Belmont University and a PR nightmare
Belmont University, a private liberal-arts school based in Nashville, has found itself in a huge mess. I classified it as a PR nightmare and I don’t think it’s inaccurate by any stretch.
As best I can tell, the story goes something like this: Coach Lisa Howe, the Women’s soccer coach, felt the need to tell the administration of the university that she and her partner were expecting a child. What followed has turned into a disaster for Belmont, and has now been covered by many national journalists including the WaPo, SI.com, HuffPo, while other news organizations like NPR, AP, ABC and more have run features on the story as well. You can click here for a more complete listing of the news links (HT to @smithangj).
These are going to be a miserable few weeks, not only for Belmont and Coach Howe, but for gays, Christians, and everyone in between.
Let me preface this by saying I went to Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN. It is a Church-of-Christ affiliated university and thus holds it faculty, staff and students to some of the same standards as Belmont. In a town with a population of nearly 6,000, it is a stereotypical religious school with required bible classes, chapel services and exactly the type curriculum you might expect. I say all of that to say I am familiar with the type of expectations an institution like Belmont claims to have. I never went to Belmont, so I cannot speak to that, but I can speak to how religion and education will inevitably come to the fork in the road.
I am also a Christian. While I no longer define myself as Church of Christ, I certainly identify with many of its core values. I’m conservative to moderate, and I know it drives my friends and family insane. But I do have gay friends. Not many, but a few. I am not the type of Christian Michael Moore tells you I am; one that demonizes gays or wishes for their demise or any of that. Fred Phelps is the exception, not the rule, and especially in Nashville.
Belmont is a private school with all of the benefits of legal discriminatory practices available to any university holding the religious tag. Whether or not that tag is justifiable is another discussion all together. Belmont, however archaic and discriminatory they may seem, appears to be acting within the law. Again, I’m not saying it’s right; all I am saying it that currently it is legal.
If Belmont claims to hold every member of its faculty and staff to the “Christian Values” as it claims, the city of Nashville is probably in for more of these firings/resignations/mutually agreed upon partings of ways. I doubt that Belmont actually does that. I doubt most of the schools that have a clear expectation for their faculty and staff actually do any follow up on those criteria. I feel very confident that both FHU and Lipscomb University (where I received my MBA) likely have paid faculty and staff that would not pass the test of “Christian Values” whatever those may be. Clearly defining those values will become an issue for similar institutions in the coming weeks and months.
Belmont is left with an impossible task: pleasing everyone. They cannot do it. Mike Curb, board member and namesake of the “Curb Center” on Belmont’s campus, has spoken out against the policy that left Coach Howe without a job. Students are speaking out against it as well. Media across the nation are calling on Belmont to explain its decision.
That’s when it became most tricky. Belmont professes to hold Christian Values, and that includes viewing sex outside of marriage as sinful, along with many other things. Are they wrong to hold that belief? It has been their right to that opinion, as it is every individual institutions right to hold. Is it an uncomfortable belief? Without question. This is not a successful PR statement; “At Belmont University we strive to hold our faculty to a value system consistent with that of ABC. As a university founded upon the values of ABC, we are bound by those values and expect our faculty to abide by those values as well.” Belmont messed up by not issuing a statement about the incident and explaining both its position and reasoning.
The worst part about the entire mess is that this makes all Christians appear like heartless, unforgiving, close-minded brutes. It’s hardly true. Those same Christian values call us to love people where they are. Period. Jesus calls us to love God with everything in us and then to love ours neighbors as ourselves. But the calling is clear; love. Did Belmont show love to Coach Howe during this process? I cannot speak for them, but the perception is that they failed. The crux of the matter for Belmont is to determine where the values and application meet, or figuring out if they even can meet.
The most prescient question is whether or not this will hurt Belmont as an institution? Will students leave? Will faculty leave? Will this leave Belmont a weaker university? Each of those are probable, though measurably it will be difficult to define just how much this affects the school moving forward.