February 3, 2020; New York Times
Many struggling small colleges are tempted by mergers with larger institutions, which can threaten the cultural life that attracted students to them in the first place. In Nashville, the merger of the Watkins College of Art and Belmont University has caused concern among Watkins students, who fear the loss of a safe space in a marriage to an explicitly Christian school.
In this marriage, Belmont is clearly the dominant partner, with 8,400 students and 899 faculty members, as compared with the 171 students and 14 full-time faculty members of Watkins. Both boards have already approved the merger, which has some of Watkins’ staff and students moving over to Belmont’s campus next fall.
Film major Lucas Hames says, “This is a safe place for LGBTQ people who were ridiculed and ostracized from their small hometowns. Here, you have four years to home in on yourself as an artist and a person.” By contrast, Thomas Burns, Belmont’s provost, initially announced, “We do not hire people who are not Christian, so the ones who are not Christian would not be eligible to work at Belmont,” adding, “That’s just part of who we are.”
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In the same vein, as far as potential censorship of the art students may produce, Burns says, “We do work with our faculty and our students to talk about appropriate presentations, but as far as I know we have never been accused of censoring our student work or our faculty work. We’d be engaged in conversation about how we might modify language in productions or plays, for example, to make them appropriate for audiences.”
And, gosh, what artist could object to that?
Eventually, Dr. J. Kline, the president of Watkins, reassured staff via email that applications from non-Christian faculty and staff would be entertained by Belmont. But, faced with little in the way of an enthusiastic embrace of Watkins’ diversity, there may still be an exodus. Karla Stinger, an assistant professor and advisor to the queer student union, said she was in “the center of a moral conflict. What kind of message would I be sending to my students if all voices weren’t welcome?”
On the other hand, Provost Burns thinks there’s no need to worry. “Everybody—everybody—is absolutely welcome at Belmont University,” Burns says. “There will be no discrimination against any student for any reason on Belmont’s campus and if anybody does discriminate against any student, they are held accountable for it.”—Ruth McCambridge