The focus of the LGBT group Bridge Builders is shifting from two years of hurdles to get university approval to a future as a student-led, officially affiliated group on Belmont’s campus.
Approval came at the end of February following the group’s third application over the past two years. Bridge Builders formed as an interest group to foster community and discussion between the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community at Belmont and the university at large.
Provost Thomas Burns and Bridge Builders president Robbie Maris announced the approval in a joint statement.
“We are pleased that our ongoing campus dialogue about Christian faith and human sexuality has helped us to establish Bridge Builders as an official student organization at Belmont University,” the statement said. The group will be affiliated with University Ministries.
Maris said he believed that Bridge Builders’ approval on the third application was influenced by the exit of women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe. She left Belmont in early December shortly after she told her team that she is a lesbian and she and her partner were expecting a baby in May. Widespread media coverage raised the issue of whether or not sexuality was a factor in her leaving her job.
In a statement a few days later, Belmont president Bob Fisher said there was no discrimination involved.
On Jan.26, he announced that the university had added the words “sexual orientation” to the the non-discrimination policy.
The university has said the non-discrimination language and Bridge Builders are two separate issues. However, many of the issues do overlap and are related, Maris said.
“Without talking about the issues surrounding the Lisa Howe dismissal, we would not have been able to talk about how Bridge Builders could exist on campus,” he said.
Maris also attributes the approval to receiving feedback on their proposal from administration, including Burns and Belmont President Bob Fisher.
“When all this turmoil happened with Lisa Howe, Dr. Fisher met with the students and said ‘You’re almost there, you just need to tinker the language a little bit more,’” said English professor and Bridge Builders adviser Andrea Stover.
“This time around, we explicitly answered the questions which Dr. Fisher had told us to answer,” senior Kevin Foster said. “‘What is the organization? Why is the organization necessary? How will they achieve their goals? How will they help the community?’ I think it was more of a parallel move in terms of the quality of the application.”
As far as other specific changes in language, neither Maris nor Stover could pinpoint areas of debate, although Stover did say Fisher took issue with using the phrase “safe space” because it might suggest there were places on campus that are unsafe for students.
“They’re thinking physically safe, and that’s not what that means,” Stover said. “It means psychologically safe and emotionally safe, but they did not like the ambiguity of that word. ”
In the wake of the initial announcement, more details are being ironed out regarding what the group will look like and how it will function on campus.
Bridge Builders has affiliated status which, according to the Student Affairs student organization handbook, includes the group’s eligibility to:
use the Belmont University name and logo.
receive official organization email on the Belmont server.
be eligible for an on-campus agency account.
petition Student Government Association for grant funding.
For approval, Bridge Builders also had to have a department to affiliate with. According to Maris, Student Affairs proposed a link to University Ministries.
Part of the rationale revolved around which department might provide the best resources. Maris said UM would be able to provide more money, time and space than other departments on campus, such as sociology, English and religion, that have been supportive or involved with the group in some respect.
Burns also added that it was a matter of which affiliation would make the most sense.
“If any student organization is going to be successful as an affiliated organization, the question they need to answer is, ‘Which department connects most strongly with our organizations mission and values?’” he said.
Initially, many students were unsure of what it would mean to fall under the umbrella of University Ministries, or what role the affiliation might play.
Maris said many of the fears came from a conversation with Andrew Marin, the keynote speaker from Sex and the Soul week in January. Burns then invited Marin back to campus.
“Mr. Marin had an overwhelmingly positive reception by students, faculty and administrators during Sex and the Soul week,” Burns said. “In light of this, I invited him to return to campus for continued discussions with me and representatives from Bridge Builders.“
Coming off that encounter, UM director of outreach Micah Weedman was faced with the task of trying to assuage concerns. Weedman declined to comment, deferring to Burns’ statement, but Stover said she felt that having an adviser from UM, the English department and the religion department (Dr. Andy Watts) would firmly ground Bridge Builders at Belmont.
The group is currently working to establish meeting times and other norms, but they have decided on a structure.
Bridge Builders will have three committees: faith, social and events. While the social committee will handle more internal functions like meetings, the event committee will be in charge or organizing convocations and other events open to the Belmont community. The faith committee will be a group that can facilitate Bible studies or go to church together or hold the kinds of conversations – Difficult Dialogues – the university sponsored in the fall.
This time, students will lead it instead of the dean of students, Dr. Andrew Johnston, Maris said. Participants will be able to submit talking points.
“Leadership will send the article out and moderate the discussion, so it will be very similar,” he said.
Elections for positions as president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, PR and marketing, webmaster and committee leaders will be held later on in the spring.
Foster sees two main objectives going forward. He said at its core, Bridge Builders was meant to be a place where students struggling with their sexuality could come and share their stories. Second, the group was meant to facilitate discussions that will include and reach more people on campus, in part because Bridge Builders will be able to advertise events.
“I’m elated that we’re going to be able to do that for this campus,” he said.