Thirty-five years is a long time – long enough for Dean Cynthia Curtis to work under three university presidents, witness a spike in student enrollment and watch the expansion of a campus.
But on May 31, her time as a dean and a faculty member at Belmont University will come to an end.
Curtis is retiring at the conclusion of the spring semester, finishing her decades-long career at Belmont. She’s spent 25 of those years as dean for both the School of Music and later the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
In that time, she’s accomplished a lot, including spearheading the additions of new degrees and programs to the CVPA, such as the master of music degree, the music therapy major and the Department of Theatre and Dance.
Curtis was also a leader in the renovations of major facilities for the performing arts like McAfee Concert Hall, the Wilson Music Building and the Massey Performing Arts Center.
Reflecting on her tenure at Belmont, Curtis said her long career at the university has taught her the value of staying in one place and being a part of its development.
“I know the American phenomenon. It’s ever upward and onward, and you’re moving from one place to another like a runner trying to get a prize. I think we often miss the value of going to a place and really investing in it and contributing to it becoming something significant,” said Curtis. “I’m all for staying in one place if that place in itself is developing in directions that you want to go.”
But more than the buildings or the degrees, Curtis leaves behind the impressions of mentor, leader and friend to those students and faculty who’ve come to know and work alongside her.
For senior music education major Will Griswold, Curtis became an influence for thinking outside his major and seeing the larger picture when it comes to the arts.
Griswold sits on the CVPA Dean’s Advisory Council and interacts with Curtis on a regular basis. Curtis challenged him not only to ensure every voice in the college was heard, but to also come up with the best solutions to help the greatest number of people in the CVPA, he said.
“She was able to kind of help me step back and say, ‘When you’re dealing with this many people you can’t please everyone, but you can do your best and take time to make decisions that affect the greatest number of people for good,’” Griswold said. “I was always having to step up, be one step ahead because she always had another question for me. She always had another idea for me to explore.”
Griswold also gained a better appreciation for arts other than music, he said, thanks to encouragement from Curtis.
“She was able to challenge me to get outside my comfort zone of music. Explore art, explore dance and theater. I attended so many more events because she challenged me to explore the other arts and see how that could impact the way I am as a musician and as a teacher,” said Griswold.
Mindfulness of all aspects of the arts carries over into Curtis’ leadership of the CVPA, but it’s her ability to give each curriculum her full attention while pursuing the larger goals of the college that makes her a strong leader said Dr. Madeline Bridges, associate dean of academic studies for the School of Music.
“She’s a visionary,” Bridges said. “It’s unusual to find someone who is so competent in daily tasks, but who also sees the big picture and always is moving ahead, thinking about how the school and college can move to the next level.”
Bridges described Curtis as a hands-on organizer fully attentive to every aspect of her college, remaining so even after her responsibilities sizably increased with the growth of the school through the years.
Whether it’s planning for Christmas at Belmont at the Schermerhorn, keeping track of the CVPA’s finances, guiding ensemble directors or helping students, Curtis is intimately involved with it all, Bridges said.
“When she’s working with you on whatever it is, it has her full attention and her full support,” said Bridges.
Curtis has made a career out of mentoring students and building up programs at Belmont. But she herself was once a student, and Belmont was a small school in a much smaller Nashville.
Curtis’s career at Belmont began in 1980, a few years after her husband, Ben Curtis, joined the Belmont faculty as an assistant professor of religion. Curtis spent their first two years in Nashville as a choir director for different churches before she decided to pursue a doctorate in music at Peabody University– what is now Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.
Everything changed for Curtis when she was offered a full time position in Belmont College’s music program at the end of her doctoral studies.
“I look upon this experience as something in between a stroke of wonderful fortune and something that was providential,” said Curtis. “That was literally at exactly the same time I was finishing my doctorate.”
Curtis never thought she and her husband would stay at Belmont as long as they have.
As the college and surrounding area grew over time, however, she said they came to realize Belmont, and by extent Nashville, were the kind of places the two of them wanted to be. In the case of Belmont, it was a college with a budding music program and academic courses in religion.
“I think it’s somewhat unusual when you have a husband and a wife, both of whom have Ph.D.s, both of whom want to teach and then for both of them to find teaching positions at the same university,” Curtis said. “I think it’s especially unusual that you have a couple in two very different disciplines like religion and music, because not only do you have to find a university where you both want to teach and a city where you both want to live, but an institution that has strong programs in both of these disciplines.”
Curtis arrived on campus at a time when the faculty was small enough to hold its meetings in the Bunch Multimedia Hall and enrollment was below 2,000 students.
“The student body tended to be local, from Nashville or Tennessee. Most students came to Belmont because it was close to home,” Curtis said.
Since then, campus has undergone what Curtis called a remarkable transformation in terms of enrollment numbers, where students are coming from and the number of academic programs available at Belmont.
Being able to witness it all, she said, was a privilege.
“Standing watch at a time when there’s been so much growth and strengthening of Belmont University in general and standing watch with the wonderful faculty colleagues and students that are here, it’s a joy. It really is,” said Curtis.