Paul L. Caron

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Belmont University Reverses Plan To Purge Non-Christian Art College Faculty Following Merger

New York Times, Art School’s Merger With Christian University Stokes Uproar:

BWStudents at Watkins College of Art in Nashville describe it as an oasis in the Bible Belt, a small supportive campus welcoming to all and committed to free expression.

“This is truly a safe space for people,” Lucas Hames, 24, a film major, said on Saturday. “This is a safe place for L.G.B.T.Q. people who were ridiculed and ostracized from their small hometowns. Here, you have four years to hone in on yourself as an artist and a person.”

But now, some students and faculty members fear that environment could disappear after the financially struggling school, which has 171 students and 14 full-time faculty members, merges this fall with Belmont University, a Christian institution in Nashville that has more than 8,400 students and 800 full- and part-time faculty members.

The merger, which was announced last week, has created an uproar on the Watkins campus, with students and professors expressing concern that artwork could be censored and that non-Christian faculty members could be purged.

The provost of Belmont, Thomas Burns, told Watkins students at a meeting on Wednesday that all of Belmont’s faculty and staff members were Christian and that only Watkins professors who were Christian could join the university.

“We do not hire people who are not Christian, so the ones who are not Christian would not be eligible to work at Belmont,” Mr. Burns said, according to a YouTube video of the meeting. “But that’s just part of who we are.”

Art News, After a Backlash, Nashville’s Belmont University Says It Will Let Non-Christian Art Professors Teach After All:

[A]fter facing a wave of outrage from students, alumni, staff, and observers, Belmont has seemingly changed course. The university has announced plans to grant “special consideration” to non-Christians from Watkins’s staff.

“Because we recognize current Watkins employees could not control nor anticipate merging with a faith-based institution, it has been determined that special consideration will be given to current Watkins employees regardless of their position of faith,” the school said in a statement sent to Watkins faculty and staff on Saturday. “This exception to Belmont’s hiring policy is only being made due to the nature of merging institutions and out of Belmont’s commitment to care for the Watkins community.”

The statement explained that Watkins faculty and staff will be prioritized in filling “new positions of need” at Belmont, which will expand its course offerings with the merger. Nevertheless, many who have been vocally opposed to the merger remain unconvinced. 

“Belmont’s communications team is doing damage control,” says Quinn Dukes, a Watkins alum who authored an open letter to Watkins leadership raising concerns over the move. (As of now, the petition has over 3,600 signatories.) “[The] announcement from Belmont noted that Watkins faculty would be given ‘special consideration’ but this does not guarantee employment and really only equals a firm ‘maybe.’”

Dukes also expresses skepticism over the phrase “new positions of need” in Belmont’s statement. She notes that, at this point, “no faculty member has been given any inclination that their position would still exist.” Dukes and other critics of the merger are still waiting for answers on this point, as well as several other questions raised by the open letter.

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