Defining the University Down

            I was struck recently by a news story that Liberty University, which bills itself as a Christian higher education institution, in nearby Lynchburg, held a convocation at which its students heard remarks by Ken Cuccinelli, Republican candidate for Virginia’s governorship and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (R), a Tea Party favorite, who was campaigning with him. At one level, there is surely nothing unusual about election-related events on university campuses or candidates visiting colleges hunting for votes. So Liberty’s decision to allow a political gathering, by itself, was not unusual. Indeed, my own institution, Virginia Tech, had hosted the final debate in this year’s gubernatorial contest just days prior.

            But Liberty’s event exhibited other quite striking characteristics. For example, that university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., personally invited Cuccinelli and Paul to speak. In contrast, Virginia Tech’s President, Charles Steger, did not employ a university gathering or any other forum for students to hear him introduce either Cuccinelli or his opponent when the candidates came to Virginia Tech to debate. But this is precisely what Falwell chose to do. More, when he introduced Cuccinelli, Falwell gave him a toy stuffed animal echoing comments the candidate had made a few days before in his final debate with his opponent. Here is how Ray Reed reported the Liberty President’s actions in the Roanoke Times:

Jerry Falwell Jr., university president, gave Cuccinelli a toy dog reading ‘No Plan Terry’ (McAuliffe, Democrat and Cuccinelli’s electoral opponent)—based on a Cuccinelli zinger aimed at McAuliffe during their debate in Blacksburg last week.

            So, Falwell chose not only to allow the candidate to speak on campus, but also to go several steps further personally, if perhaps tacitly, to endorse and proselytize on Cuccinelli’s behalf while representing and acting with the authority and power of his position as leader of the university. Notably, because to my knowledge such has never occurred and is unlikely ever to occur, it is inconceivable that the Presidents of the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Roanoke College, Hollins College or Washington and Lee Universities, all public and private colleges and universities located nearby, would ever so behave. More, should one postulate that Falwell should be excused for his behavior because his is a faith-based institution it quickly becomes clear that the vast majority of leaders of that group of colleges and universities do not endorse or campaign for political candidates. The Presidents of Georgetown University, Catholic University, Wheaton College or Campbell University, for example, well-known Christian collegiate institutions all, have not made a practice of using ongoing programs to fete and endorse candidates. Falwell’s behavior is not typical of the bulk of other Christian universities or colleges either. In short, the Liberty University president’s choice is surely not the norm among his “peers” even if it may not have been unique.

            But Falwell went still further. Not only did he de facto endorse Cuccinelli, he went on at considerable length (The Roanoke Times reported he spoke for five minutes) when introducing Paul, to say that he now had a favorite for the next U.S. presidential election and that the Senator was surely an individual the nation’s Founders would also endorse were they alive today:

He (Paul) is the type of politician our founders hoped would lead America…. The more I have learned about Rand Paul, and especially after meeting him this morning, the more I thought to myself, ‘I sure hope he runs for President.’

            With these remarks, Falwell entered particularly unusual territory for any university leader. Not only was he embracing an especially divisive and partisan figure at an official university event, but he did so while arguing that our nation’s founders who included famously Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (authors of The Federalist Papers, the single greatest exposition of the thinking that underpinned America’s constitutional experiment) among others, would surely agree with his assessment. On its face, that is factually highly unlikely given Paul’s deep misunderstanding of the fundaments of our regime and poor fit when measured against the characteristics the Framers saw as essential for our nation’s leaders. This fact notwithstanding, the university president’s attempt to legitimate his support of an extreme and uninformed partisan by invoking the Founders was nevertheless not the most difficult element of Falwell’s remarks.

            That distinction belongs instead to the conception of the role of the university in society that his remarks and behavior imply. At their best, historically, colleges and universities have constituted what A. Bartlett Giamatti, one-time President of Yale University, memorably called “a free and ordered space” in which students could follow the path of curiosity and intellectual imagination where it may lead with support of the facilitating hand of faculty who could order possibilities for such inquiry with and for them. Students have always gone to university to learn to think deeply, reason critically and clarify their own values and beliefs. At their finest, higher education institutions both represent and unleash an unbridled, open and ever more discerning search for knowledge and understanding. Those who tread there have the privilege of gaining insights, values, habits and capacities that can guide, inform and open possibilities for them for the remainder of their lives. They may learn who they are, what they think and how to ponder such concerns and more. In short, they learn to think and reflect deeply on their individual place, and the place of humanity, in a rapidly changing world.

            Christian universities meanwhile have also long adopted these large-looming educational aims, but seek to do so, as the Wheaton College mission statement has it, while grounding student pursuit of liberal inquiry in a church foundation:

Wheaton College is an explicitly Christian, academically rigorous, fully residential liberal arts college and graduate school located in Wheaton, Illinois. Established in 1860, Wheaton is guided by its original mission to provide excellence in Christian higher education, and offers more than 40 undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, and 14 graduate degrees.

            In sharp contrast to this perspective and to the broader view of higher education it represents, Falwell offered a vision of the university as a venue for partisan sniping, party politics and personalized power. In his remarks Falwell took all traditional understanding of the role of higher education and turned it on its head. The president suggested by his rhetoric and behavior that colleges and universities should do little more than proselytize for student adoption of a narrowly framed and constricted ideology offered on the basis of institutional power and authority and in no event to be questioned or closely considered. In so doing, Falwell denied the essential social purposes of the institution he leads. One may hope that Liberty University and perhaps a few other similar privatized ideological training centers in disguise remain a tiny group in the higher education firmament. Our democracy does not need more unthinking and uninformed ideological apologists of whatever stripe and however rationalized. We need, instead, imaginative and disciplined citizens alive to their personal responsibility for self-governance and freedom and willing to tackle the concerns arising from that understanding with eyes and hearts open. Falwell’s apparent orientation ill serves Liberty’s students, education and our democracy.