Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Falwell Jr’

Liberty University to get $12 million from Virginia Tobacco Comission

October 3, 2011 4 comments

The Virginia Tobacco Commission will be giving Liberty University $12 million for its health sciences school, scheduled to open as soon as Fall 2013. See e.g. WHSV [link] and WDBJ [link]. The latter link is the better one.

It’s a matching grant; the total $24 million will be a big chunk of the budget for the planned $40 million facility. Most of the money is earmarked for supporting an osteopathic medicine program.

I’m surprised to discover that the tobacco commission is interested in osteopathy; it’s not a connection I would have suspected. It looks like that from the university’s perspective this is just another day at the office: with no big television ministry backing the university they have to find money somewhere, and they’re putting their best business people into the grant-writing business:

Falwell thanked Liberty’s administration and staff for their hard work in preparing the grant proposal.

“Dr. Ron Godwin (Provost), Dr. Ron Hawkins (Vice Provost), Dr. Emily Heady, Dr. Ben Gutierrez, Dr. Kevin Corsini and Mr. Larry Shackleton, along with other team members, spent months working on the grant proposal and did an outstanding job of explaining the plans for the new school to the Tobacco Commission members,” Falwell said. “Liberty University is blessed to have such competent academic leadership and we deeply appreciate their fine work on this exciting project.”

I’m not over-thrilled to see tobacco money being donated to Liberty University; last time I checked tobacco was primarily used as a recreational drug, albeit a legal one (like alcohol; unlike marijuana), and I would think Liberty as a Christian university with a fundamentalist heritage would consider tobacco money dirty money. Evidently not.



Liberty University blocks local newspaper website

April 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Santiago Leon at Liberty Student News [link] picked up a story by Liz Barry from the Lynchburg News-Advance [link] about Liberty University students being blocked from accessing the News-Advance website from University computers. I’m not sure I’d agree with Leon that the News-Advance is making a big deal of the blockage; I mean, there’s a Liberty beat and it’s not all sports scores and photo ops.

It isn’t clear from the Barry article whether the blockage covered all of the News-Advance website or all of the Liberty campus, or even how long it went on. So a casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transient problem due to an overcareful content filter. That is, until said reader saw the pull quotes from Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr:

LU Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. did not elaborate on the reason Monday, adding that Liberty’s policies allow the administration to “block a number of sites at will.”

“Most of the websites that are blocked have to do with obscene material, material that is inappropriate,” Falwell said. “It just so happened last week The News & Advance was blocked for a day or two. We’re a private organization and we don’t have to give a reason and we’re not.”

I want so badly for Liberty to succeed and for Falwell to do a good job as chancellor, but I’m puzzled when events like this happen. It’s not blocking the newspaper that bothers me per se; it’s the complete lack of savvy when dealing with the press. Falwell comes off in this article like a bully, and for no good reason. Liberty’s campus isn’t closed any more, and it’s not like students couldn’t read the print edition of the paper, so I can’t imagine what benefit there would be in intentionally blocking the paper’s website from campus.

I really do wonder sometimes what the world looks like from Jerry Jr’s perspective. Does he really have a siege mentality? Does he really think the local newspaper is out to get him? Does he think the school’s marketing plans are so effective that he doesn’t need to have a decent relationship with local journalists?

I’m not sure what to make of him, especially in stories like this. As an alumnus I’m less inclined to send money when I read this sort of thing. As Liberty ages and is more subject to his vision I think the place is becoming stranger and further from the mission I thought it had when I was a student there; I really need to hear an independent, preferably external voice describing what’s going on there. And I don’t think the school benefits by having an adversarial relationship with local media.


Liberty University bond rates, etc.

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

There is a fascinating staff article in the Lynchburg paper today regarding an upcoming bond issue from Liberty University [link]. Let me do a line-by-line here, and offer some analysis:

Liberty University on Tuesday sold $120 million in tax-exempt education facilities bonds, which it will use to pay for recent capital projects and new construction, school officials announced this morning.

Rather than pay cash for capital projects, as it has done in recent years, LU is taking advantage of its high AA bond rating as well as low interest rates and tax-exempt financing, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a statement.

First of all, let me congratulate Jerry Jr. for the financial footing Liberty has been on; I’m glad to hear that they’ve been paying cash for everything (and I guess not stiffing anybody). Rates have been so low the last couple of years it must have been tempting to take on a bunch of debt.

We know the total face amount of the bonds (the amount of money Liberty received), the fact that the bonds are tax-exempt (and so are tax-advantaged like municipal bonds), are AA-rated, and that this information came from a press release from Jerry Falwell Jr. via Liberty’s press office.

The tax exemption means that whoever bought the bonds will not have to pay taxes on the payments they receive. The AA rating means that the interest rate is some spread over a reference bond (e.g. Treasuries) for the appropriate term (e.g. 10 years). For example, right now 10-year Treasuries have yields of about 2.7% and 10-year AA municipal bonds have yields of about 3.1% [link]. AA bonds are considered high quality, but there are two ratings that are higher: AA+ and AAA [link], and those have slightly lower yields. These Liberty bonds have already been sold; probably via a broker who took a fee. That means Liberty already has the proceeds in hand and has probably already agreed to spend the money.

We don’t know the term of the bonds, so there’s no way we can say what Liberty will ultimately pay for the bond issue (hint: it isn’t $120 million) nor over how many years, and we can’t figure what the current value of the total cost would be. Here by way of contrast is a better description of a bond issue, from Zoe Weinberg/The Harvard Crimson [link]:

Harvard’s $601 million bond sale on Tuesday raised 20 percent less than had been planned earlier, as rising interest rates led to a decision to shrink the size of the deal.

The bonds were priced at a premium, with 10-year bonds yielding 2.54 percent—20 basis points lower than the benchmark for AAA-rated institutions on municipal debt due in 10 years, according to Bloomberg.

While overall interest rates remain low, rates on longer-dated tax-exempt municipal bonds such as those issued by Harvard rose about 10 to 13 basis points on Tuesday …

Morgan Stanley served as lead underwriter.

Last week, Harvard sold $300 million of taxable 30-year bonds.

The Crimson article is chock-full of detail, including Harvard’s outstanding debt, who rated the bonds, a summary of the relationship between price and yield, etc. Written by a college kid at a college paper. Let’s get back to the article about Liberty.

LU’s plans for new construction include a new lawn behind the Arthur S. DeMoss Learning Center, a new library and other projects that will “revolutionize the look and the feel of campus,” Falwell said.

“It is humbling to me to witness God’s blessings of such magnitude on Liberty University. This is a wonderful Christmas gift to Liberty and its students,” Falwell said.

The first paragraph here suggests that the money will be spent over the next couple of years; Falwell has already announced plans for construction, all of it happening very soon. As an alumnus I hope this means that the bond term will be commensurate, so these are more like 2-year or 3-year rather than 10-year bonds.

The second paragraph is a reminder that Liberty is a religious institution (as well as a business), and there may be a hint here that now would be a good time to send Liberty a check.

LU said its strong financial standing partly contributed to its AA bond rating. The school’s net assets have increased from $100 million in 2007 to $530 million today, and LU expects net assets to exceed $1 billion by 2014.

The school also credited LU’s graduation rates and its graduates’ success at paying back loans.

The bond rating comes from some outside agency (either Fitch or Standard & Poors; Moody’s doesn’t give a AA rating), so somebody must be seeing at least Liberty’s debt to equity ratio, a description of their outstanding debt, a story about recent and probable future donations. The net assets number here is probably from that pool of data, and all we can tell from the last number is that Liberty expects net assets to grow more slowly in the future: there was a five-fold increase over the trailing three-plus years, but they expect it to less than double over the next three-plus. I’m inclined to read this as good news, rather than as an indication that somebody plucked a big round number out of thin air.

Finally, the last line suggests that Liberty has been financing a fair amount of student debt in-house: people generally graduate before starting to pay back student loans, and defaults on these loans tend to undermine the expected value of future loan payments as a pool. This wouldn’t matter if someone else were financing Liberty student loans.

My takeaway from all of this is that Jerry Jr still sees the local paper as an extension of Liberty’s public relations effort, rather than as part of Liberty’s accountability effort. But perhaps I’m just being harsh. I can’t fault the staff at the Lynchburg paper here; they’d have to do some real digging to fill in the rest of the story, and chances are nobody in Lynchburg cares about the extra detail.

The comments at the Advance site are interesting; there’s the usual grousing about these bonds being tax-exempt. The implication being that the tax burden has to be carried by someone else; I’m not sure how one would measure that. It’s possible to measure lots of things, including e.g. the cost of free parking, but the tax benefits of tax-free bonds is hard to measure. There are opportunity costs, multiplier effects, etc. vs. the imagined value of the taxes paid if a smaller pool of bonds were taxable. It’s not like somebody (not sure who) had to write somebody else (again not sure who) a check for the tax on the bond coupons.

There’s also the usual “Liberty till death” stuff. I really wish these people had an opportunity to buy some of these bonds. Just saying.

Harvard’s $601 million bond sale on Tuesday raised 20 percent less than had been planned earlier, as rising interest rates led to a decision to shrink the size of the deal.

The bonds were priced at a premium, with 10-year bonds yielding 2.54 percent—20 basis points lower than the benchmark for AAA-rated institutions on municipal debt due in 10 years, according to Bloomberg.

While overall interest rates remain low, rates on longer-dated tax-exempt municipal bonds such as those issued by Harvard rose about 10 to 13 basis points on Tuesday

“Like father, like son?”

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Until the Crystal Cathedral situation started coming unwound I would have sworn that church bankruptcies happened for exactly two reasons:

  1. A debt load per donor that is too high
  2. Leadership malfeasance

The first one is an easy rug to sweep a bunch of unlike bankruptcies under, because it includes cases where a church takes on a new unsustainable debt, or where a previously sustainable debt becomes too large because the number of donors drops. Examples of both are cites in this article from this Suzanne Sataline/Wall Street Journal article from December 2008 [link], when it really seemed likely that the credit crunch and associated economic recession would produce a wave of church bankruptcies.

So far as I can tell that hasn’t happened; church bankruptcies are still rare events and are more sensibly blamed on events within the church rather than trouble in the broader economy. Economic times are tough all over, but multiple church bankruptcies in the same metropolitan area are still very rare.

Leadership malfeasance can cause a church to fail; there’s a whole gamut here, from a pastoral divorce and scandal (see e.g. Randy and Paula White’s Church Without Walls) to losses due to lawsuits (see various Catholic dioceses) to outright embezzlement.

But now in the wake of the Crystal Cathedral bankruptcy I’d have to add a third:

  • Unpopular leadership succession

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the Crystal Cathedral situation, it went a little like this: founding pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006 and passed the pulpit to his son Robert A. Schuller [link]. The younger Schuller preached differently (I’m under the impression that he is more charismatic/pentecostal than his father, but can’t seem to find a good summary of the differences online) and contributions dropped off until the elder Schuller took the pulpit back and after sharing it with his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman retired again and passed the pulpit to Coleman full time earlier this year [link]. Revenue declined further, the ministry canceled a couple of marquee shows and stiffed some creditors, and finally filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. I might be inclined to suggest here that Crystal Cathedral was afflicted by not one but two unpopular successors to founder Schuller.

Which brings me to this recent column from the Salt Lake Tribune by Corey Hodges, pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, titled “Like father like son? It doesn’t always work out in the ministry” [link]. It’s mostly a compare-and-contrast, suggesting that the Billy Graham succession has succeeded while the Schuller transition failed. It also name-checks the Osteens and the Falwells as successful transitions, with caveats. Hodges makes the transition from successful transitions back to the Crystal Cathedral situation this way (emphasis mine):

Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.

Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.

Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.

The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.

This is a fascinating piece of theology; as best I can tell Hodges is suggesting that the pattern for succession in the modern church is the Aaronic priesthood, rather than say the master-disciple relationship of Paul and Timothy. Or Jesus and The Twelve. He also suggests that the problem with unsuccessful successors is in expectations (of donors, I guess) rather than in the leadership. I might gently suggest that if a man spends 55 years in the pulpit, as the elder Schuller did, and he doesn’t have a workable succession plan, the problem is his, not the congregation’s.

And finally, I might gently suggest that a preacher speaking this way is a warning sign regarding how he sees his relationship to the rest of the church. There’s not a lot about Aaron in Scripture to serve as a model for behavior; there’s the Golden Calf episode, the Nadab and Abihu episode, and not a whole lot else (and I’m hoping neither is instructive in a positive sense), so chances are good the preacher in question is filling this empty symbol with his own meaning.

Update: Mark Byron takes another tack on this, asking rhetorical questions about megachurch bankruptcies [link]. Big church bankruptcies are so rare I’m not sure there’s a special way they get reorganized, as opposed to say a shopping mall.

Jerry Falwell Jr. vs. The City of Lynchburg

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I realize I’ve been talking a lot of inside baseball about Liberty recently, but please bear with me as I’m nearly done, at least for a while. For years I never thought about how Liberty got funded, because it was clear that I would never be involved; now that Jerry Falwell Jr is chancellor and changing how the school is funded I’m more interested, not least because Jerry Jr appears to be more interested in alumni dollars as a funding source.

The outside world tends to see Lynchburg as a very conservative place where Liberty (and Liberty people and their values) is normal. The truth, as it often is, is a bit more complicated. Some of the surrounding area is quite conservative, but Lynchburg itself has been less conservative than surrounding Amherst, Bedford, and Campbell counties for a long time. Light industry and white collar jobs have been bringing Yankees south for sixty or seventy years, and some of them got rich, became respectable, joined the country club, etc. and along the way made Lynchburg a bit more cosmopolitan or modern or liberal or what-have-you than the surrounding counties. I’d encourage interested parties to hunt down local columnist Darrell Laurant’s 1997 book A City Unto Itself [link], where he devotes several chapters to this trend. It’s not just interesting reading; it also gives some depth and context for understanding how Jerry Sr. was able to start a fundamentalist church in Lynchburg and draw thousands of people from the local community long before he started drawing people from outside the area.

There are also two other colleges in town: Lynchburg College and Randolph College, both of them more liberal than Liberty, each with its own subculture and center of gravity in Lynchburg society and politics.

And politics, particularly regarding public money (taxing and spending) is where all this theoretical discussion of relative liberality becomes practical. Jerry Jr as the sort of businessman-in-chief at Liberty is always trying to do what is best for Liberty’s bottom line; the city has its own priorities, and the two don’t always coincide [link]. So on occasion Jerry Jr tries to change the composition of the Council.

Lynchburg has four wards, each with one member representing it on City Council; there are three at-large seats as well [link]. The council chooses the mayor from among its members, so there are seven total seats. When the three at-large seats are up for re-election Jerry Jr tends to swing for the bleachers in an attempt to fill the Council with members who are sympathetic to him, Liberty, or both [link]. Unfortunately for him Liberty students and employees tend to be dispersed in Wards 3 and 4, where they don’t make much difference. Liberty students who live in town do not register and vote in large numbers; Liberty faculty by and large live out in the counties beyond Wards 3 and 4, where land and houses are cheaper and taxes are lower.

This past May Jerry Jr tried to get three seats on the Council, but got less than a thousand Liberty students to turn out to vote (less than 8% of resident students), even after having a special convocation encouraging them to vote and busing students to the appropriate polling place [link]. One recommended candidate, Hundson Cary III, was elected.

It’s hard to imagine the underlying trends changing direction any time soon; there are often tax implications for Liberty students who register to vote in Lynchburg, and there will probably not be enough Liberty faculty who will make enough money to move into the tonier neighborhoods in town to change ward politics. I could imagine that Liberty could grow enough that if 8% of the student population turned out to vote they could swing an election, but the trend at the school is to increase online enrollment rather than on-campus enrollment. Perhaps Jerry Jr would be well-served to learn to play nice with the other six members of City Council.


Liberty University and VTAG

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The State of Virginia is putting together a plan for funding higher education ahead of the next session of the General Assembly, and Richmond Times-Dispatch higher education reporter Karin Kapsidelis [link] has been covering it; some of her articles have been syndicated in the Lynchburg paper and drawn a fair number of comments because of their bearing on Liberty University, chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr, and the continuing complicated relationship between Jerry Jr, Virginia politics, etc.

I really appreciate the fact that the Richmond paper has a higher education beat writer, even if that’s not all Kapsidelis does [link]. I wish from time to time that the Lynchburg paper had a Liberty beat writer, someone who devoted their time to the complex and ever-changing relationship between the school and the town. Unfortunately, as News-Advance reporter Liz Barry pointed out here earlier, articles about Liberty in the Lynchburg paper tend to be short and written quickly, if I understood her correctly, because the paper (and its reporters) has other things to cover and only so much print space.

The Kapsidelis article that’s getting all the attention discusses money from a state program (Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG)) going to private schools in the state, particularly to schools that are part of or overseen by religious organizations, and Liberty specifically. She is careful to say that the money is going from the state to students who spend the money at schools [link, link], even though the headlines on the articles could be read to suggest that the money is going directly from the state to Liberty University.

It’s easy to get hung up on the amount of money going to Liberty students, by far the largest of the schools listed, and has the largest number of TAG recipients by more than three to one versus the school receiving the next most money. There’s some variability in the amount per student that goes to various schools (from a minimum of $2197 to a maximum of $2916, with a mean of $2737) but Kapsidelis explains this well, too, by pointing out that graduate students receive less money, so the average per student will vary according to the mix of undergraduate and graduate students.

The comments on the various articles have gotten hung up on the question of whether public money should go to religious schools, and of course the question of the benefit to society of these students. I really have no idea what the latter issue means; the question of benefit to the state in terms of money spent by the schools and/or students seems fairly straightforward but is difficult to pin down: if a given student is getting$1500 or $3000 from the state does that student then turn around and spend enough with local merchants for the state to see the same dollars again as tax revenue? Is there some sort of multiplier effect? I really have no idea.

I hasten to point out that while $12 million would be a lot of money if it were in a single paper bag sitting on a street corner, it’s a relatively small part of Liberty’s budget: 3-4% of Liberty’s $300-400 million annual budget. The numbers from Liberty financial aid head Robert Ritz are helpful:

Ritz said Liberty awards $544 million in financial aid from federal, state and university resources, which includes student loans as well as grants. About $110 million of that financial aid last year was from Liberty funds.

I hadn’t seen this big number before, but the small number is familiar to anyone who looked at Liberty’s IRS form 990 last year.

For the record I’m not a big fan of the TAG program; on principle I’d rather see the state offer lower taxes than making strategic investments. But if students meet the criteria of the program (attending a nonprofit, accredited school; participating in a qualifying school program) I can’t figure why Liberty students should be disqualified.

Liberty University Homecoming

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

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.