Liberty University, a Virginia school founded by the late Jerry Falwell, a controversial televangelist, is no stranger to controversy. Just this week, ProPublica published a brutal report on the evangelical school and how it's allegedly "discouraged and dismissed" students' reports of sexual assaults.
A year earlier, Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as Liberty's president following a highly tumultuous tenure, which included awkward questions about his personal life.
But his successor appears to be at the center of a new controversy that's likely to create fresh difficulties for the school. Politico reported:
Liberty University's new president, Jerry Prevo, told a top university official this year that he wanted the large Christian school to become a more effective political player with the goal of helping to influence elections, according to a call recording shared with POLITICO.
According to the reporting, Prevo told Scott Lamb, then the university's senior vice president for communications and public engagement, that he wanted Liberty's "think tank" to become more effective at political activity.
"Are they getting people elected? Which is one of our main goals," Prevo told Lamb, apparently unaware that he was being recorded. "Are they really motivating our conservative people to really get out to vote? If they are, we ought to be seeing some changes in elected officials — and we are to some extent. All I want to do is to make us more effective."
Under federal tax law, Liberty is a 501c3 institution — which is the same tax-exempt designation given to houses of worship and non-political charitable organizations. As far as the IRS is concerned, the evangelical university is entitled to its tax-exempt status because it's a school, focused primarily on education and spiritual matters.
The revelations in the Politico report are important because they call Liberty's purpose into question. If the school exists to influence election outcomes, then it's not entitled to a tax exemption.
The article noted that Lamb, mindful of the school's non-profit tax status, pushed back against the idea of engaging in partisan electioneering. According to the reporting, Liberty's new president responded that he knows "how to work" federal tax law.
It's the sort of boast that the IRS might be interested in.
For context, it's important to emphasize that Lamb was recently ousted from Liberty, and as Politico added, he claims to have been fired for raising concerns about the school blurring the line between education and politics, as well as his concerns about how the university responds to allegations of sexual assault and harassment. From the article:
Lamb said in an interview that he believed that Prevo, during the recorded call and on other occasions, was directing him to do things that could have jeopardized the university's status as a 501(c)(3) charity. He said he interpreted Prevo's comments to mean that "the president of the university was directing his senior vice president to get 'our people' elected this fall." ... "He's telling me to do things that we can't do," Lamb said.
A university spokesperson denied any wrongdoing.