The new evangelical Goliath? Online ed at Liberty U

Back in November, The New York Times produced a downright nauseating account of Liberty University's effort to become a big-time college football program.

This week, the Washington Post followed up with an in-depth report on Liberty's transformation into an "evangelical mega-university."

The front-page headline described the university's progress this way:

Falwell's university grows from David to Goliath size

Bottom line: The Post's story made my stomach churn much less than the earlier Times report. Of course, the Post focused on Liberty's burgeoning online enrollment figures, while the Times zeroed in on the gridiron. Even better, the Post story relied much more on actual facts and less on breathless pronouncements.

In the end, however, the Post story — like the Times report — left me with a number of unanswered questions.

Let's start at the top:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.

In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice.

Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of “training champions for Christ,” Liberty also is the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation.

For me, key questions include: Exactly how does Liberty "train champions for Christ" through its online programs? Can the evangelical culture of the university really be duplicated via the Internet? To what character and behavior standards, if any, must the online students adhere?

The Post hits — albeit vaguely — at some of the answers:

Liberty weaves biblical teachings into its courses, but faculty are committed to rigorous instruction in disciplines ranging from aeronautics to engineering to law. The university is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which also oversees accreditation of the University of Virginia.

Later, there's this:

On campus, students are prohibited from drinking alcohol or having premarital sex. They also are barred from watching R-rated movies, with exceptions sometimes granted upon request. But the school boasts a plethora of recreational facilities, such as an indoor soccer center and a competitive paintball field. Students can ski or snowboard year-round on a campus peak covered with a moist, white, slippery synthetic material known as Snowflex.

Can online students drink? Can online students engage in premarital sex? Can online students watch R-rated movies? The story doesn't say. Obviously, enforcing such rules on students 1,000 or 2,000 miles away would be next-to-impossible, but it would be interesting to know if students agree to any character or behavior codes.

More from the story:

Liberty’s brand is a magnet for many adults who want online higher education with an evangelical Christian point of view.

They are people like Tammy Fox, of Chesapeake, Va.; Tanesha Townsell, of Pittsburgh; and Craig Conradt, from the Seattle area. These three candidates for Liberty master’s degrees in counseling traveled to Lynchburg recently to take short courses with professors face to face, an initiative officials said helps connect online students with the campus community.

Fox, 34, said she has 14- and 11-year-old children and works full time for a Christian ministry’s pregnancy resource center. “We have a very busy life,” she said. “Online classes are the only way I would be able to return to school. Being able to do my homework in my pajamas at midnight — that’s what keeps me going.”

But how does that "evangelical Christian point of view" manifest itself online? I'd love to see a more specific response from Fox or one of the other students named.

Still more from the story:

Mark A. Tinsley, department chair for science in Liberty’s College of General Studies, said online instructors engage students through interactive discussion boards and video lectures. Class size is capped at 25 students. Students are given frequent writing assignments, Tinsley said, and receive substantive feedback. Faculty are urged to respond quickly to e-mail to ensure that far-flung students stay on track. They also talk often with students by phone.

Tinsley said Liberty uses “biblical integration” as it teaches science.

“We want to relate all of our subjects back to Scripture, theology and a biblical worldview,” he said. But Tinsley said students use textbooks that would be found in secular universities. In certain situations in an Earth science course, for example, a student would learn the case for biblical creation alongside the science of evolution.

“We try to present full arguments on both sides and then allow the student to make a decision,” Tinsley said. He added, “I’ve had many students over the years who have held to an evolutionary standpoint and gotten A’s.”

That section of the story helps, but I still find myself wanting to know more.

More precisely, I'd welcome evidence that Liberty's online approach really does expand the university's Christian mission and doesn't simply serve as a cash cow to bolster expensive residential offerings.

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