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Students Attempt to Block Merger of Nashville Art School with Christian University

Above:   Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.
Above:   Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—The Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, announced in January a controversial merger with Belmont University, a local, private Christian institution. The decision has since been fiercely contested by the majority of the college’s student body, comprising 171 enrollees, and fourteen-member faculty, who have voiced concerns over the university’s culture, which they claim is not welcoming to LGBTQ students or educators, and policies. J. Kline, who had brokered the deal with Belmont, was placed on leave in mid-February, after Watkins’s faculty held a vote of no confidence.

In an attempt to prevent the merger from moving forward, two students and a faculty member filed for an injunction in county court last week, Artnet News reports. Their petition states that Belmont’s takeover is illegal because Watkins is a public institution on public property and argues that it would cause “irreparable harm” to those who filed the complaint. The plaintiffs also claim that that Watkins board “repeatedly ignored or rebuffed lawful requests for public records relating to the deal” and are asking the court to stall negotations until the case is reviewed, which is expected to happen later this week.

Among those speaking out against the arrangement, is Tennessee senator Brenda Gilmore who is calling for Watkins’s board of trustees and commissioners to hold a community meeting before proceeding with the deal. She also raised the question of why Tennessee State University and Fisk University, two local and historically black schools near Watkins, had not been considered.

Gilmore wrote: “As an educational institution that was established by the legislature and by state law is overseen by commissioners, appointed by the governor, it is troubling that I was not informed, nor consulted, prior to [the] deal being announced. . . .The public deserves transparency.”

In another development, the New York–based commercial real estate firm Somera Road, Inc., made a $17 million bid for Watkins’s property last Thursday. The company said it would lease the premises back to the art school at 30 percent under market rate, with a year of free rent, and would also set up a $1 million fund to cover any of the school’s immediate expenses. Watkins is currently reviewing the offer.

March 20, 2020