Liberty University names acting leader with Falwell on leave

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Liberty University in Virginia announced Monday that its board had chosen an interim president to lead the school days after Jerry Falwell Jr. began an indefinite leave of absence after one of his posts on social media created an uproar.

Jerry Prevo, who has served as chairman of the school’s board of trustees since 2003 and recently retired as the senior pastor of a Baptist church in Alaska, will assume the role of acting president immediately, Liberty said in a news release.

Prevo expects to work from the Lynchburg campus starting Aug. 17 and will step aside from his position on the board for the duration of the new role, according to the news release. The board’s executive committee appointed Prevo, Liberty said.

Prevo, who spent 47 years as the pastor of Anchorage Baptist Temple before stepping down last year, was known for his opposition to LGBT rights and his influence in Alaska politics. He also partnered with Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian relief charity run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent conservative evangelical allied with Falwell and President Donald Trump.

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“Please pray for us as well as the Falwell family as we embark on our academic year and so we may continue to be united in our common purpose and our faith in Christ,” Prevo said in the news release.

Falwell, who is also a high-profile Trump supporter and ally, has led the private evangelical university founded by his evangelist father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, for 13 years.

The university announced in a one-sentence statement Friday that Falwell was taking a leave of absence. The statement didn’t elaborate. But Falwell’s departure came after he posted a photo showing him posing with his pants unbuttoned, stomach exposed and his arm around a young woman who was not his wife.

Falwell apologized for the photo, which he said was taken during a costume party while he was on vacation.

He said in an interview with Lynchburg radio station WLNI that the woman, whom he identified as his wife’s assistant, was pregnant and couldn’t get her pants zipped, and that he was imitating her. He said it was all in “good fun.”

“I’ve apologized to everybody, and I’ve promised my kids … I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out,” he told the interviewer.

Falwell was holding a glass filled with a dark liquid in the photo, which he said in the caption was “just black water … a prop only.”

The photo, which was deleted but not before it spread widely online, sparked criticism from liberals, conservatives and evangelicals alike. Many said the behavior was unbecoming and possibly hypocritical from the leader of a university that requires its students to follow a strict code of conduct that includes no alcohol.

Prevo said in a statement last week that Liberty has experienced “unprecedented success” academically and financially under Falwell’s leadership.

“Unfortunately, with this success and the burdens of leading a large and growing organization comes substantial pressure,” his statement said.

Falwell has not responded to a text message from The Associated Press seeking comment. The AP was unable to leave a voicemail on his cellphone.

Liberty alumni who have been critical of Falwell and increasingly vocal about wanting new leadership, stepped up their organizing in the days after his leave of absence was announced. Four alumni on Monday unveiled a new nonprofit called “Save 71,” a reference to the year of Liberty’s founding, designed to mobilize alumni, students and faculty behind reform at the university.

Liberty “needs to repent of its sins before seeking redemption,” the group posted on its website, urging the board to name an independent committee to seek a longer-term replacement for Falwell. “The Board of Trustees must acknowledge the damage President Falwell has done to Liberty and the hypocrisy and corruption that has soaked into parts of its culture.”

Whether Liberty is prepared to chart a future course without the influence of Falwell and his backers, however, remains unclear.

Among the alumni calling for a permanent change in leadership is Colby Garman, pastor at Virginia-based Pillar Church, who said the university would be “best served” by a president who is not trying to amass political power and is “able to thoughtfully convey the (school’s) mission from a deeply Christian perspective.”

Falwell was among the earliest Christian conservatives to endorse Trump’s first presidential campaign and has routinely been in the spotlight since then for a series of controversies in both his role at Liberty and his personal life.

Falwell has most recently faced pushback for the university’s decision to welcome students back to campus amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as for a social media post invoking the blackface scandal that Virginia’s Democratic governor faced last year. Liberty said in June that it is planning “to be fully open with in-person instruction for on-campus students” in the fall, while adhering to public health guidelines and allowing students to finish the semester online after November.

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Schor reported from New York.

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