Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., a prominent evangelist and loyal supporter of President Donald Trump, may have turned down the secretary of education job — but that doesn't mean he won't be helping to shape the nation's young minds. Falwell will lead a task force dedicated to reforming higher education, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported Tuesday.
Precisely what the task force will address is not yet public knowledge, but according to the Chronicle, it will target what Falwell called "overreaching regulation" imposed by President Barack Obama's administration.
That likely means rolling back restrictions on for-profit universities — enacted to protect people who took out loans enabling them to pursue diplomas at what the New York Times called "fake diploma mills," only to find themselves with a worthless degree. The previous administration ratcheted up accreditation requirements in an effort to ensure that students would graduate from for-profit institutions prepared for the field they planned to enter.
Falwell's task force will likely reverse steps taken by Trump's predecessors.
"The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs," Falwell said, adding that he "has notebooks full of issues" for the task force to consider.
Restoring that leeway is perhaps an unsurprising goal for a president with a for-profit educational enterprise of his own. While Trump University was not actually a university at all, it did target a specific consumer — the older and the uneducated — with lofty promises of professional success in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars. Those promises never came true, obligating the president to settle a federal fraud lawsuit for $25 million before he took office.
After Falwell passed on the education secretary role in November, explaining that he wanted to remain in place at Liberty, Trump reportedly offered him the chance to head up the task force. Falwell told the Chronicle that it would "be a big help" to Betsy DeVos, Trump's maligned nominee for education secretary whose position on for-profit college regulations is hazy. When grilled at her confirmation hearing by Sen. Elizabeth Warren on whether or not she would uphold Obama-era restrictions on fraudulent institutions, DeVos did not give a direct answer.
Nor has she given clear indication that she would uphold the Obama administration's enforcement of Title IX, an amendment that has, since 2011, enabled the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to police sexual assault at colleges and universities.
In January, the Department of Education initiated a Title IX investigation at Liberty University, which had previously asked to opt out of Title IX enforcement on religious grounds. The country's largest Christian university, Liberty prohibits sexual contact between unmarried men and women; at the time, Falwell wanted "to impose discipline on students who have abortions," Voice of America reported.
In an April 2014 letter addressed to Falwell, the Department of Education granted the exemption with the proviso that Liberty could only apply it to the part of Title IX concerning pregnancy. Still, Falwell's is just one of dozens of schools that have successfully weaseled out of the government's sex-based discrimination ban, and one wonders what will become of that number under Falwell's leadership.
Indeed, it’s evangelical views that are likely to take priority if Falwell gets his way — at the expense of everyone else.