Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the most prominent and influential evangelical Christians in the US, is stepping back from the school after he posted a photo of himself with his pants unzipped and underwear showing, sparking backlash and calls for his resignation.
An executive committee for the Virginia university's board of trustees requested that Falwell "take an indefinite leave of absence" on Friday from his roles as president and chancellor "to which he has agreed, effective immediately," according to a statement released by the university.
Last week, Falwell shared a photo of himself, which was later deleted, with one hand on a woman's waist and the other carrying a cup with a dark liquid in it, which he jokingly described as "black water," in an Instagram post featuring photos from his vacation. The two had their pants unzipped and their shirts pulled up, showing their bare midriffs as they smiled for the camera.
“How is this Jerry Falwell Jr. photo even real?” tweeted Meghan McCain. “Also if you're running the largest Christian university in America maybe don't put photos of yourself on social media with your pants undone on a yacht - with random women in bad wigs. So gross, so hypocritical.”
Falwell said in an interview on Wednesday that he had apologized for the photo, saying he should have never posted it.
“And I’ve promised my kids I’m going to try to be — I’m gonna try to be a good boy from here on out," he told the MorningLine show on WLNI, a local radio station.
Falwell, one of President Trump's most loyal and prominent supporters, was criticized early this year for keeping Liberty's residence halls and campus open amid the coronavirus pandemic and downplaying the severity of the health crisis.
His statements created confusion around whether students would be finishing the school year in person or online.
Liberty student Clayton Didinsky, who is starting his senior year, told BuzzFeed News he and his classmates were "shocked" by Friday's announcement but supported the decision for Falwell to take a leave of absence.
"I did not think this, of all things, would have done it," Didinsky said. "My reaction to the whole yacht thing is that it was hypocritical. It's obvious he was not drinking 'black water,' and students can't drink, even if you're 21."
He added that students who do drink get into a lot of trouble if they get caught.
Falwell, who was appointed to the president position in 2007, has been embroiled in controversy before.
In December 2015, days after a San Bernardino County health department employee and his wife opened fire on his coworkers at a holiday party, killing 14 and injuring more than 20 others, Falwell said that if more people had concealed carry permits, "we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them."
He went on make a huge endorsement of Trump for president in 2016, delivering a huge base of Evangelical, conservative voters.
In 2018, Falwell landed back in the news when he acknowledged putting up $1.8 million for a business venture managed by a young pool attendant he befriended during a stay at a luxury hotel. BuzzFeed News first reported on a lawsuit that claimed that the Falwells and pool attendant who was to manage the Miami hostel wrongly cut a father and son out of the venture.
But his controversies at Liberty has continued to erode his support in the campus community.
Last year, a former editor of Liberty’s student newspaper, the Champion, wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that Falwell "silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics."
"What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life," said Will E. Young, former editor-in-chief of the student-run weekly newspaper.
Didinsky, the rising senior, said he was curious to see who will be named to replace Falwell and how this episode will impact his legacy.
"You have people on both spectrums: people who love him and people who hate him. He is a good businessman, and this is coming from someone who is not the biggest fan of him, and even I will admit he's done a lot for Liberty," Didinsky said. "He has built the school up to where it is now, but I think his legacy could also be tarnished by this."
Brianna Sacks contributed reporting.