It’s a school where no alcohol is sold on campus, and where drug use, students say, is unknown. Dorm living arrangements remain single-sex, Bible study is mandatory for two semesters, and the faculty hiring policy openly considers religion. It has set itself a “strategic goal” of becoming the largest “Christ-centered university in the world.”
This might not sound like the profile of a school that’s helping to chart alternative approaches to higher education. Yet Nashville’s Belmont University has tripled in size over the past 20 years, from fewer than 3,000 students to nearly 9,000, and with $1 billion in donations supporting the construction of 28 new buildings. And it has done this as small liberal arts schools across the country are struggling financially or even closing. Students, some enthusiastic about but many indifferent to its twice-weekly chapel services and required Bible courses, have come from across the country and shelled out the $52,000 annual tuition. Many find its non-libertine campus life an attraction.
Belmont is not another University of Austin, with the goal of returning classical liberalism to its curricular core, but it is doing something at least as important: combining career preparation with “whole person development” and joining a non-ideological liberal-arts requirement with an emphasis on teaching quality over faculty research. The school’s commitment to open discussion helped it win the right to host presidential debates in 2008 and 2020. Over the past 15 years, it has added doctoral programs in pharmacy, nursing, law, and medicine.
Belmont’s new president, Greg Jones, who was lured from a deanship at Duke Divinity School, isn’t interested in emulating the group of top schools he jokingly acronymizes as SHYMP—Stanford, Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Princeton. For one thing, he says, tenure at Belmont is “much more focused around teaching and service. There are research expectations, but they’re much more modest. And whereas at Duke, you can get tenured if you’re just an adequate teacher or doing adequate service, it’s really your research that’s going to be the thumbs up or thumbs down. Here, it’ll be your teaching and your service.”
By de-emphasizing research output, Jones is pushing back against the idea that a professor’s tenure status in the humanities, for instance, should depend on how many peer-reviewed papers he or she has churned out on arcane aspects of race and gender theory. Instead, Jones promotes a more traditional form of survey course. A history course description, for instance, says: “This survey of world history from the Age of Discovery c. 1500 to the present, focusing on increasing global interaction since the 16th century, the emergence of the modern world-view, European political and economic expansion, and non-Western responses to the challenges of the modern world.” Not a word about colonialism, oppression, or indigenous persons (though presumably they will be discussed in the course itself). The content at traditional elite schools will at times overlap with this—but how that content is taught matters. Consider the course description for Stanford’s survey of Early Modern Europe: “Few historical settings offer a more illuminating perspective on our world today than old-regime Europe. Few cast a darker shadow.”
Belmont isn’t insulated from trends in cultural progressivism, however, and it doesn’t resolutely resist them. Both past and current presidents are quick to emphasize that the school does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, for example, though the school gained national attention in 2015 when a gay female soccer coach left, and a rumor spread that she had been forced out by the athletic director because she and her partner were going to have a baby. The school remains tight-lipped about an agreement that it reached with the coach but insists that she was not dismissed. “She agreed to resign and we agreed not to talk about it,” says Robert Fisher, Belmont’s president from 2000 to 2021.
Current president Jones laughs off the idea that Belmont is a sort of trade school, notwithstanding its more practical majors, including exercise science and fashion design, which appear alongside Art History and Asian Studies. Though he resists the idea that the school might be considered broadly conservative, he also pushes back on liberal trends in higher education, such as asking faculty to sign “diversity, equity and inclusion” pledges.
“We don’t have any pledges or confessions. We don’t do it on the faith side, and we wouldn’t do it on [DEI grounds] either.” This one-time Southern Baptist college, though, still chooses to hire neither Muslim nor Mormon faculty and has only recently announced that it would consider Jewish faculty. (Belmont does enroll Jewish students, along with Catholics and other non-Protestants.) Its “Christ-centered” aim reflects a Protestant understanding.
Nevertheless, student interviews reveal many who are not particularly religious but are still attracted to a school environment where religion inhibits dissolute behavior. As their Ivy League peers obsess over which words make them feel “unsafe,” Belmont students define safety in practical terms. Gabriel DeGraeve, a politics and law major from Casper, Wyoming, puts it this way: “I liked the aspect of a dry campus personally. . . . that was part of the reason that I came to Belmont. . . . I think that shows more about the steps the university takes to make sure students are safe. . . . Belmont really cares about their students and that does include being a dry campus.”
Libby Godo, a biology major from suburban Chicago, echoes this sentiment: “I also feel like the dry campus aspect promotes the idea that your academics are important and we’re all here as students. I think the nice thing about Belmont students is that everybody cares about their education. It’s not a university where people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t really care. I’m just not going to go to class.’ It is very common for almost everybody to go to, I would say, almost every class.”
Belmont began as a private estate before becoming, in 1891, the site of tiny Ward-Belmont College, a finishing school for wealthy Southern white women, including the aristocratic Sarah Ophelia Colley, a theater and dance major who went on to play a faux hillbilly at the Grand Ole Opry under the stage name Minnie Pearl. Its few buildings included a mansion (still in use) and a onetime plantation, whose labor force had once included 80 slaves.
In 1951, it was rechristened simply as Belmont College, a small Bible Belt school of just 131 students, now co-ed. Overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention, it emphasized nurse training. All trustees had to be Southern Baptists; members of the National Baptist Convention (the historic group for black churches) did not qualify.
Belmont’s transformation began in 1979, when one of Nashville’s Music Row publishers approached the school with the idea of starting a music business program. The motivation was simple, according to Fisher. He recounts the story of a country music star travelling with a past Belmont president to raise money for the college. “He said they were traveling together, and he went to his room one morning and said, ‘I’m ready to go.’ And he (the singer) said, ‘Okay.’ And then he goes over to the curtain and unfastens, unpins an envelope. And he [the Belmont president] said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘That’s my money.’ He was hiding [the cash] while he was traveling. He didn’t know what to do with his money, because he’d give it to his manager, and he’d lose it. So that was a story that inspired.”
By providing training in music-business management, the school would help professionalize what has been a somewhat shady field—thus protecting musicians.
Belmont’s Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business is now one of the largest programs at the school. The Jack C. Massey College of Business, founded in 1986, recently expanded to include a Collaborative Data Center, supported by a $15 million gift from the Jack C. Massey Foundation and Massey’s daughter Barbara Massey Rogers. Massey built a fortune as a founder of the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the private health care enterprise specializing in managed care, which became a driver of Nashville’s economy. (Ironically, Massey was also the second owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken—not exactly a health food.) Belmont’s nursing program and a planned medical school will have a pipeline to HCA, whose co-founder, billionaire physician Thomas Frist (brother of former Tennessee senator Bill Frist), is another major donor. Other donors are also regional business leaders, including Gordon Inman and James Ayers, executives at Tennessee’s FirstBank.
As former president Fisher tells it, such rapid expansion required a culturally significant change: Belmont trustees voted in 2005 to split from the Southern Baptist Convention, which opposed the school’s growth for fear that it would overly secularize or diverge from its Baptist roots. Following a $10 million legal settlement in 2007 (compensating the Convention for past investments), Belmont became a non-denominational Christian university, an educational version of the mega-churches that have swept the South. Schools of law, medicine, and art and design have followed, as enrollment has mushroomed; the number of faculty has grown over 20 years from 196 to 470. Donors who might be uncomfortable supporting major secular universities, notes Fisher, were drawn to the school.
Belmont’s robust growth has been a boon to Nashville. While many cities approach economic development by trying to attract established firms like chip makers or solar-panel manufacturers, Nashville’s experience with Belmont demonstrates that economic uplift often comes from unlikely sources. The school’s growth not only has spun off dozens of new local businesses started by alumni; it has also become both producer of, and magnet for, the kinds of skilled talent needed by major local employers, such as HCA and Nashville newcomer Oracle. The Financial Times recently rated Nashville ahead of such tech hubs as Austin and Plano on its local talent index. Belmont estimates that 28,000 of its graduates have remained in Middle Tennessee, where a large portion of the 700 alumni start-ups is found—many hatched in business plans forged in a popular course in for-profit entrepreneurialism taught by Jeff Cornwall, who formerly worked in the private health-care sector. “Vanderbilt just happens to be in Nashville,” Cornwall says, observing a difference between how the schools have related to their city. “We embraced Nashville.” Alumni business success stories, many but not all linked to entertainment, include Jonathan Murrell, founder of The Escape Game (and the son of Christian missionaries); Makenzie Stokel, co-founder of EVA, which books acts for private events nationwide; and Bryan Heldreth, founder of Jackcrete, a Hampton, Virginia concrete and construction company. Small-business founders abound in Nashville, including Leah Carmean of local bakery and caterer Baked on 8th and Carter Abel of GiGi’s Playhouse.
In 2021, at the one-time site of a plantation worked by slaves, Belmont dedicated Freedom Plaza. The site includes a memorial listing as many names as could be found of those who once worked on the estate of Joseph and Adelicia Acklen 170 years earlier. For a school that once excluded black Baptists from its board of trustees, it was a reminder that there is much to be preferred about the New South over the old.
None of this might have happened were it not for a pro-growth Nashville municipal government and, in particular, a planning and zoning innovation with the unexciting name of “institutional overlay” that enabled Belmont’s expansion. In effect, this is an expansion plan agreed upon in advance, voted up or down and thereafter binding. It removes uncertainty and limits the extent of opposition to expansion. Prior to its adoption, any modest proposal to expand meant the sort of battles that regularly roil neighborhoods. “Every time you wanted to dig anywhere and do anything,” says Fisher, “you had to go through this zoning process and planning commission and vote after contentious vote. One person shows up and complains, and it’s six months later before you can get going on projects.”
Belmont’s approach entailed proposing a specific geographic border within which it would erect any new buildings (and related underground parking). Those boundaries operated as a zone in which Belmont could proceed without any additional individual project permissions—but also as a zoning fence, outside of which it could neither acquire additional land nor put up new buildings.
It was, in other words, a mega-zoning change, one that freed Belmont to proceed without additional local approvals. “But very early on, the second or third year I was here,” says Fisher, “the idea got adopted by city government that we could get an institutional overlay. And we said we’re going all the way to 12th Street down here, and we said we want to go all the way down to the next stoplight down there. I can’t imagine doing what we’ve done without an institutional overlay.”
The contrast with most cities and their one-off local zoning battles is striking. In New York, for instance, city council members routinely block commercial and housing development on their own say-so. The institutional overlay allowed Belmont to purchase and demolish more than 110 homes and small buildings, many in the poor, historically black Edgehill neighborhood, without the help of eminent domain. The generosity of new donors helped Belmont pay above-market price for the properties and absorb the substantial costs of including underground garages to prevent neighborhood on-street parking increases. It was understood that the surrounding Edgehill neighborhood was likely to gentrify, and indeed, property values in and around Belmont have risen sharply, providing a boost to Nashville’s tax base, despite Belmont’s tax-exempt nonprofit status.
As president, Fisher made other politically astute investments, which he sees as embodying the school’s Christian values. In need of playing fields for its major athletics (including Division I basketball), the school, which had promised to limit expansion to within the overlay area, made an exception and purchased and renovated Rose Park, which had been a dangerous site of drug-dealing and dog fights for sport. Law-abiding neighbors avoided the place. Recalls Fisher: “It made me sick to my stomach.” The park remains a Nashville municipal property, with rights to the use of its playing fields shared by Belmont and city residents.
The resulting zoning compromise with the city has enabled astounding facility expansions. Though built in a classic columned style, the campus is effectively brand-new. Prodigious fundraising has allowed Belmont to acquire and incorporate other small, struggling schools, including the Watkins College of Art.
The successful relationship between Belmont and Nashville says a great deal about the sources of urban economic innovation and growth. Seen narrowly, it demonstrates anew that higher education can fuel an economy, even when brand-name universities are not involved. In Boston, the Berklee College of Music, founded in 1946 in a single building to encourage jazz, has become the world’s leading institution of its kind, drawing talent to the city. The Savannah College of Art and Design has done the same thing for that once-moribund Georgia city. Both were founded by entrepreneurs (Lee Berk at Berklee and Paula Wallace in Savannah.)
Their success, like Belmont’s, demonstrates again how misguided most municipal economic-development efforts are. In troubled and struggling Baltimore, for instance, a new economic plan emphasizes Amazon distribution centers and logistics—the flavors of the day. It’s doubtful that anyone in Nashville government, circa 1980, would have bet on an expanded religious college as a driver for economic growth, but that’s what has happened. The significance of the institutional overlay goes beyond zoning. It argues that ease of approval should be the rule for any municipality. Rather than betting on any individual sector, dynamic cities make it easy for new businesses of all kinds to open their doors or expand. Seattle authorities could hardly have predicted that a small local coffee shop would grow into the global giant Starbucks.
The connection between Belmont and Nashville’s growth is, to some extent, circular. As Fisher—who grew up on a rural southwest cattle ranch in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and came to Belmont following a career there as a mid-level state university bureaucrat—puts it, “We could not have done this in rural Arkansas.”
Belmont has developed an approach to higher education that challenges much larger rivals. Jones is quick to embrace the idea of working directly with potential employers. “What kinds of skills are you looking for that you don’t currently have? And are there ways we could design a program? And this is part of what I love about Belmont in comparison to Duke.” Of course, Duke does place graduates in and around its region in North Carolina, including the famed Research Triangle. But Jones is endorsing the idea that Belmont is willing to design new initiatives from scratch in response to business expressions of interest.
Indeed, Belmont majors include a wide range of vocational subjects: accounting, audio engineering, hospitality, and corporate communications, as well as classic liberal arts (philosophy, art history, English) and pre-med biology and chemistry. Then there are careers not contemplated elsewhere, including Christian leadership and church music. The entrepreneurialism major includes courses in theology, based on a belief that business and Christian ethics are not just compatible but complementary.
The combination of required liberal arts education, including religion, with an emphasis on post-graduate employment—the school says that 83 percent of Belmont graduates get a job upon graduation, with another 11 percent going on to graduate school or the military—is what matters to Jones. As U.S. higher education struggles to establish its continued value in both society and the marketplace, Jones is convinced that Belmont’s approach will fuel its continued growth. Owing to the physical boundary of the institutional overlay, however, further expansion will have to be achieved via expansion to other locations or through online learning. Jones envisions non-degree and certificate-based credentials. The school already offers “immersion internships” in Los Angeles and New York.
Jones is resolute that faculty tenure decisions will not depend on research papers “read by a handful of other people in the field.” That practical emphasis, which minimizes the arcane, social justice-oriented “research” now common in many disciplines, may be the most important aspect of his presidency. Beneficiaries of the Belmont approach will include the school’s graduates, the city of Nashville, and perhaps higher education as a whole.
Top Photo: Students outside the Barbara Massey Rogers Center, home to Belmont University’s Jack C. Massey College of Business (Photo: Sam Simpkins/Belmont University)