Money talks — people walk! At Belmont University, whoever’s money talks the loudest may determine the fate of the (now) former women’s soccer coach, Lisa Howe. Belmont, located near Nashville’s historic “Music Row,” in recent years has distanced itself from its traditional (and some might say, conservative) Baptist roots. According to an Associated Baptist Press article,
“In 2007 Belmont agreed to pay $11 million to settle a lawsuit terminating its 56-year relationship with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, in part to diversify its trustee board and donor database in a day when the majority of students are no longer Baptist.”
In addition to diversifying their trustee board by including non-Baptists, Belmont also distanced itself on certain “moral” issues, including homosexuality:
Like many colleges, Belmont’s policies are ambiguous when it comes to hiring gays. Its policy of non-discrimination cites both civil-rights law and “Christian values.” Among other things, those values “affirm the dignity of each person as a creation of God.” Sexual orientation is not mentioned in the policy, but the university reserves the right to “discriminate on the basis of religion in order to fulfill its purposes.”
It seems that Belmont, described by some as a “progressive university,” has tried to progress as far as they can on the issue of homosexuality without offending their more traditional (at least on this issue) donor base. The only problem with that is that there are big donors who seem to want the University to progress even farther.
Only days after revealing to her players that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a child together, Belmont officials say that the university and Coach Howe came to a “mutual decision” regarding her departure from the job she has held for the past six seasons. Over the course of that time, Howe amassed an overall winning percentage, even leading her team to win the Atlantic Sun Conference championship last year.
But, when Howe revealed to her players that she was expecting a baby with her lesbian partner, she apparently violated some kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which forced Belmont’s administrators to handle the situation. There are conflicting accounts of how the school handled this hot-button issue. But, handle it they did. Or, should I say, mishandled. Badly.
How Belmont officials may have mishandled the “departure” of Coach Howe raises questions of fairness and questions of money/power/influence. These issues are not unique to Belmont, but in fact arise at many of our nation’s historically Christian colleges and schools, especially when it comes to the question of homosexual students and/or faculty.
First, the fairness issue. By specifically deleting “homosexual behavior” from a list of unacceptable student conduct, Belmont — intentionally or unintentionally — sent the message that it allows openly gay students to attend their university. If that is the case, then Belmont has already set the standards by which they will operate.
While I might think that a “Christian” college should have different moral standards for its students, that is a choice the university has made. But, apparently, they have also made that choice about faculty and staff (which presumably includes coaches). Belmont’s standard also appears to be one of acceptance when it comes to sexual orientation. At least that is what Belmont’s President is quoted as saying:
Fisher (Belmont’s President) held a short news conference late Wednesday where he took no questions and said gay and lesbian students and faculty are welcome. He also said Belmont does not consider sexual orientation in its hiring or dismissals.
If that is true and, if the soccer coach was “asked to leave” because of any issues surrounding her sexual orientation (including having a partner and a family), then Belmont seems to have violated its own rules. While I may not agree with the underlying rules or with Belmont’s more open policy towards homosexual students and faculty, I would have no problem acknowledging that the coach may have been treated unjustly.
If there are other reasons why the coach was fired (and so far, none have been given), then that is another matter. But, if it was anything remotely to do with her sexual orientation, then Belmont has made a mistake — both politically and legally. And, please do not try to argue that “sexual orientation” is okay, but acting in accordance with one’s sexual orientation is somehow out-of-bounds when it comes to employment. Belmont cannot now feign shock that its homosexually-oriented soccer coach actually had a same-sex partner that she was living with. That is preposterous, but it is the logical outworking of Belmont’s cultural accommodation on this issue. Hoisted on their own petard!
As of now, the gay coach has walked. But, will she continue walking away from Belmont? Will, instead, she make a U-Turn and be reinstated as the women’s soccer coach? It all depends on whose money talks the loudest.
The more traditional, conservative money did the initial talking. It appears that there may have been certain trustees and donors who were livid that the coach came out openly about her sexual orientation and family. I am just speculating, but based on the WP article, perhaps they put pressure on Belmont’s administration to get rid of the coach. They did. It backfired.
Following the initial fall-out from Howe’s departure, a group of powerful and influential folks, led by Mike Curb, began to openly question Belmont’s decision to “terminate” the soccer coach:
Trustee emeritus Mike Curb, a music business executive who has given millions of dollars to the university; issued a letter criticizing the school’s actions. He said current board members are out of touch with the reality facing alumni of the university’s music-business school, which carries his name. Curb, whose major gifts include $10 million for naming rights to Belmont’s $52 million Curb Event Center, said regardless of their own sexual orientation, Belmont music students would have to work with gay colleagues after they graduate. (full article here)
This is a lose-lose situation for Belmont. If they violated their own rules and dismissed the gay soccer coach because of her sexual orientation, they were wrong. However, if they reinstate her (which is what I think will happen), it will be perceived as caving to a major donor who they feared would cut off the money supply (his own and the Nashville music industry’s). Added to the $11 million already paid to Tennessee Baptists, a small price to pay for walking away from your Biblical principles. Small indeed.