Tar Heel Tattler - June 2005

Board doesn't keep faith, so Belk bolts
By Frank Maley

Andrew Jackson said that one man with courage makes a majority. If one man with currency could perform the same trick, you’d think it would be John Belk at Davidson College. The chairman emeritus of Belk department stores is the school’s most generous individual donor, though it won’t say how much he has given. Its men’s basketball team plays in John M. Belk Arena. He donated $28 million to a scholarship fund that bears his name.

Yet in February, Belk found himself on the short end of a vote to allow non-Christians to fill as many as nine of the 45 voting seats on Davidson’s board of trustees. He feels so strongly that only Christians should run the Presbyterian school that he quit the board and might withhold future financial support. Steve Smith, who is managing director of Bear Stearns in Dallas and has pledged $2 million to the football program, also resigned from the board.

In his gravelly voice, Belk says the board and school President Bobby Vagt caved in to faculty pressure. “You’ve always got the same thing in any institution. Faculty thinks they’re better than anything else.”

But Vagt says the change came not from faculty but from discussions among Belk’s fellow trustees at a three-day retreat in early 2004. As they analyzed the school’s religious underpinnings, questions arose about the board’s requirement that all members be Christians. Indeed, the school’s statement of purpose has long said, “The loyalty of the college thus extends beyond the Christian community to the whole of humanity and necessarily includes openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions.”

The notion of changing the rule was referred to committees and took about a year to work its way to a board vote. The change was made on principle, Vagt says, with no regard for economic effects. So far, reaction has been mixed. While some donors have vowed never to give again, others have pledged more money, he says. “Probably the largest group — just in terms of the numbers of individuals, not counting the dollars — has been a group that says, ‘I’m not going to give to the annual fund this year because I want to make a statement, but I intend to give in succeeding years.’”

Belk has left the door open to repairing ties to the college if the board reverses itself and rejects the controversial rule. Vagt says that probably won’t happen soon. It passed 31 to 5.