with state orders.
Falwell has minimized the threat of the coronavirus for months — two weeks ago, he compared it to the H1N1 “swine flu,” which experts say is not a comparable case — and he initially vowed not to follow the lead of other colleges in shutting down on-campus instruction, until Gov. Ralph Northam’s March 17 ban on gatherings of more than 10 people gave him no choice.
Falwell’s decision to keep the campus open to students this week after spring break was in keeping with his provocatively contrarian approach, and it buttressed the vows of President Donald Trump, whom Falwell has supported since early in the 2016 campaign, to lift social-distancing strictures as soon as possible. “I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch this week.
At the same time, Liberty’s decision to keep the campus open has met with such criticism — from a faculty member worried about her colleagues’ safety since they are still required to hold office hours, and from city leaders and the governor’s office— that the university is clearly feeling pressure to show that it is trying to minimize any public health risks. This has produced an odd dissonance between earnestly worded safety signs and notices on campus and Falwell’s ongoing ridiculing of coronavirus worries as alarmist, which make it hard for students to take the safety exhortations seriously.
Calum Best, a senior business and finance major from Alexandria, Virginia, and a member of the student government, has seen the effect of that dissonance since returning from break. He sees Falwell and other university officials calling the safety worries overblown in the national media, and then he sees classmates hugging and taking pictures of each other on the student center steps, or a group of at least a half dozen huddled together for a study session, or a professor of his standing in close conversation with another student and a campus security officer, or classmates heading off to game nights or group dinners at off-campus apartments. In an unusual turn, a university known for its strict “Liberty Way” — no premarital sex, alcohol, smoking or cussing — is now in a sense the most permissive. There aren’t even any more curfews in the dorms, since many residential advisers are gone.
“The real problem is just providing students a capacity and a venue to come back and do stupid things,” Best said in an interview. “Consistently, consistently, leadership is overemphasizing the effectiveness of the measures they’ve actually taken and downplaying the significance of this virus.”
Best added that there is a case to be made for keeping campus open — for foreign students, or students who really rely on the campus meal plan, or students like him whose parents are worried about having him at home and possibly infecting them — but it would need to be executed much better than what he has observed.
“It is a genuinely tough decision to close a university,” he said. “We can imagine a world in which they actually did everything they could to encourage sanitary measures and social isolation on campus. It wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing to keep campus open if you could be ensured of the reliability of safety measures. But they’re not.”
Students have received scant information from administrators about how to keep themselves safe from the virus, Best said. As damaging, he said, is the general message from the top, which has included Falwell spinning conspiracy theories about COVID-19 being a North Korean or “elite liberal” plot. “They could also just not be misleading and deceptive in their communications about the virus, and they’re deliberately choosing to do that,” Best said. He has been scolded for his outspokenness already: this week, Liberty’s senior vice president of university communications, Scott Lamb, called him at night to take him to task for a nonpublic Facebook post criticizing Falwell for hypocrisy for not yet issuing refunds to students who now have to settle for online classes. (Lamb did not respond to a question about the call.)
University officials estimate that about 1,900 students have returned to campus so far — a fraction of the 15,500 who normally attend classes there, about half of whom live in campus housing — but they say they expect that number could grow as high as 5,000. The feel on campus is of a college during summer break, when a small minority of students hang around for jobs or summer-term classes. As sparsely populated as the campus is, though, it’s startling to see students congregating in ways that are not happening at the countless colleges that have shut down.
At the student center, students dutifully stand 6 feet apart in line for their pita wraps and salads. But then they sit together to eat in the communal dining area, in ways that are no longer allowed at any restaurant in Virginia.
In the Jerry Falwell Library, named for the college’s famous founder, the father of the current president, social-distancing signs abound and some of the couches are piled on each other and strung in police tape. But some of the small glassed-in study rooms have at least four students grouped around the table, putting them much closer than six feet from each other. On Wednesday, a “Closed for Social Distancing” sign on a table didn’t stop one student from spreading her books and notes out across it for a study session. A librarian came through the periodical room, where The New York Times is conspicuously unavailable, and chided two students for sitting too close to each other. “You need to be 6 feet apart,” she said. “If one of you can’t lie down in between you, you’re too close.” As she walked away, they traded eyerolls.
In Green Hall, a large building on the north end of campus that includes a food court, students disregarded the distancing marks in the lines for the Dunkin Donuts and Chick-fil-A until food service workers reminded them.
Near Green Hall, a graduate student from Pennsylvania was leaving his job serving as an assistant to professors, which he said was what had required him and many other graduate assistants to return to campus after break. He questioned the decision to reopen the campus, even with the purported distancing measures. “They could have avoided all that if they just didn’t have anyone here,” he said.
Nearby, Ingrid Lindevaldsen, an undergraduate fashion major, was getting in her car to head back to her off-campus housing. She said that the university could have done a better job of limiting the students on campus to foreign students and those who truly had no other option. She herself had to come to campus to use the sewing machines for one of her classes, but she said she tried to leave as soon as possible once that was done. “I try to stay away, because there are so many kids here,” she said.
Adding irony to Falwell’s insistence on keeping the campus open is that Liberty is better positioned than most other universities to weather enforced distance learning. It has developed a hugely profitable separate operation called Liberty University Online, with as many as 95,000 people around the country taking courses in a given year. Many traditional undergraduates at the college already take some of their courses online. (The online classes have a reputation for being much less demanding.) If the coronavirus scare carries into the fall, colleges with a heavy online presence like Liberty would seem well poised to capitalize.
So far, though, the crisis has caused only turbulence for the online operation, due to the university’s insistence that the several hundred people who work for LUO — manning call centers, processing course registrations — continue reporting to work at the former insurance building where LUO is housed, according to several Liberty employees. A few employees with health conditions have been allowed to work from home, but on Wednesday, the LUO parking lot was still full of dozens of vehicles. “I’m just a worker,” shrugged one employee who was taking a break in his car when asked about the requirement to report to the office. “I come to work here.”
A similar scenario has played out at the Guillerman Financial Center, where about 250 people handle all of the university’s tuition and financial aid in an open office divided into two large spaces. One employee told me that workers have been growing increasingly anxious about infection and wondering how the office can be allowed to continue operating, given that it contains far more than the 10-person maximum and is hardly “essential.” “There are a lot of people coughing in that building,” the employee said. “I know it’s scaring a lot of people. Every time people cough, someone would say, ‘my God.’”
But on Wednesday morning, the staff was suddenly instructed to spread out more through the building, into training rooms, into supervisors’ offices, according to the employee. And in the early afternoon, they were told to disperse even further: go work from home for the next couple days. Their understanding, the employee said, was that a state inspector was headed to the building that afternoon.
Asked about the continued use of the two office buildings for hundreds of employees, Lamb, the university spokesman, pointed to an official statement from Falwell on Monday arguing that that the governor’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 did not apply to Liberty’s offices, because they were exempted the way any business workplace would be. “To the extent possible, in our workplace, we are adhering to social distancing recommendations, enhancing sanitation practices on common surfaces, and acting on appropriate workplace guidance from government officials,” Falwell said in the statement.
All this commotion, both in the office buildings and in pockets of the campus, stands in contrast to the handsome, historic downtown of Lynchburg, where there was barely a soul in sight on Wednesday afternoon. In one of the few businesses that were still open, a small gift store, owner Ron Schoultz was making protective face masks out of patterned cotton fabric to sell for $15 each. He flared immediately when asked about the decision by the big college on the hill to welcome hundreds of carefree students back to campus.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s awful. It’s putting everyone else at risk.”
Will Young contributed reporting.