How Not to Save an Art School by Kelly Fletcher

“In every sense of the word, this was my dream school.” Those are the words film student Kenny Strawn used to describe Watkins College of Art.

The small art college of fewer than 200 students is in a state of upheaval. The funds ran dry. They were told there was no other option but to merge with a private Christian college more than 40 times their size, effectively ending the small, intimate environment many students say is the reason they came to Watkins.

A Watkins illustration student, who requested to remain anonymous, shared the events of the day Watkins’ president Dr. Joseph Kline announced they would be merging with Belmont University fall semester:

“So many students, myself and staff included, were in tears. This man, who wasn’t ever really a part of the school, who didn’t know most of our names, just came in and told us we were to move to Belmont.”

Later that day, Kline announced the news of the merger in a press conference at Belmont. Kline greeted the conference with a smile on his face and said, “This is a great day.” Then went on to say he speaks on behalf of the board of trustees and the entire Watkins community when he says, “We are overwhelmed by Belmont’s warm welcome, we really are. This is great.”

“He left maybe 35-40 minutes into the meeting. He didn’t stay long,” said the illustration student when referencing the day the news was broken to the students. “The staff and faculty then stayed for a while to talk to us and calm us down. Many talked to us privately, gave hugs, everything.”

News of the merger was met with protest. The students and faculty pleaded for answers in a meeting with Belmont Provost Thomas Burns.

Watkins' director of student life, Jerrica Mayo, voiced student concerns about the well-being of those in the LGBTQ+ community as they transition to the private Christian institution.

Burns assured Mayo that Belmont would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. “There will be no discrimination against any student for any reason on Belmont’s campus and if anybody does discriminate against any student, they’re held accountable for it.”

In 2010, Belmont soccer coach, Lisa Howe, was asked to resign after announcing to her team that she is a lesbian and she and her partner had decided to have a baby.

The question of Watkins’ faculty job security arose and whether Watkins’ instructors will receive severance if they don’t get a job at Belmont or simply do not wish to apply. Burns said he didn’t know.

According to Burns, Instructors must be of the Christian faith to be considered at Belmont. “We do not hire people who are not Christian. So, the ones who are not Christian will not be eligible to work at Belmont. That’s just part of who we are.”

An adjunct professor stood and listed the domestic and international faith-based work in film he’d done and said, “My sense of honor prohibits me from, in good conscience, signing a profession of faith… I will miss my students.”

The topic of censorship came up in the meeting. Burns said, “As far as I know, we have never been accused of censoring our student work or our faculty work. We do engage in conversation about how we might modify language in productions or plays, for example, to make them appropriate for audiences.”

In 2018, Belmont administration compelled former faculty member and director, Jacqueline Jutting, to omit explicit language in her students’ production of The Wolves two weeks before the play was to open. However, the request was virtually impossible to satisfy because theater companies aren’t allowed to make changes to a script without written permission from the playwright. So rather than canceling the play, Jutting took it off-campus. She was asked not to return to Belmont the following semester.

Students stood and presented Burns with a list of wants, needs and concerns on behalf of the Watkins’ community on a poster-sized paper. Among the list was request for a legally binding document honoring Watkins’ tuition and a public statement from Belmont’s president regarding freedom of expression and an oath of non-discrimination.

Another student presented a second list that called for Watkins’ faculty to not be an afterthought in this merger and for Kline to not be awarded a position at Belmont.

There was an undeniable theme amid the unrest. The message was clear. The students hold Kline, at least in part, responsible for the demise of their school.

As the meeting came to a close, minds of students and faculty all but put at ease, Kenny Strawn read aloud a letter he wrote to Kline:

“Dear Dr. Kline,

Three years ago, in the summer of 2017, I ventured 13 hours from my home in San Antonio, Texas to an RV park in Murfreesboro. I was attending the Watkins College of Art’s pre-college program and at that time there was no housing offered. I didn’t care though because I had already fallen in love with this school. David from admissions had visited my high school in the Spring and I was instantly taken by the small size of the school and its culture of artists who were never afraid to push boundaries along with faculty that actively encouraged their growth. Through the two weeks I spent at the pre-college program I was hooked. Watkins was the only school that I applied to, and I was ecstatic when I was admitted. This was the school that I wanted to attend. In every sense of the word, this was my dream school.

Throughout my two years at this school, I have been met with nothing but kindness from my peers and professors. I remember coming to your office on my first day as a freshman. I gleefully introduced myself and you did the same. I let you know that you would be seeing me around. I began to blossom at this institution. I had always been an outgoing person but never had I thought of myself as a campus leader until I was at Watkins. The small culture of this school was something I thrived on. It felt like a small town, everyone knew everyone. Everyone was always welcoming and friendly, always ready to help out at the drop of a hat.

Yesterday, you announced that Watkins was merging with Belmont. In that meeting, students poured their hearts out to you. Pleading with you to ensure that protections would be put in place to ensure a smooth transition. These pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. When a student was escorted out crying, you took no action. You said nothing to these students except for the PR statement about how “historic” yesterday was. After witnessing this, you then went to Belmont and continued talking about how excited you were for this merger. You spent no time even attempting to console the heartbroken students you had left at your campus.

You and the board may call this a solution, but that is far from the truth. A solution would warrant celebration. This merger may have solved the problem of the school's funding, but it effectively killed the Watkins College of Art. These students, the size of the school and the amazing faculty are what make up the Watkins College of Art. By moving the school and selling the land. The board, as well as yourself, have ensured the death of the culture that has blossomed within the walls of 2298 Rosa L Parks Blvd. I assure you, this move does not save the school but kills it. Watkins College of Art will no longer serve as a place for free and open art to be created. No, that name will be reduced to just that. A name on a building.”

Later, Strawn said in an interview that he’d signed a 13-month lease just before finding out the news of his school’s upheaval.

He added that students had been admitted to Watkins the week before the merger was announced, that they had been giving tours to those students the day before the meeting. Strawn said some of these students even reached out to him over social media and told him, “I was accepted into Watkins. I declined other scholarships. I declined other schools. What do I do?” His words got caught in his throat as he said, “I don’t know what to tell these kids… On one hand, I want to tell them to run, get as far away as you can. Go to SCAD, go somewhere else where you will be able to express your art openly and freely.”

He said, by leaving everyone in the dark, the administration has left them with very few options.

Later that week, Watkins’ students channeled their frustrations and anguish the best way they knew how— through art.

Students put together a last-minute showcase titled, “In Good Faith: How Not to Save an Art School.” The show, held out of the back of a small semi van, included pictures of Watkins taken by students, a list on large brown paper titled “How Not to Save an Art School” and a “highlight reel of hypocrisy,” a video from Kline’s Belmont press conference spliced together with a video of what he said in the town hall meeting. Some students were dressed in oversized tan suits and wigs, satirical costumes meant to emulate Kline’s usual garb.

The show was met with overwhelming support from the Nashville community. Students, faculty and alumni alike stood around talking like old friends, sharing memories and consoling one another. There was an air of something between a party and a funeral. They all shared the same heartache.

The illustration student said if they could change anything about what happened, it would be that the administration and President have been transparent about the financial distress of the school and prospective merger. Strawn said the same.

“We’re a community of students wanting to help, there might’ve been something we could’ve done… I’m a member of the school’s animation and illustration club and had I known, I would have pushed the club to fundraise as much as possible,” said the illustration major.

They said in terms of Kline, “He should’ve been more involved. I never saw him at student shows or school events unless he had to be. We have 160 students, and (at the meeting) I asked if he even knew our names, if he knew my name as someone who worked in the administrative office… he said ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’.”

The students, faculty and alumni of Watkins continue to fight for financial transparency, severance packages for faculty, the ability to withdraw without forfeiting their tuition and answers.

Watkins’ alumni, Quinn Dukes, composed an open letter petition requesting answers to these concerns and more.

A few students, faculty and alumni have formed a coalition, rightfully titled “Save Watkins,” in an effort to stop the merger completely. They are currently pursuing a lawsuit and are accepting donations for their legal expenses.