A Talk about Belmont with Rebecca Chapman

One of the things that I know has been on a lot of people’s minds about the magical disappearance of Coach Howe’s employment from Belmont University is just how widespread the magical disappearance of jobs for gay people might be. Is there anyone else other than Howe to whom this or something similar has happened?

Keep in mind that the job market is terrible. If people are running into problems with Belmont, coming forward, knowing they may be labeled troublemakers, means risking their careers, not just at Belmont but in academia.

And even in the face of that, sometimes, someone will say, “Hey, something happened to me, too.”

In this case, that someone is Nashvillian, Rebecca Chapman, who tells me she took a job with Belmont only to find it magically disappearing on her as higher-ups became aware she is gay.

She was kind enough to answer some questions I have about this whole Belmont situation.

Here’s the background Chapman gave me. Chapman did her graduate work at Vanderbilt. Earlier this year, she was fortunate enough to get an interview at Belmont for a tenure-track position in the English Department. The English Department loved her. She loved them. She was offered a contract. She accepts. She writes up her bio, orders books for her classes, and gets security clearance. And then a Dean asks to meet with her, she assumes to clear up some benefits issues pertaining to her partner, who they know about and have known about, and she’s told the job she was hired for has been given to another person and that she could have a one-year tenure-track contract, but that he would understand if she needed to resign.

For those of you who aren’t academics, think of it like this: being hired for a tenure-track position is like getting on a bus to go from Nashville to Chicago. You get hired, you ride the bus by publishing and attending conferences and being a great teacher. The longer you do these things, the closer you get to Chicago. Once you get to Chicago, if everyone in the department thinks you did a good job of getting there, you get to stay. Ta da, you have tenure.

Yes, you may be kicked off the bus any time between Nashville and Chicago, but, if you do what you’re supposed to do, you stay on that bus.

What the Dean told her, in effect, was “You can get on the bus to Chicago, but your ride ends in Bowling Green.”  As Chapman told me, the job “had now transformed into an oxymoron (a one-year tenure-track contract?).”

So, I asked Chapman if she’d, perhaps, hidden her gayness from Belmont. She said

While I never came out in my application materials—which would be odd and unnecessary, I think—I reflect in those materials my desire to work with and mentor LGBTQ youth. I also made it clear during my campus visit that same-sex partner benefits would play a factor in whether or not I accepted an offer from an institution. To be clear, I never told anyone at Belmont my sexual orientation; I did, however, make it known unequivocally that I have a female partner, that we have exchanged rings as symbols of our commitment to one another, and that we would hold a commitment ceremony sometime in the future. I made no attempt to hide my relationship, nor did the members of the search committee in the Departments of English or History (lovely folks, by the way) ask or expect me to. Quite to the contrary, I asked explicitly of the climate at Belmont toward LGBT staff, faculty, and students, and was assured by multiple faculty members that the University has made leaps over the past few years in creating a safe and supportive atmosphere. I don’t think for a moment the faculty members attempted to hide or misrepresent anything. I imagine many if not most faculty members at Belmont currently find themselves in an intractable situation. The faculty at the Department of English are fabulous folks, and my heart goes out to them.

This gibes with what the stories at Belmont Vision say—that faculty are feeling like their understanding of Belmont and the atmosphere there has been turned on its head.

I asked Chapman whether she felt surprised that this would happen at Belmont, and she said

I have lived in Nashville for seven years now. I hear people from other regions comment on examples of injustice in the South with phrases like, “Well, what do you expect?” and “Are you really surprised?” I sincerely hope that injustice always catches us by surprise. I lived in southern California before I moved here, and, sadly, I felt just as unable to show affection on a date with my wife there as I do here. In my case, I was shocked by my treatment, especially because Belmont has a distinct public persona here. Its undergraduates are not only bright, but also very active in the community and understood as primarily liberal and alternative. The faculty are equally active and, from what I’ve found, incredibly compassionate teacher-scholars who value diversity. This is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to have accepted the position. I think this persona holds true for every aspect of the institution except for a select few administrators, who unfortunately appear to also be those in the highest positions of power at the University.

The conversation then turned to the “It Gets Better” campaign, which I have really mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I do think it’s incredibly powerful for kids to hear from adults, especially adults they look up to or could imagine being like, that there are reasons not to kill yourself, no matter how bad things are right now. On the other hand, it doesn’t get unequivocally better and we shouldn’t think kids don’t watch the news and see what happens to GLBT people in our own state. Which you know, because I’ve ranted about it before.

Anyway, here’s Chapman’s take on “It Gets Better,” especially as it pertains to her situation:

If I have learned anything from the “It Gets Better” campaign, it is that attempts to promote open dialogue on important issues like teen suicide can lead to cultural complacency at a startling rate. Conversations on gay and lesbian death rates shifted so quickly to the newest “It Gets Better” videos on youtube that the glitz of celebrity somehow sutured over the tragedy of the situation. Belmont has offered an addendum to the movement: it does get better, and then when you least expect it, you find yourself in an impossible situation, wondering why entire institutions present your sexual orientation as a public topic of discussion and debate on morality; and then it feels as though it cannot get any worse, until you read or hear about others facing similar situations or lobbying on your behalf, and then you realize it does get better sometimes; and you learn it is a constant negotiation, in which you sometimes feel supported and sometimes targeted.

So, here are the important things we can glean from what we’re hearing out of Belmont. One, the current situation is untenable and will destroy the school. If departments cannot make offers to candidates in good faith that the deals they make with those candidates will be honored by the administration, they will stop getting job applicants. Yes, even in this terrible economy. It’s bad enough that Chapman’s job was changed on her after she signed a contract, but imagine if she and her family had moved here to take the job?

No one is going to move to Nashville to take a job with an institution that is known to magically disappear the jobs of people it decides it doesn’t like. Yes, things go wrong all the time, everywhere.

You still don’t want to be known as the school where job candidates cannot know if they can actually count on the job they thought they were taking being there.

Two, even if somehow the school were to miraculously survive gaining a reputation for disappearing the jobs of gay people, they’d be severely limited in the quality of faculty they’d be able to attract, not just because openly gay people wouldn’t want to work there (no job security), but GLBT-friendly straight people would always be wondering when the witch-hunt would come to them. Could you be singled out as a “problem” if you taught, for instance, the sperm-squeezing chapter in Moby Dick? Or the complexities of Lincoln’s sexuality?

Would you be punished if you didn’t lie to students?

Just go back and read that sentence again. Because you can’t be a university, not a real, world-class university on par with Vanderbilt and Duke and such if your faculty can’t be sure they won’t be punished for not lying to students.

This has become a complex story since it broke. Is Belmont actually GLBT-friendly? What happens to a university where the students and faculty are so at odds with members of the administration? What does it mean to be a “Christian” university? Does it mean presiding over an atmosphere of terror? What would a gay-friendly, Christian Belmont look like? Now that Mike Curb’s spoken in favor of GLBT-friendly reforms because of the presence of gay people in the music industry, will we see repercussions in Nashville’s notoriously fucked-up-about-gay-people music industries? Or will it still be fine and normal to be gay behind the scenes but basically never out front? What role do faculty and students have in shaping their community? Can the faculty depend on the word of the administration? And on and on and on.

Time will tell the answers to these questions. But the thing I hope you take away from this is that what happened to Coach Howe wasn’t a one-time thing. At least one other person, Rebecca Chapman, says she found her job disappeared on her, too, once her sexuality became an issue for the administration.

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23 thoughts on “A Talk about Belmont with Rebecca Chapman

  1. does Belmont offer same sex partner benefits to their employees? From Ms. Chapman’s comments, it sounds like they do

  2. No, they don’t offer same-sex benefits.

    Now, speaking in general and not to the specifics of this incident, it’s not unusual for universities to make other arrangements in order to attract and keep faculty and one would have to work that out for one’s self, obviously.

  3. I have a good friend in Texas whose exemplary work as part of a youth program, which had won awards and gotten her much praise from her employers, was suddenly not as important as her boss discovering that she was gay. They didn’t call it that, of course, but the timing of their sudden discovery of her being a problem employee was pretty unmistakeable. She was let go because of a trumped-up disciplinary issue.

  4. For being out to EVERYONE else in my life, I stay pretty tight-lipped at work. I don’t and wouldn’t deny being gay at work, but I very intentionally avoid discussions involving my personal life. I’m pretty sure my job is safe either way but I’m not going to unnecessarily put it to the test.

  5. I have a feeling that the school’s administration is forgetting that academics have really good memories — it’s often why we went into academia. I didn’t know what Belmont was before reading about this incident, but now I sure do. And I’ll remember it when I’m job searching, or when friends are job searching, and we’ll all avoid it like the plague, whether we’re gay or allies.

  6. There is no such thing as a one-year tenure-track contract unless they plan to put her through the tenure process in one year (which, for those of you not in academia, is not the way it happens for junior scholars just out of grad school). The switching of the contract from a tenure-track line (that presumes you’re on that bus to Chicago) to a one-year terminal contract (off you go at Bowling Green, like it or not) is actionable, should she have the emotional energy to do so. The Dean knows that too or else s/he would not have used the non-sequiter phrase “one-year tt contract” when she rescinded one offer and attempted a different one.

  7. But, bridgett, they could honor her tenure-track job and yet not renew her contract after one year. If the decision for an administrator to step back down into a teaching position was out of the hands of the department head, then the department was good to be honest and tell her the university would honor her contract but only technically and that she wouldn’t be renewed after the first year, which is within their rights. No contract guarantees you make it all the way to tenure review. They could kick her off the bus in Clarksville.

    That’s what’s so scary about the situation. There is one rather visible case of Howe. There might be dozens of people Belmont has treated like Chapman.

  8. Believe me, the dept. was just as surprised as she was to find out that the job had changed/disappeared. This was completely an administration move. i know that Rebecca has held back on a lot of the details of how incredibly terribly she was treated by one person in particular so that she doesn’t sound petty or risk bringing negative repercussions. I only bring that up so that it’s understood that no one was being kind by telling her. And you may have misread because the dept found out AFTER she did that their chosen candidate was being ousted by an administrator.

    It does make me wonder, though, how many people have been treated like this by them.

  9. I’m curious as to what sort of “contract” she was offered. I was hired by Vanderbilt a number of years ago, and my letter of offering clearly stated that I could only be hired after approval by the Board of Trust. It appears that this situation is similar in that the hire had not yet been formally approved at the highest levels. If so, Belmont could legally say that it had made no binding promises to Dr. Chapman.

    THAT SAID–Any reputable university will stand behind a letter of offering issued in good faith by the Dean, except in extraordinary circumstances [none of which include "We don't like GLBTs."]. This may not be actionable, but I’d be greatly surprised if the AAUP isn’t sniffing around. While AAUP sanctions don’t have legal standing, they do have teeth, and no university that values its good name wants them.

  10. David, this is a part of the story I’ve been mulling over a lot and, though I am very familiar with the ins and outs of university life, this is the piece to the puzzle I don’t think we have a good sense of yet.

    If this becomes a bigger deal, I’ll go back to Chapman about it and clarify, but I’m under the impression, based on what she told me, that she was not allowed to have someone else present in her meeting with the dean (thus making all reports about what they talked about he-said/she-said). Couple that with them not honoring a letter of offering?

    Those are the details of her story (and I imagine of Howe’s) that will actually end up being very damaging to Belmont in ways they’ve not begun to anticipate.

    Regardless of how they treat GLBTs, there are ways the AAUP and the accrediting boards expect business to be conducted on campus.

    Some of the things being reported seem like they would spark an interest from folks whose business it is to make sure business is correctly conducted.

    I don’t know if we’ll hear about that when it happens, but, no matter what my position as an administrator at Belmont was about the GLBT issue, I’d be very afraid that this story was going to raise these other issues.

  11. I’m more than a bit confused. I thought the whole reason they (Belmont) wanted to screw over the Southern Baptist Convention with regard to the ownership of the property on which Belmont conducts its business was to be more open to the LGBTQ community. That’s what we heard time and again over in the SBC camp.

    That pisses me off more than anything. They (Belmont) repudiated the ownership/governorship agreement because they found the SBC’s beliefs on many fronts repellent. We were told it was an issue of women’s rights and gay rights.

    Now gay people are getting fired for being gay? Heh. Looks like Belmont is all talk and no walk and just a bunch of greedy bastiges. Enjoy your land, fellas.

  12. Hmm, that’s actually interesting because the reason I heard was so that they’d be allowed to put other Christians who weren’t Baptist on the Board and so that they could hire non-Christian faculty.

    But I am beginning to suspect this is a “change”/”exchange” problem. They didn’t actually want to change the policies; they just wanted to be the ones in charge.

  13. What’s confusing you is that the meaning of “they” is not the same in all cases. The “they” who were most active in getting Belmont away from the SBC included people who wanted to break from the SBC because they wanted the student body and perhaps the faculty and administration to be more inclusive, and that “they” probably wanted something recognizable as change. But there was also a “they” who wanted things to continue pretty much as they had been, but without having to answer to the SBC organization; that group probably wanted something more recognizable as exchange. But those two “they”s have never had the same goals.

  14. It’s so confusing. Regardless of the various number of Theys I still feel like the Inclusion talk was little more than a rallying point for various self interested parties to manipulate those on the sidelines.

  15. Belmont did not break from the SBC, but the TnBC. Every faculty member must sign that they are a “member of a church that professes Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” Therefore, you cannot be Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, atheist, etc.

    Beyond that, faculty are prohibited from particular behaviors. Sex outside of marriage (whether adultery or pre-marital) is actionable. However, with heterosexual faculty, they seem to either not “notice” (e.g., faculty who are expecting before they are married or having affairs) or do not pursue.

    Belmont is in a very untenable situation. Basically, it must “lie” because it wants to be considered a “liberal arts” university, but in fact, it is still tethered to draconian “Christian” principles.

  16. Again, you’re talking about two different groups within the Belmont community. Mike Curb and his folks want Belmont to be nationally recognized as an elite school with concentration on music business, and to draw students from all over and from all backgrounds. And these folks genuinely care about being perceived to be inclusive because it helps to sell their version of what they consider to be their brand (whether they care about the reality is another question). The administrators in place, who are in charge of things day-to-day, are a different kettle of fish with different goals.

  17. They can with to be “perceived” all they want. The actions of the Board, the President, the Provost will always make the “perceptions” a lie. A person who is Jewish CANNOT TEACH AT BELMONT. Period. Not even as an adjunct. Replace JEWISH with Muslim, Mormon, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. and it is still the same.

    Now, we also know that you cannot be LG for sure. Still to be proven whether you can be B or T…

  18. Just so you know, the official reason that Belmont rescinded the tenure-track position offer to Chapman was that an administrator was stepping down from their position and returning to the classroom after taking leave for the 2010-11 school year. This administrator is a Shakespeare scholar as well. So they may have a viable excuse for rescinding their offer – although of course the point still stands that no school wants to be known as one that goes back on its contract offers, regardless of the reason.

    Might also be important to check out the differences in the contracts given out to tenure-track faculty and non-tenure-track faculty. It is my understanding that both are one-year until tenure is given out. It’s fairly obvious that the contract changed in spirit, but perhaps not so much in length.

  19. Kevin, how many instances do you know of when an administrator steps down from a position she’s held for a decade months after there was a decision made to advertise for the open position and after interviews took place and after a decision was made by the department and right after the upper administration reviewed the decision? If you can’t figure out that the decision is highly suspicious, then I don’t know if we can help you.

  20. One question to ask is how long that administrator kept the teaching position. If the position was advertised again after a year or so and the administrator went back to administration, I call shenanigans. If, OTOH, that former administrator is still teaching, it’s possible that Belmont just lets its upper echelon run roughshod over the departments.

    I mean, I know deans who have stepped down and gone back to teaching, because they were getting lonely for the classroom or for having time to write/publish; it does happen. But it’s supposed to happen after consultation with the relevant department, who don’t run around advertising the position, interviewing for it, etc. (an incredibly expensive waste of time, money, and brainpower, if they’re not intending to make a hire). And so maybe what went on was merely an immense abuse of authority, not an immense abuse of authority for the purpose of not having an out homosexual on the faculty. But that would reflect so badly on the school in other ways that I doubt it.

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