The gravity of merging two college communities extends well beyond the logistics of placing students into classes, housing new students and working out tuition details.
When Belmont University announced the upcoming merger with Watkins College of Art, the news was met with a good deal of frustration on the part of Watkins students, alumni and other community members.
That frustration stemmed into protests, a town hall-style meeting with Belmont Provost Dr. Thomas Burns and various movements on social media to provide support for members of the Watkins community as they attempted to make sense of the changes.
One common thread in the confusion and outcry following the merger announcement was uncertainty on the part of Watkins students regarding their place in the university. Would they be welcomed despite their differences, and would they find allies? Would they be able to artistically express themselves at Belmont?
Belmont and Watkins students were not the only ones affected by the news. Many high schoolers included Watkins in their college search. The move to join Belmont has forced them to consider what the merger means.
“It was kind of like a huge shock and unpredictable,” said Libby Wisener, a junior at Union City High School in Union City, Tennessee.
Wisener’s research into the merger helped ease some of her doubt regarding how well she’d fit at Belmont.
“Honestly, I was kind of against it at first because I’d decided I’m going to Watkins, this is where I want to be,” Wisener said. “But then I went to Belmont’s website, and I looked at all their programs and all. They offer so much more than Watkins, so it kind of changed my mind a little bit.”
As well as the variety of programs and appeal of campus, the prospect of having a more diverse faculty could be a selling point for students who were previously interested in Watkins.
For Callie Hollis, a junior at St. George’s Independent School in Collierville, Tennessee, the protests to lobby against religious discrimination in the hiring process made a difference in her opinion of Belmont.
“I think that changed my opinion, that, ‘yay, I’ll have who I want to be there,’” Hollis said. “So then that makes me want to go there more.”
While she is excited about the possibility of bringing in professors from Watkins to round out the Belmont community in a diverse way, Hollis is wary of the consequences of choosing not to expand the religious diversity at Belmont.
“I was just kind of heartbroken a little bit,” Hollis said of Belmont’s initial decision not to consider non-Christian Watkins faculty. “Because Belmont already has such a good film school that not allowing other faculty who are just as qualified isn’t right in my brain. Because collaborating with all of those faculty together as a whole would probably be amazing.”
Wisener is also concerned about the possibility of not bringing in a set of diverse perspectives to Belmont’s arts community.
“I just don’t really think that’s right,” Wisener said. “Because I’m a person that, I just accept everybody for who they are, so why can’t you just say, ‘oh, if you’re not Christian, that’s fine, we’re welcoming to all?’”
Wisener hopes that no matter the policies in place, the Belmont and Watkins communities will be able to unite and be accepting.
“It’s such a huge shift from a 300-student school to a 10,000-student school, so I think we should just accept who the new people are as they are and not try to change them to fit into what Belmont students have done,” Wisener said.
The shifts in size and perspectives both play a large role in determining the fate of the merger, and the possible rise in diversity made a difference in shaping Hollis’ thoughts about Belmont.
“That’s what I was kind of looking forward to when I first heard about it, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have the ultra-best film school in Tennessee,” Hollis said.
The ripple effects of the decisions made within the merger are sure to affect high school students’ opinions of Belmont. Dr. Mark Hogan, an education professor at Belmont, looked at the issue from the perspectives of students, as well as others involved in the community. He noted how the university’s religious faculty policy influences Belmont families, as well as what is lost with a lack of religious diversity in the community.
“I think that there are families that send their students here specifically because of the mission statement,” Hogan said. “And I do think there are donors who give to this university specifically because of its intentional mission. At the same time, sometimes we lose a lot of intellectual thought by limitation.”
Dr. Hogan shared his perspective on how support of diversity has manifested during his time at Belmont.
“You know, I listen to students who come from diverse backgrounds in my own classes, and sometimes I’m horrified at the experiences they have here,” Hogan said. “But I also know we have some really well-intended, very strong people on our campus diversity committee. They’re really working hard to change the culture.”
Part of the issue in the lack of communication among the two communities has to do with Belmont’s public image, Hogan said.
“I could see why they would be cautious coming, because they don’t know Belmont,” Hogan said. “They know an image of Belmont based upon rules and guidelines.”
For some Belmont students, an image of Belmont is just what they want Watkins students to see, specifically an image of the arts program as a whole – just a different image than one based, as Dr. Hogan said, upon rules and guidelines.
“I think that’s the great thing about motion pictures is that there’s people from all backgrounds, and they’re telling great stories,” said Ben Denton, a freshman motion pictures major at Belmont. “So I think it’s going to be a good addition.”
Denton sees value in the arrival of Watkins students to Belmont, and wants the community to set its priorities for how the transition takes place.
“It’s difficult, but listening to what they did, making them feel welcome is the number one priority, I think,” Denton said. “But listening to what they do, letting them do what they do best is what I think about that situation.”
When students run into problems, Denton said, they can always turn to the people who are there to support them.
“And if they have concerns, I feel like the teachers are the best place to go for that kind of thing, and they’ll guide you in the right direction.”
Watkins students will be able to find their own passions at Belmont, Denton said.
“It’s just, you know, dig deep and dive inside yourself and just find something you’re really passionate about.”
Hollis echoed Denton’s sentiment, commenting on what unites artistic students and the value of expanding to include new perspectives.
“A lot of art students share the same creative passions,” Hollis said. “And I think that those passions will bring people together to where the community will grow from the kind of confusing state that it’s in at the moment into something kind of beautiful with a lot of different perspectives.”
Article written by Evan Dorian.