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Belmont Univ. & Tenn. Baptists examine contract, covenant; to assess past commitments, future relationship at May 9 session

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Believing that secular education lacks a vital part of what Christian youth must have to attain its full potential in service to God and man, Tennessee Baptists established Belmont College to give youth a complete education of mind, body, and soul.”

This statement appeared in the 1974 Belmont catalog, summarizing the school’s mission and identity.

Today that identity and the ways to carry out that mission are at the center of debate between Belmont University and Tennessee Baptists.

The future of the relationship between the state convention and Belmont will be the focus of a special called session of the Tennessee Baptist Convention May 9 at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville.

According to the TBC, messengers will discuss possible action concerning Belmont trustees, which could include voting to oust current board members.

Belmont officials have stated that only Belmont’s board of trustees can remove its members, according to the university’s website. During the TBC annual meeting in November, Belmont President Robert Fisher discussed the possibility of legal action to help the university proceed with their plans to diversify the denominational makeup of their board.


According to the book, “Work: The Soul of Good Fortune” by former Belmont President Herbert Gabhart, the relationship between the TBC and Belmont began in January 1951, when the trustees of Ward-Belmont College offered the institution and its property to the TBC for the price of its debt, $650,000. The campus and properties were valued at approximately $3 million at the time.

Ward Seminary and Belmont Junior College had merged in 1911 to establish Ward-Belmont Junior College for Women. The institution flourished and became the first junior college in the South to receive full accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Gabhart wrote, “Ward-Belmont ‘girls’ were famous for begin intellectual, accomplished, and poised.”

However, tough economic realities of the 1930s and 40s left Ward-Belmont in deep financial trouble. Banks would no longer finance the school, and without help, Ward-Belmont would not have been able to open its doors in the fall of 1951.

In 1946, the Tennessee Baptist Convention had overseen the merger of the property and possessions of Cumberland University in Lebanon and the Tennessee College for Women, a TBC school in Murfreesboro.

The establishment of a school at the Ward-Belmont property would create Baptist schools in the three main areas of the state, including Carson-Newman in East Tennessee and Union University in West Tennessee.

The TBC chose to purchase the Ward-Belmont property under the direction of Executive Secretary Charles W. Pope.

After purchasing the property, the TBC executive board offered the use of the Ward-Belmont campus to the trustees of Cumberland University in a plan outlined by Pope in the TBC publication, Baptist & Reflector, in March 1951.

Pope also wrote, “In the event that Cumberland University does not accept the above proposition (to move to the Ward-Belmont campus), we recommend that the accredited Junior College be continued at Ward-Belmont, and that it be a co-educational college conforming to the Tennessee Baptist School pattern.”

Cumberland trustees later voted to keep both the law school and the college of arts and sciences in Lebanon and the TBC soon transferred Cumberland back to its trustees.

The TBC continued with the plans outlined by Pope to form a college on the Ward-Belmont campus, named Belmont College, in May 1951. In addition, the offices of the TBC moved onto the Belmont campus and remained there until 1969.

A newly appointed board of trustees elected R. Kelly White as the first president of Belmont College in August 1952.

Gabhart served as the college’s president from 1959–82, followed by William Troutt, from 1982–99. Under their direction, Belmont built new buildings, purchased more property and expanded its academic programs.

Compared to Union and Carson-Newman, Belmont was a young college. As such, it lacked the endowment and alumni support that underwrites most colleges and universities. Tennessee Baptists, specifically the churches of Middle Tennessee, helped to fill the void.

Gabhart, who led the university for 23 years, currently serves as Chancellor of Belmont but has no official duties there. He acknowledged the sacrifices of Tennessee Baptists during the earlier years of Belmont.

“They did and still do sacrifice,” he said. “Anything that you are committed to, you’re really not committed unless you are willing to sacrifice.”

Campaigns and fundraising drives brought revenue to the school, in addition to the Cooperative Program funds that came through the TBC. From 1983-86, Middle Tennessee churches were part of a campaign to raise $5 million in endowment for Belmont.

Tennessee Baptists who invested in Belmont University believed their returns would come in the form of young adults, educated from a Baptist perspective, who would become part of their churches and communities.

“That’s a byproduct you always hope and pray for — that the alumni will make some contribution to those who gave them an opportunity for a good education,” Gabhart said.

In recent years, Belmont has gained world renown for its Jack C. Massey School of Business and music programs.

Belmont has grown from 136 students in 1951 to more than 4,000 today. Convention records document the school has received more than $55 million (in actual dollars) of Cooperative Program funds alone since 1951. That amount does not take into account funds channeled to the university by individual Tennessee Baptists and churches.


According to the charter of Belmont in place until November 2005, “The directors of this corporation shall be elected by the Tennessee Baptist Convention from nominations approved by the corporation and the Committee on Boards of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.”

“For 54 years, faithfully, the Tennessee Baptist Convention has by due process elected all trustees to Belmont University,” said James Porch, executive director-treasurer for the TBC.

In 2004, Belmont trustees expressed the intention to allow non-Baptists to comprise up to 40 percent of their board of trustees. The trustees proposed this change in their response to a TBC request that each institution rewrite its current program statement in the form of a covenant agreement with the convention.

At the time, Belmont cited financial reasons for expanding the board. According to the proposed covenant, “the convention’s missions endeavors and other important programs and projects have placed increased demands upon its finances and limited the convention’s ability to provide significant additional support to Belmont and its sister institutions.”

Cooperative Program funds currently comprise 3 percent of Belmont’s annual budget, according to Belmont officials.

In addition, the proposal stated that “the academic excellence and Christian values of Belmont University” have caused non-Baptist Christians to become involved in various ways at Belmont and that these individuals “desire to be actively and meaningfully involved in its governance and future.”

The proposed covenant did not go before the TBC until the next annual meeting, in November 2005.

“When each Tennessee Baptist institution presented in 2005 a new covenant to replace their old program statement, each institution except Belmont honored the privilege of the Tennessee Baptist Convention to elect all of its trustees,” Porch said.

During the meeting, messengers voted to cut Cooperative Program funding for Belmont University but delayed acting on the proposed resolution that would have altered the process for trustee election and changed the language describing the relationship between the two entities from “affiliation” to “fraternity.”

Messengers delayed acting on the resolution after officials learned of a 1951 agreement with a “reverter clause.”

The agreement, signed by officials of Ward-Belmont, Inc. (Belmont), the TBC executive board and the Tennessee Baptist Foundation, specifies that should Belmont “for any reason pass from Baptist control, or the control, ownership, supervision or right to elect the trustees of Ward-Belmont, Inc. [Belmont] be lost to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, then any and all of said property and funds shall be repaid or restored to Tennessee College for Women [no longer in existence] or the Executive Board of the Convention.”

At the time, Belmont President Robert Fisher called the agreement “an irrelevant contract superseded by about five different actions.”

TBC meeting notes from July 1951 reflect that the Administrative Committee of the TBC carried a motion asking the attorney of the Executive Board to draft a document to guarantee the return of the Belmont property to the Executive Board of the TBC should the school fail or pass from Baptist control.

In addition to the changes to the covenant agreement, one day before the annual meeting Nov. 10, Belmont University altered its bylaws and filed a new charter with the state reflecting the changes the Belmont board of trustees unanimously approved.

The new charter does not mention any type of relationship with the TBC.

Jason Rogers, vice president for administration and university counsel, said, “Belmont University is grateful to Tennessee Baptists for the financial and spiritual support…. We trust that our shared history has provided important groundwork to achieve common goals of the convention and the university, and that our future will evidence this good work.”

After the November annual meeting, the TBC established a committee to review the 1951 document. The May 9 meeting will review the findings of the committee and discuss possible next steps.

As of May 3, the Belmont Study Committee had made no specific recommendations. The TBC states on its website that discussions between representatives from Belmont and the TBC are ongoing.

“We look forward to an honest and frank discussion of our future relationship at the special meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention,” Rogers said.

The meeting is open to TBC church messengers. Belmont representatives will also be on hand to provide information for questions put before the convention.


Belmont’s decision to elect its own board members has evoked strong reactions from Tennessee Baptists and Belmont alumni.

Betty Standridge, a 1962 Belmont graduate, said she believes that a “Baptist school ought to have Baptist trustees.”

“In my education, I felt as if Tennessee Baptists were very supportive of the school and did anything they could for us students,” she said.

Standridge, a transfer student who was originally from Michigan, recalls fond memories of her time at Belmont, many including faculty, staff and students.

“We felt there was someone there who cared and that’s to do with Tennessee Baptists,” Strandridge said. “They made us feel as if we belonged.”

Standridge became a part of a local church, Woodmont Baptist, during her time in Nashville. She said the ministry of the church played a vital role in her college experience. She was “adopted” through a church program by the pastor and his family, who gave her a home away from home. In addition, the church paid a cab fee for Standridge and any other Belmont student to come to and from church.

“I know how important the Baptist churches were while I was there, how supportive they were to the students,” Standridge said.

Other alumni have supported Belmont’s efforts to incorporate non-Baptists into their governing body. Rogers said many Tennessee Baptists “have encouraged the university as it seeks to broaden its Christian mission.”

Currently less than 30 percent of Belmont’s students are Baptist, according to Belmont officials.

“Institutions are like people. They are due to change,” Gabhart said.

“I’m a Tennessee Baptist and I’m a Belmont person,” he said. “I think I can put all of those together without one defeating the other, without one criticizing the other.”

Many Tennessee Baptists feel a great sense of ownership in Belmont after supporting it through the Cooperative Program and as individuals.

“It is to be expected,” Gabhart said, “but I don’t see that as an issue big enough to cause conflict.”

In 2000 the TBC amended its bylaws to state “affiliated institutions are autonomous nonprofit corporations, neither owned nor operated by the convention. Governance of the institutions is vested in their respective boards of trustees or directors in all matters.”

Belmont officials have stated that this change in wording revoked any claim of ownership.

However, the TBC posted on its website that “the terminology was modified to properly reflect the true nature of the legal relationship between the Convention and its institutions. Affiliated means that one organization has voting authority as to at least 80 percent of the governing body over another organization.”

Betty Standridge’s husband Larry said, “The whole idea that they want to pull away and go in another direction is, in my estimation, something akin to stealing.”

Betty and Larry Standridge will attend the meeting May 9 as messengers from their church, First Baptist in Martin.

“What do Baptists do that impedes their work? That hasn’t been adequately explained to those of us on the sidelines. That’s what I hope will be answered May 9,” Larry said.

“I have enough faith and confidence in Baptists that they’re going to do the right thing,” Gabhart said. “They may have to talk about it a little bit and pray about it a lot, but I think we all want to do what is best for Belmont and Tennessee Baptists.”

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