LYNCHBURG, Va. — More than 200 Liberty University alumni have signed on to a Facebook group proposing they return their degrees in protest of University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s unwavering support of President Donald Trump.
The movement follows a tweet by Falwell that applauded Trump’s response to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed August 12 in Charlottesville when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters gathered to oppose a “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalist and other right-wing groups. Nineteen others were injured in the incident. President Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence.
The alumni Facebook group organized for the movement has grown to 202 members and counting since it was launched Thursday. The members of the group are asked to mail their diplomas to Falwell’s office on the same day, September 5.
“This sort of sends a wake-up call that you can’t just align the entire university with Donald Trump’s stance on a whim,” Chris Gaumer, a 2006 graduate of Liberty University, said of the protest.
Gaumer said the goal is to send a message that some alumni are unhappy.
Falwell has since responded to the group, telling ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the alumni misinterpreted his comments.
“If, in fact, he’s walking back comments, is he to be trusted?” Gaumer said.
Liberty University responded to protesters on Monday, saying the school supports its students’ right to express their own political opinions, including those opinions that might differ from school leadership.
“The tactic of returning diplomas has been used by students of many other schools to draw attention to various causes, but let’s also remember that those same diplomas are quite helpful in helping these graduates secure well-paying jobs,” the statement said.
The group also drafted a letter it plans to send to the university, expressing dismay.
“The university has a long history of involvement in election cycles and in national governance,” the letter reads. “This has always required an uneasy tension between secular governance and religious ideals. While not all of the undersigned have agreed with the university’s past involvement, at a minimum, that involvement was not in blatant tension with the university’s claimed values. ”
Some group members have not signed the letter and will instead send their own.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to sign it myself,” Gaumer said.
Phil Wagner, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s from Liberty University, said though he disapproves of the presidents’ comments, he won’t be returning his degrees.
“I’m half in, half out,” Wagner said. “I do not plan to return my degree. I earned it. I worked hard for it.”
Instead, he says, he plans to send a respectful letter.
This is not the first time alumni have struggled with Falwell’s political beliefs. Rebekah Tilley, a 2002 graduate, said she has been disappointed since before the presidential election.
In the past, she says she has written letters and spoken directly to university staff. She said she did not receive a response, and she doesn’t expect that to change.
She said she’ll be returning her diploma to ease her conscience.
“I think that there’s just a group of Liberty alumni that feels very disappointed in the long-term ways that Jerry Falwell Jr. has been such a political supporter of Trump,” Tilley said.
When Falwell first endorsed Trump, the university clarified that he was speaking as a private citizen. But Tilley said Falwell always represents the university.
Tilley said she harbors no ill will toward the school that introduced her to her husband and some of her closest friends. But she said she wants to make it clear that Falwell does not represent her.
“It’s just one of these things where I’m horrified by the lack of moral leadership from our President, and also from the president of my alma mater,” Tilley said. “I had to do something.”