NORTHFIELD - A Christian university led by the son of the late Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell has emerged as a leading contender to take over a bucolic, 217-acre school campus and 43 buildings tucked away in the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts.
The Green family of Oklahoma, which bought the Northfield campus from Northfield Mount Hermon School for $100,000 in 2009, began hunting for a new owner last month when plans to establish C.S. Lewis College on the site appeared to have fallen through. The family plans to give away the property and has solicited proposals from 15 institutions with orthodox Christian ambitions for the campus.
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where Jerry Falwell Jr. is president, ranks among the top candidates to get the property, according to Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator the Greens hired to help search for a new owner. Falwell visited Northfield with a team in January.
“We took a tour, and it took about 4 1/2 hours just to see the highlights,’’ Falwell said in a telephone interview. “We suggested that maybe several schools could work together to jointly use the property for different programs’’ [and we] put together a proposal along those lines.’’
With Liberty as a front-runner to get the campus, Northfield, with a population of 2,883, seems positioned to suddenly become a New England hub for conservative Christianity. That prospect is stirring mixed feelings in a town that needs more jobs and commerce, but whose yoga classes and folk concerts bespeak a culturally liberal ethos far from that of the Bible Belt.
At a meeting with 15 community leaders at a local inn this month, Pattengale heard from residents who hoped prospective colleges would not be put off by the town’s remote location.
“Northfield is a little Main Street town where there’s not a lot happening,’’ said Nathan Tufts, a tree farmer in West Northfield. “If something were not to happen with that campus, the town would slowly die. It’s sort of the anchor for the community.’’
Some at the meeting felt that the types of schools looking at the property might not represent the best cultural fit for the area.
“I was disappointed when it became clear that the only potential customers [for the campus] would be evangelical Christian colleges and universities,’’ former Northfield Mount Hermon head Dick Unsworth said in an e-mail after the meeting.
Noting Northfield Mount Hermon’s links to D.L. Moody, a famed 19th-century evangelist, Unsworth said: “Moody’s heritage is and remains much broader than most evangelical Christian institutions seem to understand. . . . Christian faith expresses itself when we use our minds and open our hearts for the good of others.’’
Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private secondary school that traces its roots to two predecessor schools founded in 1879 and 1881, continues to operate on its Mount Hermon campus nearby. Except for occasional events, the Northfield campus has been virtually unused since Northfield Mount Hermon closed operations there in 2005.
One potential suitor for the campus is the Redlands, Calif.-based C.S. Lewis Foundation, which worked with the Greens from 2009 through 2011 with hope of launching a new C.S. Lewis College on the site. But that option will not materialize in Northfield unless fund-raisers can quickly locate enough money. Operating the campus for one year at an estimated cost of $1.5 million would deplete the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s funds for the college.
Instead, Liberty now ranks as a leader in a fast-moving process that will be wrapped up as soon as the Greens see a proposal they like. The Green family will meet to review the first round of proposals on March 7.
Other schools are interested and have submitted proposals. Teams from five large schools hand-picked by Pattengale and the Greens have toured the campus in recent weeks, including Azusa Pacific University and Indiana Wesleyan University, which opted to take a pass. Ten other nonacademic Christian organizations have also expressed interest, Pattengale said.
Falwell’s institution - which was founded by his late father, a force in GOP politics in the 1980s through his conservative Christian organization the Moral Majority - enjoys advantages in the competition. The Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, has showered gifts upon Liberty in the past. They acquired and renovated a 1-million-square-foot complex that now houses a law school, administrative offices, an eight-lane track, and much more, all at one giant facility in Lynchburg.
Under its proposal, Liberty would occupy the core of the Northfield campus while other like-minded Christian institutions would maintain buildings on the periphery. A similar model would probably play out even if a different college were selected to be the anchor, said Hobby Lobby president Steve Green.
Particulars need to be ironed out, but one thing is clear: The Green family wants the site occupied by organizations that share its values and Christian beliefs.
“There’s been a continued pushing of God out of our culture,’’ said Green, who said that public schools leave students ignorant about what is in the Bible. “I would love to see [the new owners] have a local impact, be a witness for the truth of God’s word in the area, and potentially cause people in the area to reconsider what they may believe.’’
Locals, meanwhile, have been troubled to see the campus sitting vacant for years. They yearn for signs of activity on the storied hill where majestic views stretch to Vermont and New Hampshire. It seems such signs are not far off now, as contenders vie to revive some strains in the campus’ religious heritage.
Dwight L. Moody - who was born in Northfield in 1837 and went on to preach in cities across the United States, Britain, and Ireland - established the campus to house the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in 1879. His presence is felt everywhere on campus, from the home that marks his birthplace, to the 2,400-seat auditorium where he preached to the hilltop where he is buried.
Moody’s great-grandson, Dave Powell, wants to preserve the legacy of Moody, who admonished Christians as early as 1880 not to speak of nonbelievers pejoratively as heathen.
“I hope they sustain the Christian foundation here, but are broad enough to understand that it’s not the only religion in the world,’’ Powell said. “I would hope we certainly would invite Muslims, Jews, and everybody else [to speak on campus] because how else are we going to survive in the world?’’
Falwell insisted locals should not worry. If Liberty University gets the property, residents should rest assured the school has no agenda to battle with secular liberals in the area.
“We would just be operating our university and educating our students,’’ Falwell said. “We’re not a church. We wouldn’t be out proselytizing or engaging the local people at all. It would just be a neighborly relationship.’’
Many Northfielders seem willing to work with whomever their new neighbor turns out to be. At the meeting, the room got quiet when Pattengale named Liberty University and Jerry Falwell Jr. among the leading contenders, but no one protested. After all, as Pattengale reminded them, it’s not their decision to make.
“It belongs to the Greens,’’ he told them. “They can do what they want with it.’’