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Liberty University: The rise of a really big conservative college

Liberty now claims more than 100,000 students, including 13,500 who take classes on campus.  The university's 7,000-plus acres are part campus, part construction zone, with a $500 million construction program.

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    Liberty University students work in the atrium of the Jerry Falwell library at the school in Lynchburg, Va., Tuesday, April 21, 2015. Amid a $500 million construction boom, Liberty University is more construction zone than campus. Located in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, Liberty now claims more than 100,000 students, with most of that number reflecting distance learners.
    (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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Jerry Falwell credits his famous father for laying a solid academic foundation for Liberty University's extraordinary growth, and it's a formula he's followed and built on as president of the evangelical Christian university.

The younger Falwell has assiduously focused on Liberty as it has swelled to the largest university in Virginia, fueled primarily by distance learners. He has kept Liberty an essential stop for conservative Republicans with White House aspirations while keeping out of the spotlight.

That's a departure from his late father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose barbed pronouncements on homosexuality, for one, made him a reviled figure to some and a pioneering conservative crusader to others.

"That's not my thing," the soft-spoken Falwell said in an interview in his office. He was seated at the end of a long conference table in a 1-million-square-foot former cellphone factory donated to Liberty by the conservative Christian family that owns the Hobby Lobby.

"Yeah, I would enjoy it," Falwell said of his father's outspoken activism. "I'm very conservative too. But I don't think that would further the best interests of the school."

These days, the university's 7,000-plus acres are part campus, part construction zone. A half-dozen towering cranes compete with the hazy outline of the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance as a $500 million construction program changes the once-modest skyline of the campus.

As chirpy Christian rock blares from outdoor speakers, a blur of students navigate chain-link fences around construction sites for a massive new library and other building sites for residence halls and athletic venues.

"If you're want to find friends that will last you a lifetime, if you're wanting to learn under professors who are the best out there and really know their stuff, then I would say choose Liberty," said Sarah Ellenburg, 21, of Anderson, South Carolina.

Besides the Hobby Lobby, the university's link to conservative supporters is there for all to see: the LaHaye Ice Center is named in honor of Beverly and Tim LaHaye, the latter a benefactor who is best known for his popular Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction.

Liberty now claims more than 100,000 students, the overwhelming majority distance learners. It has approximately 13,500 who take classes on campus.

It's all a stunning change from the tiny Baptist college Rev. Jerry Falwell founded in 1971. The early years saw students housed at the Virginian, a former hotel in downtown Lynchburg that most recently was home to low-income housing.

Higher education was only part of Falwell's mission. He was building a mega-church, the Thomas Road Baptist Church, and hosting the "Old Time Gospel Hour," which was broadcast on TV stations around the nation.

But his biggest influence was the rise of the politically conservative Moral Majority, which claimed 6.5 million members.

As its public face, Falwell became a lightning rod, assailing abortion and homosexuality. His commentary went too far in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, when he blamed feminists, liberals and gays for inviting the attacks. He later apologized.

The red hot rhetoric is gone under the younger Falwell. He has turned away invitations on the Sunday political talk shows, he said, to keep his eye on the school that has blossomed during his watch.

Falwell emphasizes, however, that Liberty is a solidly conservative Christian institution. Faculty, for instance, must affirm the school's Christian doctrine, and students are forbidden from watching certain movies on campus, among other restrictions. It's a dry campus.

"The school has no official political positions on anything but we attract a lot of conservative kids," said Falwell, a Liberty and University of Virginia law school grad. "Just like Harvard has no official political position but they attract a lot of liberal kids."

Daniel Ramirez, a historian of U.S. and Latin American religions who teaches at the University of Michigan, credits Liberty's growth to its early embrace of distance learning, as well as what he views as a transition from a fundamentalist to evangelical Christian school.

"Evangelical is a broad umbrella that encompasses fundamentalists, more moderate evangelicals and Pentecostals," Ramirez said. "I think Liberty has really struck the right note to bring down the barriers to enrollment that religious conviction would present."

The younger Falwell said his father, who died in 2007, envisioned a Christian school with big ambitions.

"My father would say in those early days," Falwell said, "that the goal for Liberty was to become for evangelicals what Notre Dame was for Catholics, what Brigham Young was for Mormons."

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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