Liberty University names acting leader with Jerry Falwell Jr. on leave

LYNCHBURG, VA - DECEMBER 09: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. is seen during a convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University on Wednesday December 09, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington P

The board of private evangelical Liberty University in Virginia said Monday that it had chosen an interim leader, days after Jerry Falwell Jr. began a leave of absence after one of his posts on social media created an uproar.

Jerry Prevo, currently chairman of the school's board of trustees, will assume the role of acting president immediately, Liberty said in a news release.

Prevo, who recently retired as the senior pastor of a Baptist church in Alaska, expects to work from the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus starting Aug. 17, the news release said.

"Please pray for us as well as the Falwell family as we embark on our academic year and so we may continue to be united in our common purpose and our faith in Christ,” Prevo said in the news release.

READ MORE: Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr. taking leave of absence

Prevo has stepped aside from his role as chairman while he takes on the new role, the news release said.

A high-profile supporter and ally of President Donald Trump, Falwell has led the private evangelical university founded by his evangelist father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, for 13 years.

Officials from the university in Lynchburg, Virginia, announced in a one-sentence statement Friday that Falwell was taking a leave of absence. The statement didn't elaborate. But Falwell's departure came after he posted a photo showing him posing with his pants unbuttoned, stomach exposed and his arm around a young woman who was not his wife.

Falwell apologized for the photo, which he said was taken during a costume party while he was on vacation.

He said in an interview with Lynchburg radio station WLNI that the woman, whom he identified as his wife's assistant, was pregnant and couldn't get her pants zipped, and that he was imitating her. He said it was all in “good fun.”

“I’ve apologized to everybody, and I’ve promised my kids ... I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out,” he told the interviewer.

READ MORE: Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomes 1,100 students back to Liberty University campus amid COVID-19 pandemic

Falwell was holding a glass filled with a dark liquid in the photo, which he said in the caption was “just black water ... a prop only.”

The photo, which was deleted but not before it spread widely online, sparked criticism from liberals, conservatives and evangelicals alike. Many said the behavior was unbecoming and possibly hypocritical from the leader of a university that requires its students to follow a strict code of conduct that includes no alcohol.

Jerry Prevo, chairman of the Liberty board of trustees, said in a statement last week that Liberty has experienced “unprecedented success” academically and financially under Falwell's leadership.

“Unfortunately, with this success and the burdens of leading a large and growing organization comes substantial pressure,” his statement said.

Falwell has not responded to a text message from The Associated Press seeking comment. The AP was unable to leave a telephone message.

READ MORE: Virginia governor urges Falwell to rethink welcoming students back to Liberty University

Liberty alumni who have been critical of Falwell and increasingly vocal about wanting new leadership, stepped up their organizing in the days after his leave of absence was announced. Four alumni on Monday unveiled a new nonprofit called “Save 71,” a reference to the year of Liberty’s founding, designed to mobilize alumni, students and faculty behind reform at the university.

Liberty “needs to repent of its sins before seeking redemption,” the group posted on its website, urging the board to name an independent committee to seek a longer-term replacement for Falwell. “The Board of Trustees must acknowledge the damage President Falwell has done to Liberty and the hypocrisy and corruption that has soaked into parts of its culture.”

Falwell was among the earliest Christian conservatives to endorse Trump’s first presidential campaign and has routinely been in the spotlight since then for a series of controversies in both his role at Liberty and his personal life.

Falwell has most recently faced pushback for the university’s decision to welcome students back to campus amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as for a social media post invoking the blackface scandal that Virginia’s Democratic governor faced last year. Liberty said in June that it is planning “to be fully open with in-person instruction for on-campus students” in the fall, while adhering to public health guidelines and allowing students to finish the semester online after November.

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Schor reported from New York.