Overview of University History:
Belmont College for Young Women
Belmont College for Young Women was founded by Ida Hood and Susan Heron, two teachers from Pennsylvania. They purchased the old Belle Monte estate in 1889 with the dream of creating a premier women’s college in Nashville, Tennessee. Belmont College was a rigorous school that strove to instill in its all-female student body good morals. It also had an ambitious curriculum that mirrored many programs at that time that were geared towards men. This was more than a finishing school, the school boasted prominent faculty and programs meant to mold the minds of its students into thinkers who could accomplish their dreams in the world. Graduates held the equivalent of a junior-college diploma and often went on to attend prominent four-year colleges like Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr.[i]
Classes first met on September 4, 1890, with 90 students attending and the school grew steadily. Pupils could choose from 10 different subject fields – English, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, elocution, physical culture, art, music, as well as modern and ancient languages.[ii] Enrollment grew so quickly that two new buildings flanking the original mansion, had to be added to accommodate the students and their classes. At the end of Hood and Heron’s tenure, Belmont College for Young Women had an enrollment of 376 students from 28 different states.[iii]
Ward Belmont School
1913 – 1951
Belmont’s founders, Hood and Heron, retired in 1913 and decided to combine their school with the prestigious Ward Seminary for Young Ladies, which was originally founded in 1865. It was a symbiotic relationship, Belmont College needed new leadership and Ward Seminary needed more land to support their growing enrollment. Ward-Belmont opened on September 25, 1913, and included a junior college, a preparatory school, primary school, and a music conservatory.[iv]
Like Belmont College, Ward-Belmont prided itself on the development of character and the pursuit of knowledge over social graces. Spiritual development and secular education went together in this updated vision of Hood and Heron’s dream. The student body, however, came from a more elite social set than was seen with Belmont College.[v] Prominent graduates from Ward-Belmont would make their mark in the world and include names like Mary Martin who would go on to perform as Peter Pan and others on Broadway. Mildred Stahlman, who became a physician and created one of the first neo-natal intensive care units in the world. Clare Boothe Luce was a writer, House of Representative member, and the first American woman to serve as an ambassador overseas. As well as Sarah Colley, the future Minnie Pearl, among many others.[vi]
The school would continue to expand, adding buildings and creating a larger footprint in the Nashville suburbs. In 1922 it became the first junior college in the South to receive full accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. 93% of the graduates went on to graduate from a 4-year institution.[vii] Unfortunately, beginning in 1934, Ward-Belmont would experience 17 straight years of financial decline, which would ultimately lead to the next major transformation in the school’s history.[viii]
"Senior Middle Class," Milestones, 1940.
Belmont Campus, The Tower, 1966.
"Afro-American Alliance," The Tower, 1973.
Women's Basketball, The Tower, 1972.
"Juniors," The Tower, 1986.
Ice Storm, The Tower, 1994.
Belmont Cheer, The Tower, 1996.
"Welcome," Belmont University Website, 2019.
"Belmont College for Young Women, Nashville, Tenn.," Milady in Brown, 1910.
"Pedagogy and History of Music Class," Milestones, 1914.
"Having Fun", Milestones, 1924.
"No wall flowers here," Milestones, 1944.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) purchased Ward-Belmont’s debt and began to, according to their President Dr. Ramsey Pollard, establish the “greatest Baptist school in Tennessee.”[ix] The Baptist acquisition of the school marked a shift from a “non-sectarian, but earnestly Christian” vision of Belmont’s original founders, Hood and Heron to one that was rooted in the Baptist sect. The school also shifted from one that attracted wealthy young women to a co-educational, frugal school, that was often supported financially by the TBC and local Baptist churches. Its Presidents would transform the college into one that had 21st century visions.
The school hoped to attract local working people to help with low enrollment. Night classes were offered for the first time in 1951 and many of the new students attending Belmont would-be first-generation college graduates.[x] Innovative expansions, including the instituting of inter-collegial athletics and a nursing program partnered with Mid-State Baptist Hospital, allowed Belmont College to remain competitive.
Dr. Gabhart was a transformative president whose tenure from 1959 till 1982 saw a period of expansion and great change at the college. Not only did the footprint of Belmont expand, but the school also brought in new programs, including business, music business and made significant advancements in establishing Belmont’s healthcare majors. Belmont also officially integrated in 1965, with the first African American student graduating in 1970.[xi] The school continued to fight ingrained prejudices as it experienced the growing pains of the 1960s and 1970s. Belmont also expanded its sports offerings to include Women’s basketball in 1968 among others. President Gabhart also oversaw the restoration of the Belmont Mansion in 1973 to its antebellum state.
Dr. Gabhart’s leadership allowed the college enrollment to grow to 2,000 students in 1982 and the budget to increase from $480,000 to $8 million by the end of his time as President. After his retirement in 1982, Dr. Gabhart stayed on as a chancellor, a position he would hold for an additional 27 years.[xii]
Dr. William Troutt at 32, was the youngest college president in the country when he succeeded Dr. Gabhart. He was also the first Belmont College president since the merger with the TBC not to be part of the clergy.[xiii] Troutt brought with him a vision of an influential Belmont that could truly connect with Nashville and expand beyond its Middle-Tennessee Baptist College image to someday become a national player. During Dr. Troutt’s time as President, Belmont established its first graduate program, the master’s in business administration at the Massey School of Business.[xiv] The inclusion of graduate programs would eventually lead to a name and vision change for Belmont College.
Troutt also began an ambitious refurbishment and expansion campaign that would see the “front door” of the campus expanded and renovated. The administration of the college moved into the North Front building, now renamed the Freeman building. Large tracts of land were purchased with sights towards a larger Belmont. Belmont would also continue to expand their sports offerings, becoming a member of Division I of the NCAA in 1999. [xv]
At the end of his time in office, Troutt had increased Belmont’s enrollment by over 75%, increased its academic competitiveness and diversity at Belmont. He also raised the college’s endowment from 2 million to $40 million dollars.[xvi]
With a new vision of integrating professional programs with a traditional liberal arts education, Belmont charged forward with a new name, Belmont University in 1991. The next thirty years would usher in major changes for the University, including unprecedented expansion and a break with the Tennessee Baptist Convention that allowed the university to return to its 19th century non-sectarian Christian roots.
Dr. Robert Fisher came to Belmont in 2000 with an economist’s degree and a vision to expand Belmont’s physical campus, as well as the programs offered and the number of students on the campus. He also saw the need to expand Belmont’s constituencies beyond the Tennessee Baptists. With only ¼ of the campus student population identifying as Baptist in 2000, Dr. Fisher saw that the student population as a barometer for the larger direction the school should proceed. Belmont University parted with the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 2008 with a pecuniary settlement that satisfied both sides.[xvii]
Dr. Fisher was affectionately nicknamed “Bob the Builder,” and during his tenure oversaw the addition of many buildings that eventually grew the university to 75 acres.[xviii] He also worked on growing the Universities’ reputation by overseeing two presidential debates in 2008 and in 2020. These events put Belmont’s name in national news stories and situated the campus as a space where national conversations happen.
Another important commitment Belmont made during Dr. Fisher’s time as President was a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Fisher helped institute The Bridges to Belmont program in 2013, a program that has seen 280 local students receive full scholarships to Belmont University.[xix] Freedom Plaza was also established in 2021, which honors the enslaved who toiled on the grounds of Belmont Plantation. Dr. Fisher’s transformational time as President has made Belmont University what it is today.
Dr. Gregory Jones, Belmont University’s current president, set the tone for his time at Belmont with his inaugural-year phrase “Let Hope Abound.” Under Greg, as he is affectionately known, Belmont University will continue to claim its role as a premier liberal arts university, as it strives towards its new vision of a being a “Christ-centered, student-focused community” in the business of developing diverse leaders ready to make a difference in the world.
[i] Joy Jordan-Lake, From Here to Anywhere: A History of Belmont University, 1890-2015 (St. Louis, MO, 2015), 11.
[ii] “Belmont Then and Now,” 1990, Belmont University Special Collections, 2.
[iii] Heather Cochran, Celebrating Milestones the Life and Legacy of the Harpeth Hall School (Nashville: The Harpeth Hall School, 2001), 17.
[iv] Ibid, 21.
[v] Ibid, 22.
[vi] “Belmont Then and Now,” 5, Belmont University Special Collections.
[vii] Lake, From here to Anywhere, 29.
[viii] Ibid, 39.
[ix] Ibid, 44.
[x] “Belmont Will Offer Classes in Evening,” Nashville Banner, 9 September 1952, 17.
[xi] Lake, From Here to Anywhere, 82.
[xii] Ibid, 91
[xiii] “Belmont Then and Now,” 7.
[xv] Lake, From Here to Anywhere, 113
[xvi] Ibid, 114.
[xvii] Ibid, 121-125.
[xviii] Ibid, 127.
[xix] April Hefner, “Bridges to Belmont Initiative Expanding to 10 Metro High Schools, 50 Students for Fall 2022,” October 7, 2021. https://news.belmont.edu/bridges-to-belmont-expanding/#:~:text=Search-,Bridges%20to%20Belmont%20Initiative%20Expanding%20to%2010%20Metro%20High,50%20Students%20for%20Fall%202022&text=Dr.,with%20Metro%20Nashville%20Public%20Schools.