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Posts Tagged ‘Lynchburg News-Advance’

Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre

October 19, 2011 3 comments

Over the summer Liberty University announced that it is terminating some 50 programs of study in favor of 23 new programs, reducing the number of programs from 290 to 263 [link]; I don’t really have an opinion on this: universities do this from time to time, etc. and I can’t guess whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing without a list of the programs that have been eliminated. Unfortunately the Liz Barry article at the link above doesn’t include lists; doing so in the print edition of the News-Advance would be something of a typesetter’s nightmare anyway.

While looking for the lists of new and sunset majors I stumbled across a press release from Liberty meant to set the record straight on a number of things, including how much public money it receives and what it does with it [link]. This quote jumped out at me:

Liberty has also built a unique artificial ski slope – the only one of its kind in North America – that is used by Liberty students as well as ski enthusiasts from Central Virginia and around the country.

This is a reference to the Snowflex Centre [link]. It dominates the peak of Candler’s Mountain, and is visible from almost anywhere in Lynchburg; if you’re in the neighborhood I’d recommend seeing it from a connector road called Simon’s Run, near Wards Ferry Road, where you can see it framed by woods on both sides. Sadly I didn’t have time on my most recent visit to snap a picture for posterity.

When Liberty installed the Monogram [link] several years ago I didn’t think anything could be more hideous. The monogram isn’t just gaudy; it’s lopsided, and if my eyes don’t deceive me it isn’t aging well; its white background appears to be turning beige, meaning that at some point in the future it will need to be repainted or Liberty will need to change its colors to red, beige, and blue. But I digress.

I realize lots of universities have big ugly things on their grounds, and they’re treated with a mixture of kindness, nostalgia, embarrassment, and contempt, but I am tempted to suggest that the Monogram and the Snowflex Centre are the sorts of things Charles Foster Kane might have had at Xanadu [link] if he’d had less time, less money, and less taste.

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

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 in the news: barefoot professor, humanist-pastor debate

October 7, 2010 1 comment

Two articles about Liberty, both written by Liz Barry for the Lynchburg paper, caught my eye recently:

  • LU instructor wages shoeless crusade with the soles of his feet [link]
  • Debate centers on faith, reason [link]

The first article is a puff piece about Daniel Howell, a Liberty biology professor who advocates barefoot running, and ties in nicely with recent coverage of the marquee running race in Lynchburg, the Virginia Ten-Miler. Barefoot runners are something of a curiosity in the running community, like fixed-gear cyclists in the cycling community, and I don’t know, maybe hardcore locavores within the foodie community, and it appears to be fashionable to write articles about them recently. They even merited a segment on Wisconsin Public Radio’s show To The Best of our Knowledge back in August [link]. They seem to be received by the people who cover them uncritically, and this article is no different: Daniel Howell’s claim that shoes are “just bad for you” and his suggestion that children who went barefoot in the 1920s and 1930s are a model we should mimic isn’t balanced by questions about running mechanics and hookworms.

The second article is a bit more serious, as it covers a debate held at the Liberty University Law School regarding whether Christianity or humanism better serves as a “a better worldview for shaping legal, political and social institutions.” I haven’t been able to find any other media resources regarding this debate online (mp3 or video), so all I have to go on is the summary Barry gives. It looks like the humanist, David Niose, said humanism gives mankind a shared identity and religion only causes disagreement, and Christianity is been too unclear and ancient to serve as a foundation for a modern society. The Christian, Doug Wilson, suggests that the Bible is a solid foundation for a society:

Unlike humanism, Wilson said, Christianity provides a fixed standard for making moral decisions and distinguishing between right and wrong. Christianity, therefore, provides a better framework for forming and interpreting the law, he said.

“The Biblical foundation for law, the Biblical foundation for culture, has to do with a fixed reference point that cannot be debated,” he said.

In other words, each accused the other of standing on a foundation too variable to serve society, while his own foundation was fixed and firm.

I can’t help but wonder if Niose made Wilson deal with questions regarding proper interpretation of Scripture, correct translation of ancient languages, translating cultural norms from one period of history to another, etc. I’d really love to see/hear this debate.

Fallwell Jr supports ABC privatization plan

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

As the Lynchburg News-Advance reported earlier this week, Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr supports Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s plan to privatize the state’s liquor stores [link].

Folks outside Virginia may not know this, but in Virginia beer and wine are sold in grocery stores, but hard liquor can only be purchased through state-run Alcohol Beverage Control Board (ABC) stores. The current governor is proposing to sell off these stores; as best I can tell this is entirely a search for revenue on the governor’s part and is being proposed without regard to any social impact the sale might have. My recollection growing up in Virginia was that there was some sort of stigma attached to entering an ABC store, and if that’s still the case I suppose this would remove that stigma.

Honestly I don’t understand Jerry Jr’s argument:

“In my view, Virginia’s private sector, its families, churches and businesses will be better served and protected by eliminating government-sanctioned monopolies.”

How Virginia’s families and churches would benefit from privately-run neighborhood package stores I can’t imagine. Unless of course they were the families running the stores. If there’s a silver lining for Virginia churches here I can’t imagine what it is; I can’t picture a preacher wanting a liquor store in his neighborhood. The same article quotes Jerry Jr’s brother Jonathan:

“I have no position on whether ABC sales in Virginia are private or public, my hope would be that we could shut all liquor sales down,” Jonathan Falwell said.

I suspect reporter Ray Reed took the right tack here, and this is just a political favor Falwell Jr is doing Governor McDonnell.

I really have no idea what other reason Jerry Jr would have to speak up regarding liquor stores; Liberty students aren’t supposed to be consuming alcohol at all. I suppose we’ll see this episode reach its moment of highest irony if ABC stores are privatized and one of the new private stores opens within easy walking distance of the proposed Canders Road walkover from the Liberty campus. Or when the university’s endowment invests in a chain of liquor stores.

LBTS “tripled enrollment” under Caner

The first article in the Caner saga was written by John W. Kennedy and appeared at Christianity Today on May 3, and included the following sentence:

By all accounts, Caner is an energetic, entertaining, and engaging professor who has tripled enrollment at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary since his installation as president of the Lynchburg, Virginia, school five years ago.

This little nugget must meet some sort of journalistic style requirement, because it appeared in some form in every article about the Caner situation. There are two basic forms and several minor variants; the other basic form appears in this Baptist Press staff article:

Under Caner’s leadership, seminary enrollment has tripled to about 4,000 students since 2005.

Somewhere along the line some bright journalist went to the seminary website, I’m guessing, and added in the 4000 number:

Founded in 1973 as an outgrowth of Liberty University, the seminary has nearly 4,000 students from all 50 states and many countries around the world who are currently enrolled in both the residential and distance learning programs.

There are basically four claims here:

  1. Caner is/was president of the seminary 2005-2010
  2. Seminary enrollment is 4000 in 2010
  3. Seminary enrollment tripled under Caner’s leadership
  4. Caner is somehow responsible for the increase

The first claim is obviously true. The second is a sourced quote, but doesn’t appear to be true. A Lynchburg News-Advance article by Christa Desrets from July 8, 2008 describes the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years at the seminary this way:

Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School is expecting 510 resident students this fall, and 4,580 distance-learning students. Last fall, the seminary had 352 resident students and 2,917 distance-learning students.

That’s 45% growth in resident enrollment, 56% growth in total enrollment in a single year, bringing total enrollment to 5090 in Spring 2009. An undated summary from Christianity Today puts the enrollment at 5038. I suppose it’s possible that seminary enrollment was capped for the 2009-2010 year at the previous year’s levels, but I haven’t found anything to substantiate that.

Regardless, I can’t find any verification of Liberty’s official number of 4000.

I haven’t been able to find any numbers for the 2004-2005 or 2005-2006 school years, but to be in line with the 4000-5000 figure it would have needed to be 1300-1700 then.

Regardless, the Desrets article has chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr crediting Caner for the growth in the seminary:

Falwell said the seminary’s growth stems from a plan implemented by President Ergun Caner that promotes its offerings around the nation.

“He’s gone out and presented the seminary as a separate school, and I think he’s done a fantastic job of showcasing what it has to offer,” Falwell said.

I really have no idea; I’d love to see video from one or two of these Caner road show appearances.

Update: This article from the Liberty Journal from December 2007 says seminary residential enrollment had doubled over the previous three years to 400 and total enrollment at “close to 4000 students.”