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

Watkins College of Art, which is being absorbed, was originally told that Belmont had a firm no non-Christians policy.

Students from the Save Watkins coalition protesting the takeover of the school by Belmont University. Image courtesy Save Watkins.

Last week, students and alumni of Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee were sent into a furor after learning that their school would merge with Belmont University, an ecumenical Christian institution in the same city. Among other concerns, the Watkins community voiced questions about the future job status of non-Christian staff members. In a townhall meeting, Belmont’s provost initially stressed that teachers “who are not Christian will not be eligible to work at Belmont.”

Now, after 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.  

Save Watkins protest in front of Watkins College of Art. Image courtesy Save Watkins.

Save Watkins protest in front of Watkins College of Art. Image courtesy Save Watkins.

Given the lack of transparency in the process, the sense of suspicion is understandable. A representative for Belmont tells Artnet News that the “exception to [the university’s] hiring policy… was one of many details still being discussed and considered in the days following the merger announcement. It was communicated to Watkins faculty and staff as soon as it had been confirmed.” 

That message came three days after the Wednesday, January 29 townhall meeting with Watkins students in which Belmont’s provost, Thomas Burns, declared firmly, “We do not hire people who are not Christian.”

In its communication with Artnet News, Belmont said that the question of whether teachers who aren’t hired by the university will be offered severance is still being evaluated. The university noted that the process “will likely take several months.”  

Once a small Baptist school, Belmont now identifies as a Christian institution with no denominational focus. It counts over 8,400 people and 1,000 faculty members across its four campuses, with its two art branches—the College of Visual and Performing Art and the College of Entertainment and Music Business—constituting over 30 percent of enrolled students

The school’s history with faculty members who do not conform to conservative Christian values, including the forced resignation of a lesbian soccer coach in 2010 after she announced that she was having a child with her partner, has left many fearing the sense of inclusivity cultivated by Watkins’s own student body might be jeopardized. Watkins boasts a large LGBTQ population. 

Belmont, for its part, says that it is currently inviting Watkins students to information sessions where they can voice their concerns, and promises that “Belmont’s identity and culture can be properly shared with them.”

Save Watkins sit in. Image courtesy Save Watkins.

Save Watkins sit in. Image courtesy Save Watkins.

A university representative added that the school remained optimistic about the merger’s possibilities, despite the uproar: “Belmont University seeks to be a welcoming and inclusive community for all students. We believe this time together will reveal more similarities than differences, and confirm that both institutions only want a positive outcome for students.”

Watkins is much smaller than Belmont, with just 14 full-time faculty members and an undergraduate student body of roughly 180. The ardent response to the merger, however, suggests that what the alumni pool lacks in size, it makes up for in school pride. 

“When I launched the petition, I couldn’t imagine the intense, emotional response from so many,” says Dukes. “The growing support of the petition proves that Watkins College of Art is an integral part of Nashville’s culture, that its identity and history as an institution has significant value to people all over the country.”

Today, a cadre of Watkins students, faculty, staff, and alumni announced Save Watkins, a collective formed in the name of securing a “safe and open environment for Watkins Students to express themselves without fear of being censored.”

“This may manifest as securing the funding to keep the Watkins College of Art open in its current form, changing existing policies at Belmont, or working towards a partnership with a different institution,” the group’s mission statement reads. It also lists a series of demands, including the resignation of Watkins president, Dr. J Kline. 

The collective staged a sit-in at Watkins’s administrative offices this morning before being escorted out for failing to receive protest approval from the school’s director of student life. The happening continued on the campus outside.

Representatives from Watkins College of Art did not respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.

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