In 1971, a nine-year-old boy sat in a church pew at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia and listened as his father spoke to his congregants. The pastor shared his vision for the creation of a college that would produce students—“Champions”—who would change the world for Christ.
The boy—Jerry Falwell, Jr.—would grow up to become the fourth President of that college—now known around the world as Liberty University. And Falwell, Jr. has now led the school to become the second largest nonprofit University in the world.
After graduating from elementary and high school at Liberty Christian Academy, young Jerry earned his Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and History at Liberty University. Then, with a letter of recommendation written by Senator Ted Kennedy, he entered the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law.
In 1987, Jerry obtained his Juris Doctor degree and was licensed to practice law in Virginia. A few months later he married Becki Tilley, who attended Liberty and who he had known for several years. They bought a farmhouse outside of Lynchburg and began their family, now consisting of: Jerry “Trey” Falwell III (married to Sarah), Charles Wesley (married to Laura), and Caroline Grace. They are the grandparents of one baby girl (Virginia Rose), and another granddaughter is on her way.
Over the next twenty years, Falwell earned his living as both a lawyer and a commercial real estate developer. In real estate, his companies developed the pastures adjacent to Liberty University. He successfully recruited national retail and restaurant chains to the area, creating what has become the most vital hub of retail activity within Lynchburg.
In his legal practice, Falwell represented local clients and also served as general counsel for Liberty and its related organizations. It was during these years that Falwell spent endless hours working with creditors and donors, keeping Liberty University from going over the edge of financial bankruptcy. Weekends often consisted of scraping together funds to cover the payroll checks that had gone out the week before. Slowly and surely, the university began to pay down its crushing load of debt
Ever since the Board of Trustees appointed Falwell, Jr. as the next leader of the University, Liberty has exploded in growth—in academic status, athletic reputation, size of enrollment, financial stewardship, and capital improvements. Falwell has consistently led Liberty to pioneer the technological changes in higher education that are just now becoming commonplace. This visionary leadership allowed Liberty to be among the first to market high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities to a previously underserved demographic of higher education students. Falwell’s leadership brought Liberty to where it is now, and his continued leadership will carry the University forward into the future.
In just over a decade, the combined student body (residential and online) has grown from 38,000 to over 100,000. This growth has catapulted Liberty into being ranked as the second largest private nonprofit university in the nation.
Falwell has continued to fulfill and expand his father’s dream for the athletic program, to field nationally successful Division I intercollegiate athletic teams in every major sport. And beginning with the 2018 season, the football program has joined the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Series (FBS) Division—thus achieving entrance into the highest echelon of collegiate competition.
Because Falwell has overseen a billion dollars of ongoing or planned construction, the beautiful 7,000-acre campus now has over 350 buildings that are in constant service to the University’s endless variety of activities.
And all this construction has not diminished the school’s endowment. On the contrary, under Falwell’s leadership, the endowment increased from zero dollars to over 1.7 billion dollars in cash and investments today. The total assets for the University now total over 3 billion dollars. This remarkable growth came as the result of responsible fiscal management, unprecedented enrollment growth, and increased support from donors.
Moody’s Investors Service once described Liberty as a “true outlier” because, during the recession of 2008 to 2012 which brought incredible financial pressure on academic institutions, Liberty’s operating revenues grew over 600 percent.
A recent outside evaluation of Falwell’s leadership described him as “passionate about Liberty and very knowledgeable about every aspect of its operations.” They noted, however, that he is not a “micromanager because he is results-oriented and continues to focus on strategic issues. A friendly and charismatic individual, Falwell is refreshingly open and informative when answering questions about Liberty, and this attitude has carried over to those who report to him.”
Like his father before him, Falwell boldly states that Liberty’s goal is to become for Evangelical Protestants what the University of Notre Dame is for Roman Catholics and Brigham Young University is for Mormons. Achieving that vision requires having an ever-increasing level of academic achievement among entering students, nationally ranked academic programs in every major field of study, an abundance of student activities, world-class facilities equipped with the latest technological enhancements, and a nationally recognized athletic program at the NCAA Division I level.
Finally, a successful university is about more than budgets and buildings. With so much at stake in the world and in the lives of the tens of thousands of students who will graduate from Liberty’s programs, Falwell knows that a key part of leadership is cultivating a culture where students aim to become the right kind of people. As such, Falwell has led the university to embrace a deep understanding of that word his father used so often: Champion.
Jerry, along with Liberty’s first-lady Becki, are setting an example to the student body of what Liberty’s motto is truly all about:
We, the Champions, in order to affirm our tradition of unwavering faith, ignite a passion for wisdom, challenge perspectives, inspire creativity, and pursue knowledge. We resolve to be the voice for the voiceless, bring healing to the hurting, fight for the oppressed, defend freedom, defy stereotypes, and follow God’s calling wherever it may lead.