I Stand With Watkins’ Students and Their Vote of No Confidence

I’d heard it was coming. Today the headlines hit.

Belmont University to Absorb Watkins College of Art

“Absorb.” Such a pathetic word to use for the closing of a 143-year-old art school.

The only word more pathetic in this is “synergy.”  It’s about two-thirds of the way down the article.

 

I wasn’t surprised a bit when I heard the news. Broken-hearted, teary-eyed, but not surprised. Watkins will be the third . . . no, fourth art school in Tennessee to close in the last three years.

And then the additional announcement that the students of Watkins were fighting this. A petition calling for a vote of no confidence!

 

To some, this may seem like it came out of the blue, but for me — someone who worked for Watkins and saw the division between the students and administration — I not only understand the vote of no confidence, but I applaud it.

And I support it.

Wholeheartedly.

And I decided to write this blog about it.

What is . . . WAS . . . life at Watkins College of Art like?

And why should Nashville . . . the art world . . . the creative world . . . care what happens to it?

 

I was hired at Watkins College of Art as a Nighttime Desk Manager in 2017. My first day I was greeted with two friendly faces — the student life director and her assistant — bearing a gift basket. In it was Watkins swag, (free t-shirt!), snacks, and a feeling of welcomeness and acceptance that I had never felt at any job previously or since. The Watkins community welcomed me with open arms, and I loved my job.

Ok, that’s stretching it. MOST of the Watkins community welcomed me with open arms. There is a division in today’s society. A division that everyone has felt, no matter what side you are on. At Watkins, there is . . . I guess now was, because I’m going to have to start getting used to referring to Watkins in the past tense, no time to start like the present . . . at Watkins there WAS a hallway. A boring hallway. It was the administrative hallway. Ten or so tiny offices laid out in a straight line with the king — I’m sorry, the president — at the end of it. If you worked down that hallway, you were on salary. You wore business attire and drove nice cars that were paid in full. You know the type I’m talking about. The ones who wouldn’t have a meltdown at a $700 car repair bill.

I am currently writing this with an empty driveway because my car is in the shop. Guess which class I fit into? Spoiler alert: it’s not the Hallway Class.

I have no cute name for everyone else, so let’s just call them Everyone Else. Everyone Else were the adjunct instructors, the students, the hourly employees. Yes, some of the tenured instructors at Watkins pretended they fit into the Hallway Class although they were not technically in the hallway, but this blog is not about them.

It’s about me.

And the things I saw at Watkins.

I was the first person most everyone encountered when they walked in the front doors of the school. I was not merely a receptionist. I was security when some mentally ill person wandered in off the streets, or when shots were fired in the neighborhood. I was first aid when a student sliced open their finger cutting cardboard, or fainted because they’d been having random fainting spells and couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. I found random keys when they were lost, chased snakes down hallways (more than once), and made tornado announcements when necessary. Most of my tasks at night began with someone coming to the desk and going, “I don’t know who to ask, but . . .” and it was me. It was always me. I was the authority in the building at night.

And I took care of the building, the students, and the teachers, and kept them as safe and happy as I could.

Because Watkins was a community.

And I took care of that community as best I could.

Even the Hallway Class.

 

The Hallway Class hung together at staff meetings and art shows. They were noticeably on one side of the room at the Christmas party and Everyone Else was on the other. I started my shift when the Hallway Class were ending theirs, and sometimes they said good evening to me, and sometimes they put on their sunglasses and walked briskly out the door, too important to say goodnight to the Nighttime Desk Manager.

I shouldn’t lump all of the Hallway Class together like that, but it’s so easy to do. One of them was awfully nice to me. Maybe two.

Both of them quit within 24 hours of a board vote (more on that in a minute) a couple of years ago.

No one replaced either of them.

The president’s assistant quit shortly after that.

No one replaced her either.

 

I saw many many people quit while I worked there, and other people had to pick up the slack. This isn’t uncommon in any business. It’s the new work culture. But it sucks, and should be documented.

At one time I think one dude down The Hallway was working three positions at once.

He looked super-stressed most of the time.

You know who didn’t look stressed?

The president.

You know . . .

The head of the Hallway Class.

President Kline was in his office the day I was standing in The Hallway, crying, because I’d just discovered that my health insurance payment was PER PAYCHECK and not per month.

I’d foolishly added my husband to my policy because he didn’t have insurance.

My mistake meant that I would have no paycheck at all.

By the time I paid the premium and the deductible, my paycheck would be in the negative.

“WHO APPROVES SUCH A THING?” I cried. “WHO LOOKS AT THIS POLICY ON PAPER AND THINKS IT’S A GOOD IDEA THAT THE PEOPLE WHO WORK HERE SHOULD HAVE TO WORK TWO JOBS TO AFFORD THEIR INSURANCE?”

Dude who was working three positions had no answers. Neither did anyone else in The Hallway. No one dared to come out and comfort me. You’d think a president of a school . . . any company, actually . . . would wander out and find out why an employee of his was having a nervous breakdown five feet from his office, but he did not.

I think he closed his door.

I got my husband out of the health insurance plan, and he signed up for health insurance on the exchange. I was shocked to learn I qualified as well as my husband. “Even though I have insurance through my work?” I asked the agent over the phone. “It doesn’t come close to meeting the legal minimums,” the agent told me. “Your workplace will get fined. Here’s the number to call to report them when they fire you.” “I’m sorry, WHAT?” I cried. “When they fire you,” the agent repeated. “That’s usually what happens. But don’t worry, you can report them for firing you for reporting them for shoddy health insurance.” “But I love my job,” I whimpered. “Sounds like they don’t love their employees very much,” said the agent. “Some of them do,” I sighed.

I didn’t get fired. They didn’t even notice. No one was working at HR at the time.

I was so happy when I got that job. A foot in the door, I told myself. With a master’s degree and a history of adjunct instructing, I took the job hoping it would be a way to a tenured teaching position.

After I started working at Watkins, I discovered the last full-time instructor they hired was in 2011.

I later learned one of the instructors almost lost his job because he had a heart attack and missed more than the allotted sick days.

I wondered if the Hallway Class would have been treated in a similar fashion.

After I’d worked at Watkins a few months, a nice lady was hired as head of the admissions office. At least, I thought she was nice. She was always nice to me . . . in the beginning. She was immediately part of the Hallway Class, but she said a pleasant “good night” to me when she left each night.

One evening I noticed she got in the car with the president.

“Odd,” I thought.

Another evening, she picked up one of the president’s packages at the front desk on her way out the door. It was clearly a clothing order.

“Odd,” I thought.

Working at night meant I was out of the workplace watercooler chatter and gossip loop. Which means I was probably the last to know that the nice lady who was the new head of Admissions was the president’s fiancé.

I cyber stalked her a bit. I was surprised to discovered her LinkedIn does not show any experience in college admissions.

“Odd,” I thought.

Did I mention the entire admissions department quit within a week of her getting hired?

Odd, isn’t it?

When I worked there, enrollment was low, but was still several hundred students. The news is reporting there are 160 students currently enrolled this semester.

*screaming into the wind*
ANYONE FIND THAT ODD?!?

 

 

I said earlier that the president never seemed stressed — I take that back. There was one night he was extremely stressed.

Like, chain-smoking and pacing the parking lot in circles stressed.

It was the board meeting I mentioned above.

The board for Watkins College of Art met every so often, and as the face of Watkins, I always greeted them cheerfully and professionally, even though they were clearly Hallway Class and I was Everyone Else. Most of the time they were already in their meeting when I arrived at work, and I was name-badge collector, and “good night”er as they left the building after their meeting. Some were polite. Some were dismissive. None ever stayed for a friendly chat with the Nighttime Desk Manager in the Everyone Else class, but maybe they were always just in hurry to get home and have dinner.

They were in a huge hurry the night of the mysterious meeting that had the president of Watkins chain-smoking and pacing. Some of them were so furious they literally threw their name badges at me while storming out of the building.

One badge seriously bounced over the side of the desk and rolled across the floor.

They didn’t even look back.

 

It is not my place to report idle gossip and chit-chat. I hate repeating hearsay. But I can say the words “nepotism” were thrown around quit a bit that evening. Could it be a number of the board members didn’t realize the new head of admissions was the president’s fiancé until they got married? I remember hearing the employee manual had been updated recently, and the old one HAD contained the word “nepotism” somewhere, but it seemed to be missing from the new manual.

Speaking of hearsay, I cannot say with extreme certainty that I know for a fact the website redesign for the school cost in the high five-figures, but I can tell you that I helped an Everyone Else employee load her car one night after she’d been fired. She was crying so hard she couldn’t see. Something to do with her questioning bills and receipts that didn’t quite add up. I’m not really sure. Happened in The Hallway.

I can say with extreme certainty that an email was sent out to the school a few days following that one board meeting stating that President Kline was working to . . . oh, I don’t remember the wording, but something about learning to relate better to Everyone Else, and working on his professional something or rather, and he had to take anger management classes.

I definitely remember the mention of anger management classes.

Wonder if he learned anything that’ll help him in his new position as he joins Belmont as a “special consultant” according to this article at the Belmont Vision.

If you click on the article, I’ll warn you, the grin on his face is as stupid and clueless as this PR spin that this merger is a good thing for Watkins.

IT’S AS STUPID AS THE LAST STAFF MEETING I WENT TO WHICH WAS BASICALLY PRESIDENT KLINE STANDING IN FRONT OF THE STAFF AND FACILITY DOING HIS BEST IMPRESSION OF THIS GIF.

He also said no one was getting a pony.

Or that may have been the train wreck of a staff meeting before that one. The dysfunction runs together.

 

 

Anyway, several people at Watkins abruptly quit after The Board Meeting, and I heard half the board quit . . . but I’m only including that detail because it makes a good story. Not because I know it really happened.

I do know a large enough number of people were angry at leaving the board meeting that if there was say . . . a vote to remove someone high up in The Hallway, it must’ve been a very close vote.

Needless to say, I never saw President Kline stress-pacing and chain-smoking in the parking lot again.

And a lot of people abruptly quit right after that.

The student life director being one of them. You remember, one of the two people who gave me my welcome basket?

Student Life used to be a three-person position, then it was whittled to two people, and when the director left, one poor dude had to do the work of three.

To be clear, this was not the Hallway Class dude working three positions, this was a Student Life dude.

Having abandoned the idea of becoming a full-time teacher, I applied and interviewed for the assistant position at Student Life.

I interviewed in front of a group, and there was one Hallway Class person in the room. She made her opinion of me clear by walking out of my interview.

Hearsay again . . . I heard she didn’t even interview for her job. That she was told she was to be hired by . . . well . . . someone high up in The Hallway.

And here I used to think she was nice.

I didn’t get the job.

The position sat open for probably well over a year.

I don’t know when it got filled, because I left.

A series of events caused my husband and I to sell most of what we owned and try our luck somewhere else.

We wouldn’t have had to move if I’d gotten that job.

I wouldn’t have lost my home that I’d loved and lived in for 12 years if I’d gotten that job.

Hallway Class didn’t know that.

Hallway Class didn’t care.

Hallway Class doesn’t care that Watkins is closing.

Calling it a merger is ridiculous, and it’s an insult to everything that Everyone Else knows about Watkins College of Art.

Belmont is its own school with its own culture, and that school works for the people who go there. But it’s an entirely different school size, campus size, CULTURE than Watkins.

One night a tornado hit super-close to the Watkins campus and the torrential rain flooded the student lounge and caved the ceiling of the breakroom in. Evening classes had just started. Everyone came to me for information and authority, but they also rolled up their sleeves and grabbed mop buckets and moved equipment out of the way of water.

When a kitten was stuck under someone’s car, a couple of students helped me fish out the kitty and bring her inside. (She was reunited with her owner later that evening.) When an unbalanced man wandered in the school an instructor helped me talk the guy into leaving. When a technical error prevented a film from playing for an event, I worked beside the IT guy trying to fix it. When a father proudly rattled on forever about how proud he was of his daughter at her senior art show we all smiled and nodded and agreed at how proud we all were of her.

Watkins was a community.

And the art.

Oh the art.

My favorite part of the job was the end of the evening when I did rounds and checked the building.

There was always something amazing to see.

Those students . . .

. . . are amazing.

 

And I have no doubt that they will spend their lives struggling to fit their creative essences into a non-creative world. I’ve certainly spent my life doing the same thing.

I always stand up for what I believe is right. I have spent my life relating to and fighting for Everyone Else. It’s what they are doing now.

I’ve spent my day writing this blog, reflecting on my time at Watkins, and reading people’s comments on social media about the end of this wonderful community. I encourage you to check out what everyone is saying. The students, the alumni, the staff, former staff, parents of students, people who love art and the art community of Nashville – they are so passionate and vocal and shocked and bewildered . . . but angry and left in the dark about this coming, and how this could possibly have been seen much less SPUN by the Hallway Class as something wonderful?

I read students were crying in the hallways.

Doubtful anyone was crying in The Hallway.

I heard from a faculty member that the meeting with the students today was far from the lovely PR pictures shown in the media. One woman fainted. Another become so upset she had to be helped out of the theater. A full-grown burly male student put his head on his teacher’s shoulder and sobbed.

I stand beside those students and their vote of no confidence in President Kline.

Art is a vital part of Nashville’s culture.

This school has been an important part of Nashville’s community for over a hundred years.

Everyone Else should have a voice here.

And they clearly were excluded from the discussion.

 

20 thoughts on “I Stand With Watkins’ Students and Their Vote of No Confidence

  1. Update already: I’ve been told there is no tenure at Watkins – that the faculty is either full-time or adjunct.
    Also update – the guy who had the heart attack never had any sick days to run out of because instructors aren’t given sick days at all.

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      1. Whoops! Thank you – I fixed that, and two typos I noticed after I posted. (You proofread and you proofread and you proofread . . . )

        Yes, I did hear that. Did you see the New York Times has now picked up an article about that very topic?

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  2. I had a crazy thought. One of Nashville’s most creative, famous, and extremely rich residents is Taylor Swift. If anyone had the power and money to save the school-it would be her. I think someone should make her aware of the situation. Just a thought. 😉

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  3. I’m a parent of a current high school senior who just passionately completed her portfolio for the application at Watkins. In watching the official press release, President Fisher of Belmont fully states that this has been an ongoing discussion for months, and yet it seems to have come completely out of the blue for many of the Everyone Else stakeholders on the Watkins side. The small size, dedicated hands-on studio space, & well-designed course of study were the factors that she has been over-the-moon about since discovering Watkins. Belmont has more than 25x larger student body, no mention of facilities & equipment necessary much less comparable for her intended field of study, and currently on their website only has a minor rather than the major she is planning to pursue. I will be calling in the morning to ask questions, but this has just turned my very excited but comfortably solid senior’s whole plan into chaos & panic of scholarship deadlines already gone by at other schools, trying to sort out options amidst brand new fears & disappointments, & of course disillusionment by the all-too-often cynical realities of life jerking the rug out from under you & bloodying your face just when you took a deep breath.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. Much love and positive energy to your daughter – so sorry she and you were blindsided by this. Know that you guys are still part of the Watkins community, and we’re all working together to protest this and have this deal and the details investigated. Have you seen the petition? I encourage you and your daughter to read it and sign.

      https://www.change.org/p/open-letter-to-the-president-of-watkins-college-of-art-and-board-of-directors-in-response-to-the-recently-announced-merger-with-belmont-university?signed=true

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  4. Hi Marti thank you so much for your in-depth analysis of the situation and your personal approach to it I had no idea all this was going on

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  5. Music to my ears. Art school is a rip-off and the hierarchy is just like anywhere else. I know a girl from there who dates a rich kid, so it makes me happy when the powers that be rain on their hip liberal parade. Perhaps the less fortunate there will acquire real skills, but likely will be casualties of the work force. Take that!

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    1. “The arts and humanities teach us who we are and what we can be. They lie at the very core of the culture of which we’re a part. The arts are among our nation’s finest creations and the reflection of freedom’s light.”

      -Ronald Reagan

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      1. Thanks for highlighting that Reagan has more insight and integrity than status-seeking liberal art students. In choosing to isolate the meaning of my comment into a single word, “liberal”, your attempt at politicizing my post by quoting a conservative figure, all while ignoring my content, backfired. This is where you pretend to not comprehend and throw a light jab my way.

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      2. Light jabs are a waste of time. So are dealing with trolls. I prefer to either kill ’em with kindness or go full Carrie-Fisher-middle-finger on haters.

        So comprehending fully what is going on here, I’ll chose kindness.

        I used the Ronald Reagan quote because *gasp* I admire Ronald Reagan. Because I admire this quote. Years ago when Ronald Regean spoke at the dedication of an art sculpture commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was in the second row.

        I quote his speech from that day:
        “Ours is a more peaceful planet because of men like Churchill and Truman and countless others who shared their dream of a world where no one wields a sword and no one drags a chain. This is their monument. Here, on a grassy slope between the Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Champ Auditorium, a man and a woman break through the wall and symbolically demolish whatever remaining barriers stand in the way of international peace and the brotherhood of nations.”

        And he closes with:
        “The truth of the matter is, if we take this crowd and if we could go through and ask the heritage, the background of every family represented here, we would probably come up with the names of every country on earth, every corner of the world, and every race. Here, is the one spot on earth where we have the brotherhood of man. And maybe as we continue with this proudly, this brotherhood of man made up from people representative of every corner of the earth, maybe one day boundaries all over the earth will disappear as people cross boundaries and find out that, yes, there is a brotherhood of man in every corner.”

        Please notice, gentle commenter, that he praises Winston Churchill and President Harry S. Truman . . . both celebrated liberal political figures.

        It was one of Reagan’s last public appearances, and the whole ceremony was incredibly moving. It was the very spot where Winston Churchill made his Iron Curtain Speech, and it was Churchill’s granddaughter who was given a section of the Berlin wall and tasked with creating a statue to honor her grandfather and the event of the wall finally coming down.
        https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/berlin-wall-history.html

        Full speech here:
        https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/reagan-brotherhood/

        Churchill fell into a deep depression during his political career, and used art to help him through it.
        https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-making-history-winston-churchill-made-paintings

        Republican president and moderate conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower was so moved by Churchill’s paintings, he took up painting himself, and was the only president to set up an art studio in the White House.

        George W. Bush even took up painting, taking lessons and classes, and toured with his own art show titled “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.”
        https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artist-taught-george-bush-paint

        So if I have any lack of comprehension at your postings Michael, it’s confusion at attempting to turn this discussion into a liberal vs conservative argument. Art is a vital part of culture, and revered by liberals and conservatives alike – or as I like to call them . . . humanity.

        As an econometrician, surely you can respect the beauty and wonder at mathematical poetry such as the Golden Ratio. I see 1.6180339887 as proof that nature, the universe, God, Goddess – whatever label anyone wants to give it – has a heart and a soul. Art is a human reflection of that soul.

        How do I know you’re a self-professed econometrician? Just because you post publicly under a blank and generic first name, doesn’t mean WordPress doesn’t give me enough information for a ten-second Google search. I may have no interest in any of the four degrees you’ve obtained, but I recognize them as important knowledge to society as a whole. The world needs Number Dudes just like they need artists.

        I encourage you to step back from labels. To stop a moment in front of any artwork you have hanging on your walls. To listen a little harder to music on the radio. Reflect on a television program, book, or film you’ve absorbed recently. Send some positive energy towards those artists and the education they received so you may enjoy their creations.

        “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
        – George Bernard Shaw

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  6. Calling me a troll and hater is a jab. I’m not an economist or whatever. I’m just happy Watkins is shutting down because I know of girls there who date rich guys and still want to cheat on the side and everyone thinks they’re good innocent people when they’re sellouts like Alexandria Cortez. They claim to be liberal but still choose rich guys. Besides business is more important than art. Watkins just had a lot of misfit posers.

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    1. My mistake. The economist Michael G. used a website on his CV and your email is listed as owner of that website. But it’s parked now, so someone else may have it? The internet is full of old information. Still – check out the golden ratio if you have a spare moment. Really really cool bridge from the science world to the asthetic world.

      And also, fair enough . . . it was a jab. I can’t speak to a broad statement that hates a specific demographic at a school because of . . . well, I’m not sure where your hate comes from. But I know someone or many someones have had to have hurt you deeply at one point for you to well all your anger at one institution. I’m very sorry for that.

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