Earlier this week, students, and faculty at the Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee were shocked to learn that their school would be absorbed by Belmont University, a local Christian institution that has made national headlines over the last decade for allegedly retaliating against faculty who went against its strict code of faith.
“There is rage and there is fear,” Quinn Dukes, an alumna of Watkins College who organized an online petition against the merger, tells Artnet News. “Students and faculty are losing both a history and a school.”
The open letter, which currently has more than 1,600 signatures, calls for academic and financial transparency from university leadership, as well as assurances that students will not experience censorship. Additionally, critics of the merger want to ensure that Watkins staff are provided severance if they are prevented from joining Belmont University, which requires that its faculty adhere to Christianity and does not hire teachers outside the religion.
“We do not hire people who are not Christian,” Thomas Burns, Belmont’s provost, clarified in a response to questions at a townhall on Wednesday. “So the ones who are not Christian will not be eligible to work at Belmont. That’s just part of who we are.”
The letter follows a previous note circulated on Monday among students and faculty demanding a vote of no confidence for Watkins College president J. Kline, who has been accused of withholding information about the Belmont deal from the school body. In a statement, Kline defended the merger by saying it “secures the legacy and mission of Watkins for generations to come.”
That sentiment was not shared by the majority of the student body. During a meeting on Tuesday morning with Kline, some students were openly crying at the loss of their school. One woman fainted. Another was so upset that she had to be helped out of the room.
“It broke my heart,” Sasha Campbell, a junior, told Artnet News. “Watkins was my first choice.”
LGBTQ students like Campbell, who identifies as bisexual and trans, are also worried about how welcoming a campus like Belmont will be for students like them, although the university does have a club for queer students.
“The problem with the merger is that we have two different cultures,” a faculty member told Artnet News on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation. “The reality is that there will be restrictions. Our students are taught to be uninhibited and explore subjects and issues that may clash against Belmont’s Christian culture.”
Students have been told by Watkins faculty and Belmont officials that their freedom of expression would be somewhat restricted at the Christian school where filmmakers must make PG movies and artists not permitted to draw from nude figures to study the human form. Concerns over potential censorship are compounded by recent Belmont controversies that have made national headlines.
In 2010, Belmont reportedly forced its soccer coach, Lisa Howe, to resign from her position after she announced to her team that she was lesbian and would be having a child with her partner, a former assistant coach. According to the team captain, the university’s athletic director Mike Strickland said that “the baby ‘was going to be a problem’ and would conflict with the university’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.”
Just two years ago, in 2018, Belmont officials requested that a university production of a play called The Wolves omit the words “goddamn” and “fuck.” (Most theatrical productions are forbidden from making alterations to the text without the express written permission of the playwright.) Instead of cancelling the play, faculty member and director Jacqueline Jutting took the production off campus with the Actors Bridge Studio. The university later ended its employment of Jutting and severed its 23-year relationship with the studio.
Belmont’s acquisition of Watkins College comes almost two years after the Christian university absorbed O’More College of Design, which contributed new programs in fashion and interior design. Belmont believes the addition of Watkins “further fortifies Belmont as the center for art and design in the region,” according to the press release announcing the move. (Belmont officials did not provide further comment to Artnet News.)
Watkins faculty say that they have known for some time that the art school was in financial trouble, but their efforts to help or meet with board members to discuss an action plan were rebuffed. “We are running out of money and the wolf is at the door,” one instructor said, calling the merger’s timing “cruel” because it comes after the academic hiring season. (Watkins officials did not respond to Artnet News’ requests for comment.)
Earlier today, Watkins chairman Steve Sirls, emailed alumni of the college to defend the board’s decision to pursue a merger with Belmont. “We fully recognize that this news has been hard for some of our students and alumni to absorb,” he wrote. “Change can be difficult, and we are working to help all those who love Watkins.”
“The reality is that very few faculty will end up at Belmont,” they continued, pointing out that some members are not Christians and would therefore be automatically denied at the university. “Some people have been at Watkins for over 25 years, but there would be redundancies staffing-wise. Belmont doesn’t need our admissions and financial aid personnel, and there aren’t many teaching positions open in their art departments.”
Watkins is the fourth Tennessee art school to close in the last three years. Others include the Memphis College of Art and the Art Institute of Tennessee, Nashville.
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