President Bob Fisher paints a strong picture of Belmont University, thriving in terms academic quality, student enrollment, fiscal condition and campus size. Yet for all the positivity, when Fisher addressed the faculty and students at last fall’s Opening Convocation, he quickly cited one area as an ongoing weak spot in his 10 years as Belmont’s president.
“I have one significant disappointment to report and that is related to our diversity goals,” Fisher said. “We have made what I would deem ‘acceptable progress’ in regard to the ethnic diversity of our staff (18 percent) and the ethnic and gender diversity of our Board of Trustees (36 percent). However, the ethnic diversity of our faculty seems to be stuck at about 5 percent and the percentage for our students actually declined last year from 13 percent to 10 percent.”
Seven months later, Fisher unveiled the Vision 2015 document, a five-year-plan for Belmont covering everything from enrollment goals and potential new building projects to turning Belmont into “Nashville’s university.”
The plan also touches on diversity among the faculty and students. Under the heading “Increase Diversity and Increase Cultural Competency” are three bullet points:
• Create a culture of inclusion;
• Actively and intentionally recruit diverse faculty, staff, board, and students;
• Ensure learning experiences that enable students to gain strong intercultural competency.
Over the past 10 years, Belmont has increased in diversity. According to the common set data from 2009-2010, there are more females than males, and the numbers of minorities on campus have risen from the neighborhood of 200 to close to 600. However, as Fisher said, though the numbers have doubled, so has Belmont’s enrollment. “It’s slow progress,” he said.
Diversity can include a wide range of categories, but Dean of Students Dr. Andrew Johnston says Belmont is identifying diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and gender specifically. As far as non-visible minorities, religious or economic, for example, Belmont does not have a plan to target these students, both Fisher and Johnston said.
“What we want to do is create an environment where everyone feels welcome,” Fisher said.
Meeting that goal has prompted Belmont to put a plan into place.
“It’s a big step to say, here’s what we’re doing strategically,” Johnston said. Belmont is working with Derek Young and his wife Allison on a program called “Welcome Home.” Young worked with Cracker Barrel after the restaurant chain found itself involved in issues with discrimination.
The program in part will cover making sure Belmont’s hiring practices are effective and focusing on certain high schools in the Nashville area that would “bring us a higher pool of minority students,” Fisher said. There is also a plan that will be formally introduced in the fall.
As far as where Fisher sees Belmont in the future, he draws on the current two classes enrolled in the school of pharmacy as examples.
“I say just walk into a classroom when they’re all there and look at them and you’d see what we’re trying to do, they’re from all over the world, they’re from all ethnic groups, it looks like the US of A, and the world together, it looks like the streets of New York City,” Fisher said. He also said he expects the law school to fill in similarly.
Part of what accounts for the make up of the pharmacy school is starting from scratch, as Fisher put it. For the rest of the student body, the process will be more gradual in terms of changing the ethnic and racial make up as well as changing attitudes about diversity.
On the admissions end, director of undergraduate admissions Anne Edmunds said that the admissions committee takes into account “the total picture.” In terms of diversity, “we also consider geographic diversity (all 50 states are represented on campus), academic program diversity (major), religion and classification (freshman/transfer/graduate student),” she said.
With regard to faculty, since 2000, Belmont has conducted hiring under an Affirmative Action Plan. In an October interview with director of human resources Sally McKay, she said that when an institution crosses a certain threshold in terms of the money it brings in, the government starts requiring an AAP to do things like keep federal grants.
When Belmont is looking to hire, the university tries to create an applicant pool that is representative (or as representative as possible) of the available minorities based on statistics collected from the Department of Education and the U.S. census.
The challenge is filling that applicant pool.
“We proactively try to find ways of changing processes and the impact of those processes to reach better employment opportunities for those groups,” McKay said.
The 2008 AAP describes efforts taken to notify various groups that a position is open, saying that “the university… is utilizing online advertising venues including The Chronicle of Higher Education, HigherEdJob.com, InsideHigherEdJobs.com, the NCAA website, and the Black Coaches Association website.”
According to McKay though, filling out the applicant groups is an “imperfect science.” The numbers are based on “perfect world stats,” she said, meaning that the percentages “don’t always reflect that because the numbers are small.”
However, that is what McKay says the government is looking for in AAPs – a “good faith effort.”
McKay said that Belmont is always vulnerable to a random audit, but the government will not intervene unless there are complaints or anything that could be considered a lack of a “good faith effort.” To stay within that designation, practices are followed, applicants are treated equally and judgments are based on qualifications.
Fisher said he wants Belmont to be a place where people of all varieties feel welcome. Diversifying the faculty has been a struggle.
“I contend that if you can’t do that, you can’t really change, you can’t bring young people here to go to school and then look around and see who works here, what do they look like; there’s an unintended message there that we want to change,” he said. Apart from that, Fisher sees religious roots in the push for diversity.
He cited the story from the Gospel of John where the Pharisees asked Jesus what should be done with a woman who committed adultery. Jesus bent down and drew in the sand and when they continued to ask, he responded “let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Fisher likens what he’s doing to drawing in the sand.
“Jesus just opened his arms to people and loved them, cared for them, embraced them, he didn’t turn anyone away,” Fisher said.
Though, while the university might be open and in pursuit of diversity, all faculty at Belmont must be Christian.
“There is, at Belmont, sort of the big elephant in the room, which is, we hire Christian faculty,” Fisher said. “That’s Belmont, that’s part of who we are, and I try to make that clear to students before they get here.”
Similarly, Johnston said that changing and growing “does not mean that a place loses its identity.”
Fisher, who has worked at state schools in the past with plenty of non-Christian faculty, acknowledged that this might “complicate things a little,” and it does limit the international faculty Belmont can hire.
“That keeps us from being more diverse,” junior biology major Lindsey Dalton said, in response to learning about the Christian requirement.
Senior accounting major Jenna Davidson said that she wouldn’t mind having professors with different opinions. “If you let students who are non-Christians in, you should let faculty in,” she said.
“It is an issue that we have to be alert to, but beyond that, beyond the national implications of the predominance of different religions of most countries, we’re open to anyone who’s Christian,” Fisher said.