Quick to rise

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 11:45pm

To fathom the rapid rise of Belmont University from 2000 to 2009 — and how that period poised the Nashville-based institution for further change — simply note this Belmont document: “A Decade of Transformation, A Future of Possibility.”

Indeed, Belmont transformed itself more the past decade than during any single previous 10-year span. Some might contend it changed from 2000-09 more than during the school’s entire previous 110-year existence.

Though a bit clichéd, Belmont’s “From here to anywhere” motto is nonetheless dead-on, reinforcing the limitless potential school officials envision.

Belmont University President Bob Fisher said the “defining moment” of the last decade was Mike Curb’s 2001 naming gift for the Curb Event Center. The venue is part of a $52.4 million project that includes the Beaman Student Life Center and a structured parking garage.

“That gift redefined the value of being involved with Belmont,” he said. “It put us in motion with the largest construction project in our history, and we haven’t stopped since.”

Others have taken note of the momentum.

Andrew Westmoreland, president of Birmingham-based Samford University, said Belmont’s past decade was impressive. Both Samford and Belmont are members of The New American Colleges & Universities, a 20-school consortium.

“If measured in enrollment growth and increase in assets, few institutions can equal the decade that Belmont enjoyed,” Westmoreland said. “We also need to remember that this progress [came] at a time when the economy wasn’t exactly robust, which only underscores the significance of the progress.”

The transformation

In 2000, Belmont enrolled 2,970 students, had net assets of about $120 million, was affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and sported a men’s basketball program with no more national interest than a high school team in Idaho.

But as the decade neared conclusion, Belmont — fueled by an extensive planning document called Vision 2010 — was a vastly different entity. Enrollment had risen to roughly 5,420, an 82 percent jump. The university’s net assets stood at about $198 million, with its operating budget having grown from about $48 million to roughly $130 million.

During the decade, Belmont severed its ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, hosted a presidential election debate, completed the Gordon E. Inman, Beaman and Curb centers (among other buildings), and saw its men’s hoops team nearly topple mighty Duke in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Faculty and staff were recruited nationwide and student retention/graduation numbers improved. Capping the 10-year span was the September 2009 unveiling of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Service Learning and the announcement of a college of law one month later.

Lynette Robinson, executive director at Boston-based NACU consortium, said Belmont has become a “regional power.”

“And with the growth of the pharmacy school [which began in 2008] and the creation of the new law school [slated for a fall 2011 start], it will become even more so,” Robinson said.

The future

In late 2009, word began circulating of a proposed Vision 2015, a new, condensed version of sorts. If adopted, Belmont would attempt, among other goals, to double its endowment from about $65 million to $125 million and push enrollment to about 7,000. The would-be plan’s ambitiousness has some faculty and staff privately voicing concerns, while students are unfettered to do so publicly.

Robinson said the one potential stumbling block Belmont could face this decade — losing touch with its core mission and values — is highly unlikely.

“With the current senior leadership and strong faculty, I do not see that as a problem for Belmont,” she said.

Fisher, who began his tenure in April 2000, said Belmont experienced some “difficult moments” during the decade. For example, some observers perceived the split with the Tennessee Baptist Convention as unseemly. In November 2007, Belmont announced it would pay TBC $1 million with payments of $250,000 through 2037.

Unfazed, Fisher guided Belmont into the century’s second decade.

“The key to our progress is that we have a very short memory for the setbacks,” Fisher said, “and we savor and tell stories about the successes over and over.”

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