February 4, 2020

Artistic Freedom at Nashville Art School Threatened by Merger with Christian University

Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—Last week, students and faculty of the Watkins College of Art in Nashville learned that the financially struggling institution was being taken over by a strict Christian university. The announcement sparked a swift backlash.

According to the New York Times, the college’s student body—which is made up of 171 enrollees—fears that Belmont University will place restrictions on their creativity and censor artworks. The students have also expressed concerns over the fate of the college’s fourteen-member faculty—Belmont only employs people of the Christian faith—and the university’s culture, specifically whether it is friendly to the LGBTQ community.

In a meeting on January 29, the students were told by Thomas Burns, Belmont’s provost, that Watkins’s non-Christian teachers could not move to the university. Three days later, Watkins’s president J. Kline countered what Burns said. On Saturday, Kline sent an email to Watkins’ staffers which said that university will give “special consideration” to the college’s professors “regardless of their position of faith.”

In response to doubts about the university’s acceptance of LGBTQ students, Burns maintains that the university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, citing an existing LGBTQ student organization. However, the shrouded circumstances around the departure of a soccer coach at the university, Lisa Howe, still raises questions. Howe abruptly left her position after she told her team that she is a lesbian and informed them she was having a baby with her partner. Howe and Belmont have previously said the decision for her to part ways with the university was made in “mutual agreement.”

According to Artnet News, Belmont already made it clear that students studying film would only be permitted to make PG movies and that visual artists would no longer be allowed to draw nudes from life. While Burns told the New York Times that he does not believe the university has ever been accused of censorship, he also said that the language of student productions or plays may be modified in order to “make them appropriate for audiences.”

The merger has prompted a Watkins alum to pen an open letter urging greater transparency about the move. The petition asks Belmont’s leaders to allow Watkins’s students to withdraw from the school without financial penalty, to arrange meetings between students and academic advisors to outline detailed academic plans for their remaining semesters, and to offer courses, equipment, and studio access that matches what would have been provided at Watkins. Addressed to Kline and Belmont’s board of directors—and signed by more than 3,400 people—it also calls for Belmont to make public the financial details of the merger.

Approved by both of the institution’s boards, the merger was described by Bob Fisher, the president of Belmont, as a “natural fit” that will allow Belmont to “accelerate and elevate art education in the Southeast and beyond.” The university also sought to expand its offerings in arts education in 2018 when it acquired O’More College of Design in Franklin, Tennessee. In a statement issued by Watkins’s president, Kline said, “This agreement secures the legacy and mission of Watkins for generations to come.”

Pending approval of SACSCOC, the accrediting body for both institutions, Watkins’s students will begin taking classes on Belmont’s campus beginning in the fall. Once it shutters, Watkins’s property will be sold and the funds will go toward the establishment of an endowment for scholarships for the former college’s students.

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