Belmont ready to unveil visionary plan

Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 11:45pm

In 2000, Belmont University enrolled a modest 2,970 students, had assets of about $120 million, was affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and fielded a men’s basketball team virtually unknown beyond Nashville.

Ten years later, and guided by an extensive planning document called Vision 2010, Belmont has become a vastly different place. Enrollment has risen to roughly 5,420, an 82 percent jump. The university’s assets stand at about $350 million, with its operating budget having grown from about $48 million to $130 million.

During the decade, Belmont University severed its ties from the conservative TBC, hosted a presidential campaign debate and saw its men’s hoops team almost beat Duke in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. On-campus construction hummed. Professors from across the nation came on board. Retention and graduation numbers improved. And the October 2009 proposal of a law school drew heavy local ink.

Belmont President Bob Fisher, who began his tenure in April 2000, said Vision 2010 “exceeded our dreams” — such that the university is ready to leap another five years ahead.

Vision 2015 — an internal planning document The City Paper has reviewed — could forever close the chapter on “Belmont pre-2000,” which offered a close-knit, liberal arts teaching environment and an unassuming persona.

The recent circulation of the proposal — and various campus-wide group discussions regarding it — suggests the university’s leadership is prepared to aggressively catapult Belmont onto the field of regional academic powerhouses. Meetings of the Faculty Senate (members of which could not be reached for comment) are now taking place weekly as opposed to monthly, and Vision 2015 is a key reason.

Building enrollment and endowment

University leaders are proposing many goals, but the two most ambitious are increasing enrollment to 7,000 and taking the endowment, currently at about $65 million, to $125 million. At this rate, Belmont would begin to challenge Vanderbilt (approximately 12,000 students) and Tennessee State University (about 10,500 students) among Davidson County-based universities. The Belmont endowment is already greater than that of TSU (about $28 million), yet it trails the $78 million endowment of Lipscomb University (enrollment of about 3,400).

Fisher declined to comment directly about Vision 2015, citing its not-yet finalized status and his desire to solicit campus-wide feedback before he addresses it with the general public. However, Fisher acknowledged he and the Board of Trustees are pointing to Vision 2010 as a template for any future growth.

“Whatever the next plan ends up being, it is going to be ambitious,” Fisher said. “We’ve learned to love the successes we’ve had, so we’ll be very ambitious in our next steps.”

Metro Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde, whose District 18 includes the university, said the Belmont University Neighborhood Advisory Group, which includes neighbors and school representatives, is “meeting actively” to address solutions to any problems that might occur with future expansion.

“Obviously, more students and staff at Belmont will have an impact on the neighborhood,” said LaLonde, who works full time at Belmont as coordinator of Project LEAD, the university’s honors leadership studies program.

“My role in this [proposed enrollment] expansion is to act as a vigorous advocate for the neighborhood to minimize any negative ramifications of Belmont’s growth,” she said, “including possible effects on parking and traffic.”

A council-approved conservation zoning overlay in part will shape any future development outside the school’s current footprint.

The money will roll right in

Stroll through the Belmont campus and you’ll notice the boom. Within a few years, BU has completed construction of various new buildings, including the Curb Event Center and the Gordon E. Inman Center. Currently under construction are buildings to house a pharmacy program and student residences.

Development drives interest, which often translates into added enrollment and recognition. For example, U.S. News & World Report in 2009 ranked Belmont No. 7 of “master’s degree-level universities” in the South.

According to statistics Belmont officials provided to The City Paper, the university saw revenues generated by tuition and fees increase from about $35 million to roughly $110 million during the last decade. But with that growth came challenges, as university statistics also show that the number of full-time faculty members barely increased by half of the growing student population.

Fisher said that must be kept in context, with the school’s student-teacher ratio remaining manageable.

“We became much more efficient in the way we scheduled classes and assigned instructors [including adjuncts],” he said.

Belmont touts its low student-teacher ratio of 12 to 1, but many Belmont classes have 20 or more students, according to a review of the website classfinder.belmont.edu.

Eric Deems, vice president of the university’s Student Government Association, said Fisher has been receptive to student feedback on future plans yet hopes the administration will move cautiously.

“Belmont is a wonderful place with a unique sense of community on its campus,” Deems said. “I would hate for Belmont to lose this distinct, competitive edge over similar schools because of it getting too big. My hope is that, as Belmont moves forward with growth, it constantly measures the effects on campus life from its growth.

Vision 2015 is not limited to enrollment and monetary issues. For example, the document mentions issues related to improving diversity and to a branding of sorts, with the phrasing “Nashville’s university” related to service learning.

Maggie Monteverde, assistant provost for international education, said she is encouraged to see study abroad and global awareness programs as part of the proposal.

“They go hand in hand and are a major focus of the proposed Vision 2015,” she said.

Yet to be resolved, however, is how the Christian-affiliated university will handle Vision 2015’s reference to “a culture of inclusion,” if that is to include faith diversity.

1 Comment on this post:

By: HokeyPokey on 3/8/10 at 8:38

Good luck, carp chompers.

But you haven't seen dirty fighting until you've taken on the Vanderbillies.