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During its forty-two-plus years of existence, it has become the largest Christian Evangelical University in the world. Despite its founder's life-long anti-government activism, it receives several hundred million dollars annually in federal financial aid money. Its been the center of a number of political controversies over the years, as exemplified by the headline "Big Brother: Chancellor [Jerry] Falwell [Jr.] is Trying to Turn Tax-Exempt Liberty University Into a Partisan Political Machine -- and Dominate Lynchburg Elections. Will the IRS Step in?," in the April 2010 issue of Church & State magazine.
Since it's founding in 1971, the Reverend Jerry Falwell's, Liberty University has weathered several serious financial challenges: It was bailed out of near-financial collapse by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who funneled lifeline funds to a non-profit Forest, Va.-based organization called Christian Heritage Foundation; and, Falwell's death in 2007, provided an insurance windfall that allowed the university to wiggle its way out of yet another financial headlock.
Now a new line of business is helping to grow and stabilize Liberty University. David Swanson's investigative reporting, posted on the Huntington News website and in Sojourners magazine, has revealed that this Christian university has become one of the foremost national training grounds of "pilots who go up in planes and drone pilots who sit behind desks wearing pilot suits."
Rev. Falwell's vision
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, the Rev. Falwell had a vision. Sparked by his gritty determination, unbridled ambition, and with the help of well-appointed funders, Falwell would build an evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia.
There would be a magnificent campus, prestigious evangelical scholars, and an athletic program that would recruit athletes that could compete with big-time national athletic programs. Liberty University would become a training ground for conservative activists and future political office holders.
While the Rev. Falwell did not live long enough to see his vision reach full fruition, there was no doubt that when he died 6 years ago, Liberty had likely exceeded his earlier expectations. He built it and they came: there are now some 12,000 students on campus and tens of thousands more taking Liberty University classes online. Liberty now ranks in the top five among the nation's largest online educators, and is the nation's largest private, nonprofit online educator.
According to David Swanson, "More than 23,000 online students are in the military — twice as many as students who live on campus. Liberty offers extra financial support to veterans and those on active duty, allowing them to be credited for knowledge learned in the military and to study online from a war zone."
Liberty's drone project
Liberty's School of Aeronautics (SOA), which is located in a building near the Lynchburg, Virginia Regional Airport, has more than 600 students enrolled. Two years ago, Liberty "added a concentration in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, aka drones), making it one of the first handful of schools to do this."
David Swanson, the host of Talk Nation Radio, and author of "War is a Lie" and "When the World Outlawed War," pointed out that, "If one chooses to concentrate studies on piloting drones, the load will include a half dozen courses on "intelligence". Liberty students can also pick up a minor in strategic intelligence and take courses in terrorism and counterterrorism. (Liberty's school of government brags that Newt Gingrich helped develop its course on 'American exceptionalism')."
Last summer, Dave Young, who spent 29 years in the Air Force and retired as a brigadier general, and is now dean of the SOA, told the Liberty Journal that "[Drones] are going to be a viable part of the aviation industry. It offers a grand opportunity for employment during a time when college graduates are entering a highly competitive job market."
Young added: "Our mission is to produce graduates who are not only skilled, but who are going to go out in the world as strong Christians."
John Marselus, SOA associate dean, concurred. "We want to have graduates serving the Lord in this area of aviation", he said.
David Swanson reported that through email exchanges, Young told him that it is "a four-year degree program in Unmanned Aerial Systems," and includes "flying UAS vehicles in an authorized and controlled environment. Young noted that, "the focus on the program is not only on actual drone operations, but the command and control aspect, management of resources, and the various missions that UAS are capable of supporting."
Is the use of drones for fighting wars, Christian?, Swanson asked Young.
"I can only offer my perspective as a Christian," Young replied. "UAS are like any other aerial vehicle that can be used for a variety of missions including law enforcement, aerial surveillance, search and rescue, and crop spraying as well as for military reasons. As a former military combat aviator, I believe that UAS can be employed just like a manned aircraft and that there should not be a distinction between the two."
"Training Champions for Christ since 1971"
Liberty University was founded in 1971, with the goal of "Training Champions for Christ." Forty-plus years later it is, according to its website, "the largest private nonprofit university in the nation, the largest university in Virginia, and the largest Christian university in the world."
According to Chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty is "An accredited institution, [that] now offers 315 unique programs of study. ... [on a] 6,819-acre campus [that] boasts millions of square feet of technologically advanced academic, residential and recreational space, the vast majority of which was constructed in the last 15 years."
And there is more construction to come. According to Liberty University's Master Plan, a $400 million rebuilding project is about to get under way: "More than a dozen major projects are planned both on and off campus to enhance the educational, recreational, and social opportunities available to students at the world's largest Christian university."
New resident halls will be built, new academic buildings erected, and a brand new Liberty Baseball Stadium is under construction. There will also be a Jerry Falwell Library and a state of the art Center for Medical and Health Sciences.
These days, Liberty University's net worth exceeds $1 billion -- equaling that of much older schools like Pepperdine, Georgetown, and Tulane, according to the Washington Post. -- and there are no signs that its growth will cease any time soon. With an abundant amount of federal financial aid money flowing into its coffers, and a state of the art drone pilot program training 21st century "Christian soldiers," Liberty is on the path to fulfilling Rev. Falwell's vision: He built it and they are still coming.
(Photo: Tim Ross)