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Belmont Trustee Chair ‘Disappointed’ at Mediation Impasse

An eight-month mediation effort between the Tennessee Baptist Convention and Belmont University failed to resolve a dispute over governance of the Nashville school, Belmont’s trustee chairman said Thursday, meaning the convention’s 2006 lawsuit against the university is headed to trial.

EthicsDaily.com reported yesterday that that attempts to mediate a dispute over the makeup of the university’s board of trustees have failed and a trial is being scheduled for the week of May 19. Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont’s board of trustees, released a statement through the university Thursday morning adding details about the failed mediation process.

Dickens, president of AT&T Tennessee (formerly Bell South), said Belmont engaged in “an elaborate mediation process” suggested by the Tennessee Baptist Convention, but in the end convention leaders “did not accept Belmont’s final proposal for a continuing relationship.”

“This process has included the exchange of thousands of pages of documents, the input of neutral parties to assess the TBC’s claims, and the assistance of one of the very best mediators in Tennessee,” Dickens said. “Unfortunately, this process has not resulted in a mutually agreeable resolution of the dispute.”

Dickens said Tennessee Baptist leaders made demands that Belmont “has no legal or moral obligation to meet.” Nevertheless, he said, the university “wished to continue the historic relationship between the university and the convention.”

Seeking that end, Dickens said, Belmont’s final proposal to the TBC included investing “significant sums of money” over 10-15 years for scholarships for Baptist students to attend Belmont, helping to fund operations at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home and Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy, as well as funds to support the international missions efforts of Tennessee Baptists.

“We are disappointed that the TBC’s representatives would not agree to these elements as the best way to maintain a relationship with Belmont,” Dickens said. “Thus, last Friday the judge in this case set a trial date, which is currently scheduled for May 2008. We are prepared for the court to resolve this dispute and have every confidence that we will prevail.”

EthicsDaily.com e-mailed several Tennessee Baptist Convention representatives for comment, but none responded in time to be quoted in this story.

The state convention sued the university, which it had supported since 1951, last October. Tennessee Baptists ceased funding for Belmont the year before, upon learning the university wanted to change its governing documents to allow non-Baptist Christians to serve alongside a Baptist majority on the trustee board.

The university said the change was needed to elect trustee leadership that looks more like a student body that is a majority non-Baptist, and to open new avenues for fund raising. Belmont’s enrollment is growing rapidly. A record 4,765 students are enrolled this fall, 6.3 percent more than last year and an increase of more than 60 percent since 2000.

Convention leaders have said they are not interested in funding institutions they cannot control. Their lawsuit does not dispute that Belmont trustees had the legal right to amend the school’s charter to authorize them to elect their own successors, but claims that Belmont agreed in 1951 to return monies contributed to the university by Tennessee Baptists should the institution ever pass from control by the state convention.

Belmont contends the 1951 agreement is a historical document that was apparently never enforced, and if it was ever legally binding has been superseded by other covenants redefining the relationship between the university and state convention over a period of 54 years.

The state convention seeks $58 million in damages–the total amount of gifts made to Belmont over the years. Before deciding to sue, the TBC turned down an offer by Belmont to settle the impasse for $5 million at a called state convention meeting in May 2006.

Belmont claims the charter change was part of a compromise covenant relationship worked out between trustees and convention leaders that broke down unexpectedly at the state convention’s annual meeting in November 2005, and that the university never intended to sever ties with the state convention.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.