Fisk, Angry Over Judge’s Art Ruling, Says It Will Fight On

Financially strapped Fisk University says it will appeal a Tennessee judge’s decision last month to deny the school access to all the sale proceeds of a proposed ownership sharing agreement involving the school’s valuable Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs.

The judge, Ellen Hobbs Lyle, had ruled Fisk could get a third of the money ($10 million), as long as the remainder ($20 million) went into an independently managed endowment whose income would be used solely to support future costs associated with maintaining and exhibiting the collection in Nashville. That would generate about $1 million a year for the collection.

“This restriction effectively confiscates proceeds from the approved sharing agreement and places Fisk in a more risky position than before,” says a Fisk statement quoting Fisk President Hazel O’Leary. During the five years of litigation over the school’s attempts to monetize the collection through various sale schemes, O’Leary has insisted the school has the right to sell all or part of the collection and put proceeds to use as it sees fit. 

The statement quoted Fisk board chairman, Robert Norton, as calling the court-ordered endowment as “excess,” noting Fisk had told the court it felt it needed approximately $100,000 annually to care for the collection. “Under the current ruling, the excessive overfunding of the Stieglitz Collection would starve the University’s core educational mission,” says Norton. “This leaves the University no choice but to appeal the Chancellor’s (Judge Lyle) decision.”

The decision to appeal Judge Lyle’s ruling comes on the heels of the departure of two key members of O’Leary’s executive team and only weeks after a group of legacy alumni called on Fisk’s trustees to abandon the art sale strategy, asserting it was costing the school hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs and getting it nowhere in five years.

On Tuesday, Dr. M. Christopher Brown, Fisk Provost and Executive Vice President, was named president of Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss. He had been at Fisk just over 18 months and for a while had been viewed by observers as a possible successor to O’Leary. Brown succeeded Dr. Kofi Lomotey, Chancellor of Southern University-Baton Rouge. Lomotey, who has faced draconian state-mandated budget cuts and an unfriendly faculty during his tenure at Southern, resigned his post last week, effective next spring.

“The school is losing a major administrator,” says one veteran higher education consultant familiar with Fisk’s efforts to survive amid a steadily deteriorating financial condition and troubles raising new revenue. He said the executive team departures at Fisk created an untimely void and said Fisk would have a difficult time finding a provost outside the school due to its financial condition.

Earlier, last month, Ken West, Fisk vice president of communications and public relations, resigned his post. West had been the chief spokesman for O’Leary for five years, most of her tenure at the school. 

Fisk planned to outline an interim “management structure” to the “University Community” late Thursday, according to Shirley Range, vice president for institutional development at the school.

The decision to appeal Judge Lyle’s ruling is certain to widen the rift between an increasingly restless legacy alumni who, in a recent letter to Norton, urged that O’Leary and many trustees be replaced with fresh leadership that knows how to raise money for the school. In a rebuttal to the legacy alumni, Norton dismissed their complaints, strongly defended O’Leary’s stewardship, and said the school was soon unveiling a $90 million capital campaign.

Outside observers, familiar with major fundraising campaigns by colleges, were surprised by Norton’s disclosure. They noted it is unusual for a school to announce a major capital campaign in the absence of solid commitments in hand for a significant portion of the fundraising goal. They also noted Fisk would have little luck raising major funding as long as it was locked in a legal battle over the fate of its art collection.

Meanwhile, Fisk is anxiously awaiting word in the next few days from the Southern Association of Colleges and School (SACS) regarding Fisk’s accreditation status. The group’s Commission on Colleges is set to meet in Kentucky early this month.

This time a year ago, SACS renewed Fisk’s accreditation for 10 years, subject to the school clarifying some questions about its finances. Fisk filed a confidential response with SACS this fall, detailing what improvements had been made and were envisioned. Part of that plan hinged on resolution of the art collection ownership sale, now unresolved based on last month’s court ruling and Fisk’s decision to appeal it. SACS is expected to announce its actions on the Fisk situation early next week.