Liberty University Alumni Return Diplomas in Protest of Trump Remarks

“It felt like a shocking yet appropriate response to shocking and inappropriate comments,” said Ms. Hamann, 31, who graduated from Liberty in 2006 and is a lawyer in Phoenix.


Liberty’s campus in Lynchburg, Va.

Chet Strange for The New York Times

“As alums, we have the power to say something,” the Facebook group’s description says, urging alumni to mail their diplomas to Mr. Falwell’s office on Sept. 5, along with explanatory letters. “Our voices carry weight for the school, for its donors, for its board, staff and students. Our public demonstration of revoking all ties, all support present and future, and urging the Board of Trustees to remove Falwell from the administration of L.U. will send a message to the school that could jeopardize future enrollment, finances and funding.”

Chris Gaumer, 34, another 2006 graduate, called the decision to participate “a no-brainer.”

“The president of the United States was defending Nazis and white supremacists,” said Mr. Gaumer, the assistant director of the M.F.A. program at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., eight miles from Liberty. “It felt like Jerry Falwell Jr. was making the university somewhat complicit in that.”

A university spokesman did not respond to an email on Sunday requesting comment. However, Mr. Falwell addressed reports about the protest in a Sunday morning interview on ABC News’s “This Week,” saying he had praised Mr. Trump for “calling the Nazis and white supremacists evil.”

“He completely misunderstands my support,” Mr. Falwell said in response to the idea, which Mr. Gaumer expressed earlier to NPR, that he had made Liberty University complicit in the defense of racism. “My support for the president is his bold and truthful willingness to call terrorist groups by their names, and that’s something we haven’t seen in presidents in recent years.”

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Asked by ABC News’s Martha Raddatz whether the president could have been “a little more careful in his words,” Mr. Falwell said: “All of us could. But at least he’s not politically correct. He’s not so concerned about rehearsing and focus grouping every statement he makes, and that’s one of the reasons I supported him.”

Mr. Trump expressed his appreciation for Mr. Falwell’s support on Twitter on Monday morning, saying his comments were “fantastic.”


Liberty graduates awaited Mr. Trump’s commencement speech in May.

Al Drago/The New York Times

“The Fake News should listen to what he had to say,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Alumni interviewed Sunday evening said they were not swayed.

“I was disheartened by his comments on ABC,” Ms. Hamann said of Mr. Falwell. “Instead of paying more than lip service to the idea of the severity of this misstep, he kind of said, ‘Yes, yes, of course we condemn racism, but what I like about Trump is that he’s not politically correct.’ You’re still missing the point. It shouldn’t be ‘politically correct’ to extend kindness to the hurting, condemnation to the wrongdoers. That shouldn’t be negotiable.”

Members of the Facebook group worked together to write an open letter to Mr. Falwell. They encouraged fellow alumni to sign, or to write their own letters if they preferred.

Laura Honnol, a banking officer who graduated in 2013, drafted her own letter, which she shared with The New York Times. In it, she wrote that she had “grieved privately” at some of Mr. Falwell’s previous actions, including his endorsement of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

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But after Charlottesville, Ms. Honnol, 32, wrote, “I can no longer grieve privately when you repeatedly and uncritically escalate your commitment to adulation of our sitting president as a hero to the faith and to the cause of Christ — a man who refuses to unequivocally call out the blatant, blasphemous sin of racism in the face of clear and incontrovertible evidence of white supremacist, neo-Nazi incitement.”

She concluded: “I no longer wish to be associated with an institution which uses the name of Jesus Christ to support a political agenda, and knowingly or inadvertently promulgates oppression. My integrity will not allow me to align myself with anything that distorts the Gospel in this manner.”

Phillip Wagner, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Liberty in 2010 and a master’s in 2012 and now works at the University of South Florida, said Mr. Falwell had put alumni in the painful position of having to defend or disavow the source of their academic credentials.

Having made his career in academia, Mr. Wagner, 27, said he would not return his diplomas. But he planned to write to Mr. Falwell to voice his opposition to racism, and to what he described as the inappropriate politicization of an educational institution.

“I’m not ashamed of my L.U. credentials,” Mr. Wagner said, but added that he and other alumni “didn’t sign up for this political affiliation that comes with our degrees now.”

In the Facebook group and in interviews, others said bluntly that they were embarrassed to identify themselves as Liberty alumni. Amber Smith, a 2008 graduate, said she often identified her alma mater as Seattle Pacific University, where she earned her master’s degree.

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Liberty University has long associated itself with the Republican Party, and officials and candidates alike have frequently made appearances there. John McCain was the keynote speaker at Ms. Hamann’s and Mr. Gaumer’s graduation in 2006, Ms. Hamann noted. The difference today, she said, is “that Trump really makes no effort to even pay lip service to Christian ideals.”

The university “was always identified with certain things,” said Ms. Smith, 31, a marriage and family therapist in Seattle. “But I feel like the negative parts of those things have been really enforced in the past few years, and I don’t want to be associated with that.”

The diploma protest, she said, is an opportunity to encourage Mr. Falwell to act in a way that will allow her and other alumni to be proud of their alma mater again.

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