Nearly two months after Lisa Howe’s controversial departure as women’s soccer coach at Belmont, the university’s board of trustees voted on Wednesday to amend its written nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation.
At a press conference after the board’s vote, Belmont President Bob Fisher said the change to the policy was made to affirm “what we have been doing for a long time and that is the message.”
Wednesday night, Howe issued a statement, noting she is “thrilled” about the change.
The new policy, which does not include gender identity, applies to students, faculty and staff. (Read a copy of the policy here.)
Howe’s exit in early December came just two weeks after she disclosed to her team that she and her female partner are having a baby. The university first announced she resigned and then said Belmont and Howe had reached a mutual agreement for the two parties to part ways.
“This is a great victory for the values of inclusion, human dignity and respect,” Howe said in a statement issued through her attorney, Abby Rubenfeld. “I am incredibly proud of the Belmont faculty and students for pushing for this policy. I am also grateful to the Belmont board for recognizing that being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. This is a landmark day.”
The situation drew local and national media attention, with Howe’s former players, Belmont students and local politicians speaking out against the university. Because of that, Fisher said student focus groups were held to discuss “the campus culture as it relates to sexual orientation and the university’s Christian mission.”
“One of the questions we ask every [focus] group is ‘Do you think Belmont is a welcoming place to everyone? And, overall, the response, especially from the students, was ‘Up until December I did, and then I got confused,’ ” Fisher said. “That is why we are trying to make it as clear as we can because we think we should, on behalf of our students, be clear as to … how much we value them in our community.”
The policy change comes one week after the Metro Council voted on first reading to approve a bill that would require companies that contract with Metro to adopt nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity. That includes Belmont, given the university’s work on Rose Park with the Metro Parks and Recreation Department. But Fisher dismissed the notion that it was a factor.
"I can tell you specifically and directly from the conversations with our board today this is not about any Metro action,” Fisher said. “This is about Belmont and who we are and who we want to be and what we think of one another … I walked out of the room today feeling more supported and encouraged by my board on this issue than any issue I have ever dealt with at Belmont.”
Some questions remain, though.
When asked if openly gay staff and students were welcome at Belmont, Fisher responded, “I would put that in the hypothetical category,” referring to an earlier question about the university’s stance on gay and lesbian practices. Fisher later said that sexual practices — like sexual orientation — had not been considered in any employment or firing decisions.
Asked again if an openly gay lifestyle was acceptable, Fisher said, “I am here today to talk about a policy that has been adopted, and the implementation of that policy will unfold over time. Those conversations will be ongoing within our campus community. … There is nothing ambiguous about what happened today with our board. It was clear. It was decisive, and it is a policy decision. I am not willing to play the hypothetical game.”
As for the toll the ordeal has taken on Belmont’s reputation and image, Fisher seemed unconcerned.
“We spent it a lot of time building Belmont, but we never built it based on how other people see it,” he said. “We just built it the way we want to build it. Others will see what they want to see in us, and I’m very comfortable with where we are. Certainly it has been a difficult time.”
Fisher would not talk about Howe and what unfolded in December, again citing that the university does not disclose information about personnel matters.
Fisher also said he not talked to Howe since she left.
Asked if he planned to reach out to her, he paused and said, “I haven’t thought about that.”