As I think I have mentioned before, Liberty University has something of a checkered past from a business perspective. There was a time in the Eighties when Old Time Gospel Hour was subsidizing the school pretty heavily, with occasional giant single donations from people like A. L. Williams or Art DeMoss. Sometimes bills got paid in full and on time; sometimes they didn’t. This was a business model that worked reasonably well when Old Time reached hundreds of markets, Jerry was consistently in public view dealing with political issues, and the school was only five thousand or so students.
None of this is true now; Jerry Jr hasn’t stepped into his father’s shoes as a political figure, Old Time stopped being a cash cow more than ten years ago, and the resident population of the school has more than doubled. There are still occasional one-time donations (Jerry Sr’s life insurance policy; millions from Tim and Beverley LaHaye), but they tend to have strings attached: everybody loves seeing a building with their name on it; nobody wants to drop ten million dollars into the general operating fund.
So Jerry Jr is facing a difficult task: keeping a business growing while changing its business model. The school has raised tuition (nominally about $24,000 [link]) and cut scholarships (e.g. a Pastor’s Scholarship used to be a two-year tuition waiver; now it’s $500/year) and the cash cow is now Liberty University Online. LU Online requires very little in terms of faculty, staff, facilities, etc. on an incremental basis. Servicing an additional dozen online students doesn’t represent anywhere near the comparable cost of servicing the same number of students on campus. The problem, of course, is that LU Online faces some competition and has an incentive to keep costs low. It can’t e.g. double per-hour fees and expect the number of students to drop by less than half.
Over time, for things like capital improvements (read: tearing down “temporary” structures and replacing them with “permanent” structures) the school will need an endowment. Its current endowment is tiny, about $5000/student, while the average for rest of the Big South Conference [link] is more than $400,000/student ($50-70,000/student being typical). To build an endowment the school needs alumni dollars, and lots of them.
Unfortunately Liberty does not produce graduates who are likely to return millions of dollars to the school. This year there were 8600 graduates; here’s a breakdown from the most recent (paper copy of the) Liberty Journal:
- Aeronautics: 22
- Arts and Sciences: 2192
- Business: 1273
- Communication: 279
- Education: 1050
- Engineering and Computational Science: 81
- Government: 287
- Law: 57
- Religion: 886
- Science: 81
- Seminary: 1479
While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that many Business grads will become millionaires, it seems unlikely given this distribution of graduates that Liberty will produce over the next twenty years lots of high wage earners who will help fund its endowment.
Unfortunately, producing lots of science, engineering, and law graduates will take a lot of money up front, and Liberty isn’t currently in a position to spend it. Liberty still doesn’t have e.g. a Chemistry or Physics undergraduate major. It doesn’t pay competitive salaries, allow for course loads low enough to leave time for funded research, etc. I have a hard time seeing how this is going to change.
When we visited Liberty a couple of weekends ago, we saw pretty much what I saw when I was there: lots of nice people, good people, etc. attending a football game, relatively few devoting those same hours to studying in the library. This was a problem when I was there: a tendency to produce people who were honest, decent, future workers, but not likely to also be high wage earners who can fund an endowment.
As per usual there’s a glimmer of hope: Liberty capped enrollment this year, and that’s a good first step toward producing high-earning graduates. I look forward to seeing what the next step will be.
I was hoping to get to Liberty for all of homecoming this year, but my day job interfered and we ended up missing almost all of it. We didn’t get to the campus until almost dark on Saturday. We were able to pick up one of the campus radio stations while on US 29 N coming in from Danville, though, and we were able to hear part of the football game well before we got into the vast US 29 interchange on and off campus.
Liberty’s campus has always been a surprisingly ugly collection of buildings in a beautiful location; the archival pictures of the original Liberty Mountain campus from the Seventies on display on the first floor of DeMoss make the campus look like a World War II military camp, and while the current campus is a vast improvement it still has a cramped chock-a-block feel. In the Eighties there was exactly one legal way on and off campus (the exit across the railroad track toward Wards Ferry Rd was only for emergencies), and traffic flow was generally nightmarish during peak usage. Campus North now spills into town next to Candler’s Station, but the rest of campus still feels cramped.
During the heyday of Old Time Gospel Hour things that made for simple television messages got attention; everything else got done on an emergencies-only basis. In the late Eighties, during the post-PTL downturn, the academic buildings on the main quad had roofs that leaked (a detail that matters in a town rightly called Drenchburg) and stained carpets that stank. One of my favorite stories from this time involves Jerry (Sr) dropping by the video production studio in Fine Arts, seeing a rain-catcher rigged from a few trash bags and a handful of trash cans, meant to keep leaked water off thousands of dollars worth of production equipment, and suggesting that since it was working it was sufficient. Jerry wasn’t detail-oriented, didn’t like bad news, and was very much a media animal, and for many years the ministry generally, and the Liberty campus in particular, reflected these aspects of his personality.
Current chancellor Jerry Jr, on the other hand, is an unashamed businessman; it’s my understanding that he was involved in the deal that sold ministry property to the developer who brought the big box retail stores to town across Wards Road (I once played a soccer game at the multi-field facility that used to be more or less where Wal-Mart is now), in the deal that built Candler’s Station, and of course in the ministry purchase of Pittman Plaza. He really does seem to be more detail-oriented than his father, had made changes meant to make the business of running Liberty more transparent and manageable, and as a result there are far fewer bare bulbs, leaky roofs, substandard structures, and disasters waiting to happen than there were twenty years ago.
It’s ironic that getting off television did so much for the way the campus looks. It’s still an ugly campus in a beautiful location, though. More about that in a later post.
The Old Time Gospel Hour Trio (Robbie Hiner, Don Norman, and Mack Evans) was a Southern Gospel trio that shared stage time with Jerry Falwell in the late Seventies and early-to-mid Eighties. The above “video” is a poorly-produced clip of a rip of a track from one of their albums with some stills of cover art, etc. It’s hard to believe now, but when Jerry Falwell was at the height of his power items like a OTGH Trio album contributed substantially to creating and sustaining his mailing list. These albums would have gone out as mailings to first-time and faithful contributors.
Hiner was a mainstay of the ministry from the LBC Chorale days until recently and was briefly a member of the Gaither Vocal Band. Norman left (allegedly under a cloud) in the late Eighties or early Nineties; I have no idea what become of him. I have absolutely no idea what became of Mack Evans; he was a Southern Gospel utility man of sorts and contributed to several quartets, and he left almost no trail on the Web. He is evidently dead, but I don’t know where or when.
This is a tough way to make a living, and I appreciate the work these gentlemen did for the ministry over the years. I believe they produced a bunch of albums (as did Hiner and Norman, solo and in various groups; so did Doug Oldham and Kendra Cook), but they’re really hard to find, even online. I don’t know if it was understood at the time that what they were doing was necessarily disposable, or if the people they were marketing to just didn’t leave a trace. Robbie Hiner produced albums fairly regularly from about 1975 to about 2005, but if there’s even an approximation of a complete discography online I haven’t found it.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard about Koyaanisqatsi?
It’s a long-form art movie by Godfrey Reggio and a soundtrack by Philip Glass (an A/B mashup with DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… is available on YouTube [link]). It’s a bit heavy-handed with its “the modern world is destroying itself” theme, and the references to the Hopi feel a bit stuck on, but if you can get past that it’s mesmerizing, especially since it incorporates a lot of what are now vintage crowd shots (count the obese people; there are very few), vintage pop culture references, and fair use samples of early Eighties television.
This is a ten-minute clip including most of the chapter “Microchips” and all of “Prophecies,” and starting at about 5:06 there are a couple of fascinating sequences: first of a boy playing the arcade game Defender, then a tightly edited, almost overwhelming montage of Eighties television. In about thirty-five seconds (from the start of the Defender sequence to the start of the sequence of the guy in the Harley-Davidson t-shirt and the mullet) you’ll see among others
- Linda Ellerbee
- Lou Dobbs
- Ed Asner
- Johnny Carson
- Burt Reynolds
- A clip of a Dallas Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings game
- Ted Koppel
- Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA)
- Howard C. Estep
- Jerry Falwell
- Sue Willmington
- Mack Evans
- Don Norman
Four of these last five may be unfamiliar if you didn’t travel in certain circles in the Eighties; Howard Estep was the host of The King Is Coming; he hosted this show for fourteen years, and was replaced in turn by David Breese and now Ed Hindson [link]. The title card for the show is very briefly visible before a shot of Dr Estep. The current show is available on TBN and elsewhere; the only outlet I’ve found for the vintage Estep show is WVCY-TV 30 in Milwaukee [link].
Jerry is very much his dark-haired Moral Majority self in this clip; Sue, wife of Harold, was the long-time deaf interpreter at Thomas Road. After a short interruption by a newscaster I don’t recognize the movie goes back to Thomas Road and shows Mack and Don, two of the three members of the Old Time Gospel Hour Trio (Robbie Hiner is missing as best I can tell).
At the moment this is my favorite obscure Jerry Falwell appearance, not least because it has apparently eluded the sharp eyes of the folks at IMDB.
As I was trying to fill in some gaps in my recollection regarding Faith Partners I stumbled across a reference to “The Falwell Game,” a short-lived bit of hacking/jamming/vandalism/what-have-you that I’d heard about from the other side and forgotten about.
The basic idea was for someone with time (but no money) on their hands to invest that time in wasting the resources of an organization they disliked. It exploited the fact that the target organization paid money up front for something (an 800 number, a “free gift”) and in exchange got contact information it used to target direct-mail marketing soliciting donations. The actor (perpetrator, activist, whatever) would call the target organization and either hang up and call again, thereby wasting the target’s money on 800 calls, or sign someone (real or bogus) up for the free gift that the target then wastes money buying and mailing. This only matters if each actor calls many times, or if there are many actors; otherwise the tactic is unlikely to make much difference to the target organization.
This surfaced in early 1986 in two communities: the punk community, where individual punks famously had no money and lots of time on their hands, and the gay community, which was relatively large and well-connected. Here’s a contemporaneous article by Bob Black from Boston Review of August 1986 describing how it spread via various punk zines:
“The Falwell Game,” which has been noticed by the mass media, is a marginals’ jape. Innumerable marginals’ ’zines published instructions on how to waste the Moral Majority’s money by calling its toll-free number and hanging up or, better yet, signing up as Faith Partners to get free Falwell Bibles. Later some gay papers picked up on the Game and Jerry Falwell’s threatening response was directed toward them. Even if the gays drop it, the sub-underground, which is as fat beneath Falwell’s notice as the earliest mammals were to the lordly dinosaurs, will keep it going.
Here’s another better-researched version from James Davison Hunter’s 1992 book Culture Wars:
Another example was “The Falwell Game” advertised throughout the gay community in 1986. See Eugene Curtin, “The Gays’ ‘Falwell Game’ is a Mean, Gloomy Business,” New York Tribune, 4 April 1986. This article was based upon an article entitled “Hey kids! Let’s All Play The Falwell Game,” Seattle Gay News, 17 January 1986. The object of the game was to “squander Jerry Falwell’s millions” by encouraging “players” to call his toll-free number repeatedly so that “there would be no calls getting through at all.” “Dedicated players” call the number and “pledge to become a faith partner, with the intent of not paying.” In return the caller would be sent a free Bible. By March of that year, the “Old-Time Gospel Hour” was getting roughly 50,000 harassing calls a month, costing the ministry about $2 million in phone calls, Bibles, other written materials, and postage, according to an Associated Press story, “Harassing Calls, ‘Crisis’ Plague Falwell Ministry,” Dallas Morning News, 31 March 1986.
I’ve also seen several items online where people claim to have actually participated in this back in the day and suggesting using against some contemporary target.
I remember hearing about several variants of this at the time, because of course this made for pretty good PR on behalf of the ministry inside the subculture. We heard about people using auto-dialers to keep the 800 number busy and about people sending e.g. bags of bricks attached to a business reply card. I wonder what the net cost to the ministry was: the numbers in the Hunter note are conveniently big and round, and are probably more sticky than they are strictly speaking accurate. It’s interesting to note that the list of items wasted doesn’t include staff time.
From the little bit I’ve gathered online the tactic died out because it was labor-intensive and because defensive measures, on the part of the phone company and postal service, mostly, proved effective.
Update: I might gently suggest that $40 per harassing call sounds a little high for a 1986 phone call, especially if a significant percentage of them were hangups. According to the West Egg Inflation calculator, that’s $77.23 in 2009 dollars.
This is one reason I love YouTube.
This is a classic clip from the Seventies-era Old Time Gospel Hour show. It opens with a balcony shot of the congregation with the Sue Willmington oval inset, then shifts to a tight shot of Jerry telling an invitation story and transitions to a shot of Jerry in profile without Sue inset.
Those yellow choir robes didn’t last; they switched to a TV-friendlier blue in the Seventies. The platform was reconfigured in the Nineties, putting a gap in the choir behind Jerry, arranging the throne-like chairs behind the pulpit in a semi-circle and giving the stage a feel that was more like a TV show set and less like a small Baptist church grown to fit.
I’d love to know who that is walking behind Jerry, sitting down, and arranging his glasses and hair. Those gestures could be Elmer Towns, but the posture and the ear look wrong.