Christian university says it is open to hiring non-Christian art faculty in merger

A Christian university says it is open to hiring non-Christian faculty from an art school it recently acquired. Belmont University's provost had made headlines for saying the school would not hire non-Christians.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — A nondenominational Christian university in Nashville says it will consider hiring non-Christian faculty from an art college it recently merged with.

Thomas Burns,  the provost from Belmont University, had previously told students from Watkins College of Art that the university only hires Christians to teach. Non-Christian faculty at Watkins, a small, struggling art school, would not be hired at Belmont after the merger.

His comments, which were recorded and posted on YouTube, caused controversy on campus and made national headlines.

A spokesperson for Belmont said Tuesday (Feb. 4) that no decisions have been made about faculty hirings post-merger. The school won’t decide how many staff or faculty it will hire until it knows more details, including how many students will transfer.

If there are openings, Watkins staff will be able to apply.

“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. “This exception to our 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.”

Belmont’s nondiscrimination policy forbids discrimination based on “race, sex, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or sexual orientation” but does say the school “seeks employees of Christian faith who are committed to the mission of the University.”

The school made an exception to that policy of seeking Christian employees  in 2018, when it merged with the O’More College of Design. Eventually at least six former O’More College employees were hired at Belmont, according to the spokesperson. The spokesperson also said that under school policy, a faculty member who was Christian and identified as LGBT could be hired at Belmont.

According to documents filed with the IRS, Watkins, a small, four-year college founded in 1885, has struggled financially in recent years. In the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2018, the school ran a deficit of $321,644. Belmont, which split from the Tennessee Baptist Convention — now known as the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board – in 2007, had $339 million in revenue in fiscal 2018 and a surplus of revenue over expenses of $101 million, according to IRS documents. The school, which claims more than 8,000 students, will host a presidential debate later this year. 

After news of the merger was made public, a Watkins graduate named Quinn Dukes posted an online petition, asking for more financial details about the merger and about the faith-based requirements at the school. She told ArtNet News that students were worried about restrictions in the Christian environment at the school.

Belmont’s spokesman said the school “fully supports students’ right to artistic expression and recognizes the merits of performance and installation art.”

“The University does expect works on public display on campus to align with the University’s stated mission, vision and values,” the school’s statement said.  The school does allow live models in art classes but “they are not fully nude.”

“Such models typically wear tight, nude-colored underwear,” the school said.

This story has been updated to change an incorrect pronoun. RNS regrets the error.