Judge won’t halt Watkins College-Belmont University merger


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Nashville judge has ruled against two students and a teacher who are attempting to block the proposed merger between Watkins College of Art and Belmont University.

In a Friday ruling, Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal found that the students and teacher lacked standing to stop the merger. Moskal wrote that, for purposes of the temporary injunction, Watkins is governed by the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Act. That limits who can challenge the school’s actions to a few parties including the Tennessee Attorney General and school directors.

Moskal notes that the merger is subject to review by the Attorney General’s office, so any harm the students and teacher might suffer is not immediate. And Moskal said halting the merger at this point could force the financially strapped Watkins to close its doors, imperiling the Belmont merger or any other possible merger.

Watkins and Belmont announced in January that Watkins students would begin taking classes at Belmont in the fall. The Watkins campus will be sold with the proceeds going to an endowment for scholarships for Watkins students.

Attorneys for the students and teacher have argued that the agreement between the schools is invalid because Watkins is a public institution and the property that would be sold belongs to the public.

The school was founded in 1885 as a gift to the state of Tennessee to be held in trust for the benefit of Nashville’s youth. Samuel Watkins willed both real property and $100,000 to the state for an educational institute, according to court documents.

In the 1970s, the Watkins Institute, as it was formerly called, incorporated as a nonprofit and the state has loosened its control over the school in recent decades. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued Watkins never stopped being a public entity, but school officials and the attorney general’s office have disputed that claim.

The Watkins board of trustees issued a statement on the ruling on Monday, saying it “confirms the board’s power to act in the best interest of Watkins College of Art.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs issued a statement calling the ruling “narrow and procedural.”

“The judge did not rule against the merits of our assertion that the Watkins Trust is a public entity under state law. Our case remains active and we look forward to our day in court,” said the statement.

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