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Fisk University Seeking Emergency Funds to Strengthen Re-accreditation Bid

Fisk University, facing increasing demands from its national accrediting body for more substantive documentation about its long-term financial viability, is beating the bushes for more funds from supporters by the end of this month as part of efforts to demonstrate its fundraising potential.

Faced with an April 15 deadline to file its report with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges, Fisk is trying to raise $3.1 million by the end of March as part of its plan of “demonstrating fundraising viability,” says one Fisk official who declined to speak for attribution.

Officially, the school has been mum on its fundraising experience since SACS put it on “warning status” in December, demanding more proof that Fisk can comply with several “comprehensive standards” of financial viability required of all member schools. SACS, based in Atlanta, is the principal accrediting agency for colleges and universities in the South.

In a recent electronically distributed newsletter sent to Fisk supporters, the school’s office of institutional advancement gives an upbeat but mixed picture of its efforts as of February.

The report says contributions by Fisk trustees, long a focus of criticism about their weak financial support, was up 55.7 percent from last year; $674,925 compared to 2010’s total of $413,639. Foundation support for the historic school, home of the internationally famous Jubilee Singers, also was up significantly, the Fisk report says.

However, contributions by civic, social and religious organizations dropped by 44 percent. Alumni donations and gifts have also continued to slide, says the report. While exact numbers of contributions for the month of February were not detailed in the report, it does state that Fisk alumni have given the school more than $500,000 since its 2011 fiscal year began July 1, 2010.

“We’re on track to do well,” says another Fisk official intimately involved in the school’s fundraising efforts.

Fisk spokesman Greg Bryant says the university is not including in its SACS report any hoped-for revenue from a controversial proposal to sell its interest in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs. The five-year-old proposal has been tangled in legal disputes challenging Fisk’s right to sell the Collection, which was given to the school by the late artist Georgia O’Keefe in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with rigid no-sale provisions. The dispute is before the Tennessee Court of Appeals with no date set for the court to render an opinion and order.

“The undivided ½ interest sharing agreement with Crystal Bridges was never a part of the presentation to SACS,” says Bryant. “The litigation is ongoing and SACS evaluates concrete rather than projected outcomes.”

Crystal Bridges is a new Arkansas arts museum sponsored by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Fisk agreed several years ago to receive $30 million from the museum for it taking a half interest in the art collection. The contract also gives the museum the right to move the exhibit to its facility for extended periods of time and gives the museum considerable say over management of the Collection.

Meanwhile, Fisk officials have been busy trying to nail down the loose ends that have frustrated its reaccreditation efforts for more than a year.

Last month, the university hired a new chief financial officer, Clancy E. Roberts, to help guide its financial audit and prepare the SACS report.

SACS officials do not comment publicly about their actions regarding particular schools. However, several non-SACS-affiliated accreditation agents contacted by Diverse say that even if Fisk’s report fails to satisfy SACS, the organization would be hard pressed to deny the school accreditation anytime soon.

Failure to satisfy SACS might push the agency to place the school on probation, a status that could drag out the accrediting issue another six months to a year, says one veteran consultant. That scenario would also make it tougher for Fisk to draw financial support and students. But stretching the process out would give Fisk more time to get its own affairs in order, the consultant notes.

In December, SACS concluded that Fisk’s recent financial history failed to demonstrate that the university was financially stable. It therefore declined Fisk’s request to extend its accreditation for another decade, and called on the university to provide a variety of documents to show its financial viability.

SACS accreditation is essential for many institutions across the South, as the federal government denies most federal aid to colleges that lack such accreditation. That includes federal student loan funds, of which HBCU’s like Fisk rely upon heavily for annual revenue.

In court testimony over the past few years, Fisk has detailed a myriad of financial troubles.

In the fall of 2009, it made an urgent public appeal for support, saying it would have to close its doors by the end of year if it did not get a major infusion of funds. Civic, religious and social groups in Nashville and around the nation responded to the plea. One New York foundation with ties to a then-Fisk trustee gave the school $1 million dollars.

By the summer of 2010, with its coffers once again nearly bare and the Stieglitz sale stalled in court, Fisk disclosed it was living on borrowed time, having mortgaged all of its property, cut salaries and employee benefits, consolidated academic programs and deferred purchasing and some major facilities maintenance. It said it was also running an annual deficit in excess of $2 million a year and its endowment had shrunk to only a few million dollars. Enrollment at Fisk, once well over 1,200 students, had shrunk to approximately 600, although the school says applications for the fall are encouraging.

Those financial hardship disclosures were made by Fisk in an attempt to prompt a local judge to approve the sale of the Stieglitz Collection. A group of Fisk legacy alumni have since called on the school to abandon the art sale, a demand Fisk has rejected.

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