Liberty University, a private evangelical university in Virginia, has been in the spotlight this week, after its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., invited students back to campus, defying a national trend and pleas from the state’s governor.
Hundreds of universities around the country have closed in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus in recent weeks. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently ordered all nonessential businesses to close, and urged the university to reconsider its invitation to students. Falwell has said the university is taking the necessary precautions, noting that students will still be taking classes online, just from their dorms, while requiring social distancing on campus.
Among the students who could return are the many studying medicine or public health. Indeed, the university says that in 2018, 75% of its students on the pre-medicine track were accepted into medical schools, and the university has its own graduate-level nursing and osteopathic medicine programs.
These students, currently learning about medicine and public health, are now watching as their university is at the center of a public health firestorm.
Edward Tubberville, a senior at Liberty University, will be attending medical school in the fall in North Carolina. He went to Florida for spring break, and made the decision not to return to campus this week ― out of concern for potentially spreading coronavirus to other students and elderly people in the community after traveling.
Out of about 15,000 students who live on campus, about 1,900 have returned, according to CNN. Tubberville is grateful that his peers who might not otherwise have had a place to stay are allowed on campus, like international students, but has called Falwell’s rhetoric a “bit irresponsible.” Falwell ― a close ally of President Donald Trump ― went on Fox News earlier this month to speculate that the virus was a “present” created by China and North Korea designed to undermine Trump.
“If he wants to say that’s the case, then so be it … but in the end we would still be coming back and transporting the disease around, and that’s not OK,” said Tubberville, who grew up in Japan.
“[Students] care for the health of the community around us. We don’t want to discount Jerry and what he’s saying ― it’s his opinion and maybe he believes it’s true — but it’s big to us that the community around us stay healthy,” said Tubberville, who is the president of Liberty’s Scientific Research Society.
Earlier in March, a petition calling on Liberty to move all its classes online ― which it has ― garnered over 11,000 signatures.
Blaine Hamilton, who was pre-med and graduated from Liberty in December 2018, had harsher words for Falwell.
“You might be hearing stuff from Jerry, but it rarely reflects how the student body feels and how the faculty feels,” said Hamilton, who went into full-time ministry after graduation. “He’ll always put his name and face before his students and their general well-being, as well as of the faculty.”
Both Tubberville and Hamilton had high-praise for the pre-med track at Liberty.
“There is hope not just in our faith but in medicine itself,” said Hamilton.
In defending his decision, Falwell has said he wants to give students the experience they paid for.
“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 said earlier this week, per the The News & Advance, a Lynchburg paper.
Some members of the faculty have spoken out against the decision to invite students back. Earlier in the week, English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote an op-ed in Religion News Service about the issue.
“I have been told that my colleagues and I must conduct our classes from our offices, even though that instruction is now being delivered virtually ... I think he is dangerously wrong here and seems unable or unwilling to recognize it,” wrote Baggett.
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