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.

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7 responses to “Belmont University and a PR nightmare”

  1. pacellaml says :

    Thanks for sharing.

    I think this will leave Belmont a weaker institution. And frankly, I hope it does. If there are no legal repercussions for firing Coach Howe, I certainly hope there are social and financial repercussions. While students and teachers might not leave (generally, when the noise dies down, people’s courage recedes), I think the University will rarely be considered as a potential event space for prestigious events in the future, like they were for the Presidential debate in 2008. They’ve made themselves a PR nightmare for other people, too.

    Marty Dickens, a chairman on Belmont’s Board of Trustees, is quoted in one article as saying,”We do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don’t want to make apologies for that.” That’s all fine and well, as Belmont has acted well within its rights, but there will be repercussions from this that will last years. By the way, who let that man talk to the press? Goodness.

    But from a Christian standpoint, well, I agree that it appears Belmont has failed to show love, let alone any degree of tolerance. With the rise of suicides within the homosexual community, Christians have got to get it together. They can’t keep bullying people in the name of God. (I use the term “they” because I was recently told that I am too progressive to be a real Christian. Huh.)

    The silver lining in all of this is that people across the city are outraged, protesting, writing letters, refusing to let this slide. That’s some kind of love. We continue to surprise me.

  2. Susan says :

    Devil’s advocate here: Is the world’s potential reaction to a decision really grounds for going against the school’s ‘moral code?’ If I am on the board of education for a Christian school and a decision like this is presented, when all the discussions are over and it is time to take a vote, I would not let my fear of the world’s reaction determine my vote. Bottom line, we are all held accountable for our actions/decisions. If I (the board member) think homosexuality is wrong, I am not going to go against my beliefs just because I don’t want the media to bash my school. Will it be a PR nightmare? Of course! and it obviously is. Has Belmont handled this in a way that is pleasing to the public? It sure doesn’t seem so. All I know is I cannot condemn anyone because they stand up for what they believe, person or institution.

  3. gwclay says :

    The biggest problem I have is with the line that just got drawn in the sand. The facts demonstrate that Belmont was O.K. with Coach Howe having a partner (under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy). However, they are obviously NOT O.K. with her having a baby with her partner. I admire somebody standing up for their beliefs, but can’t agree with their ultimate decision in this case. Do I think they should have beliefs? Yes. Do I think that coach Howe was not fit to be a role model and example at a Christian University? Absolutely. Does this reflect poorly on Belmont? Again, absolutely. Unfortunately, Belmont is made up of humans who make mistakes – and they certainly made a big one. I don’t know that there was a better way to handle this given that the situation had progressed as far as it had. However, problems get worse with time – not better. If Belmont had known the situation all along, it seems that their initial mistake was made years ago.

  4. pacellaml says :

    I do understand the importance of standing up for your beliefs, and I do respect the board’s decision to do that. What I don’t respect is all of the wishy-washy jargon that followed. They haven’t been honest with the public about what actually happened behind closed doors, and they got nailed for it.

    I guess I just don’t understand how Coach Howe was a bad role model. She counseled students struggling with their own sexuality, offering support and guidance that they likely couldn’t find elsewhere.

    Either way, I wish the best to her and her new family, and will be interested to see how the rest of this unfolds.

    • gwclay says :

      I agree, pacellaml. Their ‘response’ has been pathetic. My comments about the role model was not well explained. At a Christian University that believes homosexuality is wrong, then she is a bad role model for that university… if she is ‘living in sin’ according to their standards, then she is unfit to be there. It was in no way meant to be insulting to Coach Howe as an individual.

      I’m with you – my best to her and I’m very interested to see how this unfolds.

      • Megan says :

        Ah, thanks for clarifying. I had misunderstood, and agree with what you are saying. Belmont is having their identity crisis in the public eye.

  5. Wesley B. Hartline says :

    I think it is important to be consistent. Let’s take Lipscomb for example.

    Lipscomb holds many of the same Christian values that Belmont holds. Let’s examine the consistency of it. Does Amy Grant represent the ‘values’ of Lipscomb? I doubt it. She is a convenient supporter of Lipscomb that has some name recognition. Belmont didn’t demonize Vince Gill for divorcing his first wife and marrying Amy Grant, so that must not be a Christian value, right?

    Without some consistent policies, every school like this will suffer under the microscope of the public eye.

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