Merger With Christian University Stokes Uproar Over Faith and Free Expression

Students 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.”

Asked if students would be censored as artists, Mr. Burns said: “We do work with our faculty and our students to talk about appropriate presentations, but as far as I know we have never been accused of censoring our student work or our faculty work. We’d be engaged in conversation about how we might modify language in productions or plays, for example, to make them appropriate for audiences.”

Facing a backlash and the potential exodus of faculty, J. Kline, the president of Watkins, sent an email to employees on Saturday announcing an abrupt shift in policy. Mr. Kline wrote that non-Christian faculty and staff members would, in fact, be considered for employment at Belmont.

“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,” Mr. Kline wrote.

Mr. Kline said the merger was the best possible option to ensure the future viability of Watkins, which was founded in 1885 and offers courses in graphic design, cinematography, video production, studio art, interior design and photography.

Under the merger, which has been approved by the boards of both institutions, Watkins students will transfer to Belmont’s campus in the fall and Watkins property will be sold to create an endowment to support scholarships for Watkins students.

“We have known for some time that critical changes needed to take place for Watkins’s mission and legacy to endure,” Mr. Kline said in a statement. “While we are unable to disclose specific financial information, our lack of an endowment and low enrollment numbers meant the future of Watkins was unstable and unsustainable.”

For Belmont, the acquisition represents its latest expansion into arts education.

In 2018, it acquired O’More College of Design in Franklin, Tenn. The university has also raised its profile nationally. It is scheduled to host the third and final presidential debate in October, and it hosted a presidential debate in 2008.

Once a small Baptist university, Belmont severed its ties with the state Baptist convention in 2007 after a debate about whether the board could include non-Baptist trustees. It now calls itself an ecumenical Christian university with no denominational ties.

Much of the concern on the Watkins campus focused on the future of L.G.B.T.Q. students.

In 2010, Belmont University drew widespread attention when the women’s soccer coach abruptly left after telling the team that she was a lesbian, and that she and her partner of eight years, the team’s former assistant coach, decided to have a baby.

At the time, the university did not comment on the circumstances of Ms. Howe’s departure, nor did Ms. Howe, citing contractual reasons. Both referred to it as a “mutual agreement.”

Amari Harris, 22, a fine arts major at Watkins who identifies as nonbinary, attended Belmont for two years and said the experience was “very, very negative.”

“I don’t want any of my fellow students to go this school and get mistreated for who they are as an artist and a human being,” said Harris, who uses they/them pronouns. “I refuse to go back to a place that caused me so much pain.”

Karla Stinger, an assistant professor and chairwoman of core studies at Watkins, said she was struggling with whether to join Belmont.

“This is the center of a moral conflict,” said Ms. Stinger, an adviser to the Queer Student Union. “What kind of message would I be sending to my students if all voices weren’t welcome?”

At the meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Burns said Belmont policy forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He also pointed out that Belmont has an L.G.B.T.Q. student organization.

“There will be no discrimination against any student for any reason on Belmont’s campus and if anybody does discriminate against any student, they are held accountable for it. Period,” Mr. Burns said. “Everybody — everybody — is absolutely welcome at Belmont University.”

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