LeeQuan McLaurin thought it would be "the simplest of actions" for his Liberty University department, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, to post something on social media in response to ongoing national protests against police brutality. But in this case, Liberty's director of diversity retention says he found nothing but delays and confusion on the part of colleagues when he tried to get approval for a post. According to McLaurin, his boss, the office's director, Greg Dowell, who is also black, said that a post was unnecessary. Then the topic came up in a larger meeting, still without action. On June 1, McLaurin finally went ahead and posted something to the office account: a simple image that said "BLACK LIVES MATTER" and a title that quotes six Bible verses that support the catchphrase. Within an hour, McLaurin said, an administrator had removed the post. (McLaurin shared a screenshot of the post with Slate, but the administrator did not respond to a request for comment.)
McLaurin, who had worked at Liberty since graduating from school in 2015, resigned in early June, an act he described as the culmination of years of accumulated frustration at a school he loved. For him, the present moment is a moment of optimism and regret. He recalled feeling ill as a chaperone for a group of mostly white students at a "Blexit" event that black conservative activist Candace Owens held in Richmond, Virginia, last year, a rally aimed at convincing black voters to leave the Democratic Party. . Liberty had offered the tour as a "cultural tour". McLaurin said someone outside his department sent a campus-wide email about it from McLaurin's Liberty email account without his permission. Backstage after the event, watching Owens surrounded by white worshipers, "I felt like I was in a horror movie." "I can't encourage students of color to go to that college the way it is," said McLaurin. “Our students deserve better. Our faculty deserves better. Our staff deserves better. "(A Liberty spokesperson rejected my request for interviews with Dowell and Jerry Falwell Jr. and did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)
McLaurin's resignation came a few days after Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. sparked widespread outrage by tweeting an image of a face mask decorated with the infamous 1984 racist medical school yearbook photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. (The photo shows a white student with a black face and another in a KKK robe at a costume party; Northam initially confessed that he was one of the men in the photo, and then retracted it.) Falwell Jr. has frequently clashed with Northam, a Democrat, over issues including a recent state-wide mask mandate. "If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, only if this photo of Governor Blackface himself is on it!" Falwell Jr. wrote in his tweet.
Falwell Jr. deleted the post two weeks later and tweeted an apology for "any damage my effort has caused", acknowledging that reproducing the racist image "refreshed the trauma the image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point ". In a video posted on Facebook by freelance journalist Andre Whitehead, Falwell Jr. said he decided to apologize after meeting with black associates, including board member Allen McFarland and former NFL running back Rashad Jennings, a former student of Liberty who delivered the school's graduation speech in 2016. Falwell Jr., alternately teasing and defiant, also said that Dowell will report directly to him from now on and that students will receive Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday for first time in the history of the school. (Falwell's father preached against integration and lashed out at King as a communist in the 1960s, though he later expressed his regret at his anti-integration positions.)
He recalled feeling sick sitting as a chaperone for a group of mostly white students at a "Blexit" event with Candace Owens: "I felt like I was in a horror movie "
But Falwell Jr.'s apology has not calmed the growing chorus of black employees and alumni calling for deeper changes at one of the country's largest evangelical universities. Thomas Starchia, who was associate director in the Office of Spiritual Development, announced his resignation "with a heavy, frustrated, and peaceful heart" on June 5. Starchia's responsibilities included greeting guests at the Montview Mansion, a guest house on campus. He said he had an "internal crisis" after Falwell Jr.'s mask tweet came to a head when he was instructed to meet Falwell Jr. himself along with some visitors to the mansion. "I couldn't go home," he told me by email. "It was at that point that I went to my office and realized that it was time for me to resign." Starchia graduated from Liberty in 2010 and had worked there full time since 2012.
In Starchia's resignation letter, which quoted Slate, he wrote: "I cannot present myself under the leadership [de[Falwell Jr.’s] at this time as a black university employee." In response, he said, Falwell Jr. and several higher-level administrators called him directly to ask him to reconsider; Falwell Jr. "encouraged and pushed him," in Starchia's words, to read Falwell Jr.'s apology tweets. Starchia said she would think about it, but ultimately decided she had to leave. "I repressed much of my humanity as a strange black man by being here," he wrote to me. He remembered being called "Oreo" on his face, being presented as "the black friend" and being asked during Black History Month why there is no White History Month. "I want to be hopeful, but until the university acknowledges its past history with racism, apologizes for it and enacts meaningful policy implementation from the board level," she wrote, "I do not foresee any changes for the students or staff. . "
At least two other black Liberty employees have publicly resigned since Falwell Jr. tweeted the racist image. Keyvon Scott, an online admissions counselor, resigned on June 8. "I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture," he wrote on Twitter. "It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us." Christopher House, an online instructor teaching a course on cross-cultural communications, quit Liberty the day after Falwell Jr.'s tweet. He said a friend who graduated from Liberty texted him, and decided to quit immediately. his part-time teaching job at school. "At that time it was as if my ancestors rose up inside me and knew that I need to resign," he told me. "It was an automatic deciding factor." House said he has not received any communication from anyone at the school since he resigned. In the video posted by Whitehead, Falwell disparagingly answered a question about House, saying at first that he had not heard of the resignation, and then correctly pointed out that House "teaches two courses."
"I can't encourage students of color to go to that university the way it is ."
– LeeQuan McLaurin, former director of diversity retention at Liberty University
There are indications that the turmoil may also affect Liberty's ability to recruit and retain minority students. Sophomore basketball player Asia Todd, a sophomore, announced Thursday that she plans to transfer out of school. "Due to racial insensibilities displayed within leadership and culture, it just doesn't align with my moral compass or my personal convictions," he said in a video posted on Twitter. "Therefore, I had to do what felt best in my heart and defend what is right." A source with connections to the Liberty athletic community told me that several high school football players in Georgia rejected the Liberty scholarships in early June because of Falwell's racial insensitivity.
A current employee on campus, who is black and spoke on condition of anonymity, described her experience as an undergraduate at school as "isolating." She lived in an apartment-style campus housing unit that was relatively expensive compared to other Liberty homes, and often felt that white students were suspicious of her presence there. She interviewed for multiple student leadership positions (the interviewers were all white, she says) and never received a return call. As an employee, you have also come to realize the whiteness of the school's leadership ranks. "The power structure on campus is definitely not built in favor of minorities, so it is difficult for us to speak," he said. "Most of us are in lower-level positions and we cannot afford to risk our jobs."
Dark-skinned people abound in Liberty marketing materials, the employee noted. But the student body, not to mention the faculty population and senior leadership, is overwhelmingly white. Of the 29 people listed on the Liberty website as executive leaders or above, only Dowell is black. McLaurin said the school's internal count saw the black residential student population drop from 10 percent in 2007 to just 4 percent in 2018. Falwell Jr. prefers to emphasize the demographics of the school's largest online program , where 27 percent of the students are black.
There have been other signs of open dissent in the past few weeks. A group of 35 black alumni, including pastors and former student athletes, issued an open letter on June 1 calling for the resignation of Falwell Jr., Annette Madlock Gatison, a professor of strategic and personal communication, who is black, wrote a public publication in the blog the next day lamenting what he described as Liberty "tolerating racism, fear and hatred with Biblical justification":
It was naive of me to think that my presence in an institution that historically questioned my mere existence would ever change. Why did I take this job in the first place? Listening and responding to a God of liberation and social justice sent me on a mission in a war zone. How can I continue to work in such an institution where the leader believes that it is okay to promote racism, hatred and fear? How can I continue to lend my experience, credibility, and professional reputation to a university that will never see me? I am invisible, I am a commodity, I am expendable.
For some black alumni, the events of the past few weeks have led them to reflect on their experiences on campus. Joshua McMillion, who graduated in 2018 and continued working for the school until this spring, said he was surprised by Liberty's silence during the first waves of the Black Lives Matter movement. "The leaders were either completely silent or bringing speakers to the gaslight students," he said. He recalled feeling that the school was using speakers like Ben Carson to make it appear that he was addressing important issues for black students. But when a predominantly black ministry belonged to McMillion wanted to organize a panel discussion on Black Lives Matter, an administrator refused to allow the event to take place on campus. They held the event at a local non-profit organization against poverty.
Open racial dissent, or dissent of any kind, has been rare throughout Liberty's 49-year history. In the fall of 2018, some students protested what they described as a racist school culture, after twin students dressed up for Halloween as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. USA Another group demonstrated when Owens came to speak. But those protests attracted a few dozen students on a campus of 15,000.
For McLaurin, something seems to be different this time. For a long time as a Liberty employee, he didn't feel they would listen to him if he said what he really thought. "It is difficult to know what I know and not to speak," he said. "My hope is that I will get so many things out that they will have no choice but to change."