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Fisk University President Hazel R. O’Leary to Retire in December

Hazel R. O’Leary, the embattled president of financially strapped Fisk University, will retire from her post in December, the school said in a surprise announcement issued late Friday.


News of O’Leary departure comes as the school manages to maintain a small, solid academic program while continuing to lose enrollment and thirst for a huge infusion of money to keep its door open. O’Leary was appointed president of Fisk in August, 2004.


A member of the university’s board of trustees says the search for a successor to O’Leary would begin immediately.


In recent years, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) increasingly expressed concern about the university’s long term viability, sending one signal after another. It placed the historic institution on warning status then, last December, placed Fisk on probation.


Fisk has been given until this fall to file its fourth monitoring report to the SACS Commission on Colleges (COC) demonstrating sufficient financial footing to ensure its long-term financial prospects and evidence that it has a qualified leadership team in place to run the school.


Some critics have pointed to O’Leary and her board of trustees as key reasons for the school’s troubles.


SACS says it will decide at its December 2012 meeting, whether the school has made a case for removal from probation or if harsher sanctions are in order. The person selected to succeed O’Leary is likely to weigh heavily on the minds of SACS’ decision makers in reaching their conclusions next fall.


“President O’Leary stands as one of the most accomplished American women of her generation,” Robert W. Norton, chairman of the Fisk Board of Trustees is quoted as saying in a statement released by the university.


“She served at Fisk during a difficult time in its history, including cuts in student loans, a tightening of credit markets and a decline in new student enrollment,” Norton is quoted as saying. “For eight years she has brought the needed vision, leadership and stability to enhance Fisk’s position as a highly ranked liberal arts university,” Norton says.


Andrew Patterson, vice chairman of the Fisk Board of Trustees and chairman of its presidential search committee, was quoted as saying a search for a successor to O’Leary would “begin immediately to ensure a smooth transition.”


Early response to the announcement of O’Leary’s departure was largely mute. There was no comment from the school’s alumni association. It has been increasingly called upon by O’Leary to bring more funds to the university as other sources of money have dried up.


There was no comment from Fisk’s faculty senate. It never took a formal vote of confidence supporting or criticizing her leadership, although some of its members have complained privately over the years as the school’s other key leadership roles – provost, chief financial officer and chief of development – have churned several times since O’Leary assumed the presidency.


The Fisk statement offered a shopping list of “accomplishments” at Fisk under O’Leary’s tenure, ranging from receipt of increased amounts of research grant funding and impressive standings of its academic programs among liberal arts schools to boosting student retention efforts.


Aside from Norton’s mention of the decline in new student enrollment, the Fisk statement did not address the school’s precarious financial condition or the contentious 5-year court battle the school has waged with various parties and the State of Tennessee over the university’s proposed sale of half ownership in its treasured Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs. The collection of original paintings was given the school half a century ago by the late artist Georgia O’Keeffe, with strict written covenants barring the sale of the collection.


O’Leary, who inherited a school in debt and was never able to devise a successful plan for turning it around, quickly embraced the school’s effort to raise money quickly by selling ownership interest in the Stieglitz art and photograph collection.


Despite early setbacks, she eventually championed a plan to sell half its ownership and partial control of the collection for $30 million to the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. That plan remains mired in the state’s courts, with the Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper asserting Fisk must be required to honor the intent of the donor.


For more than a year, a splinter group of legacy alumni, upset over the proposed sale, has advocated O’Leary’s firing and the resignation of some trustees, asserting the art sale idea is wrongheaded and little else has been done during her tenure to raise significant amounts of money or reverse the school’s enrollment decline.


The alumni splinter group had no initial comment, although one member echoed others interviewed in asserting O’Leary should have made her departure immediate as a way of helping Fisk ready itself for the next round of SACS scrutiny.


“In my opinion, the board of trustees must intervene now in the executive and management activities of the University…by immediately hiring competent compliance executives as other schools have done to turn things around to ensure a successful outcome in December,” says Fisk alum and attorney Cassandra Teague Walker. “This must be the first order of business by the trustees before anything else is done. They too, take responsibility for their lack of oversight,” says Walker, noting the Fisk problems “…didn’t just happen overnight.”


While alumni giving is up in recent years, many alumni have stopped giving to the school in protest of the art sale proposal and other potential big donors have privately moved to the sidelines pending the outcome of the art collection dispute while stating publicly the lingering poor economy has curbed their giving appetite.


Outside observers and Fisk insiders say O’Leary, a Fisk graduate, who earned her law degree at Rutgers, has been a generous personal donor to Fisk and its students in need. By the same token, what they describe as O’Leary’s aversion to “begging” for money explains, in large part, why the university has been only marginally successful in bringing in money when compared with presidents of other schools with comparable impressive histories.


Several higher education observers familiar with the Fisk story of the past decade say it will be hard for the university to attract the kind of president it needs to restore Fisk to its `Black Ivy League’ school standing, given the institution’s plight.


“A lot of people will look at the prize (the Fisk brand name), but when they open the box,” says one former Fisk administrator familiar with the school’s situation, referring to the daunting challenges that would face O’Leary’s successor.


“You’re stepping into a sea of debt,” the observer says. “Even if you turn that art sale around (as in get it finally approved by the courts), you can’t get that money in the system that fast. I hope our new president has a honeymoon,’ ” the observer adds.


In making its case nearly two years ago for monetizing the Stieglitz Collection of photographs and art, Fisk officials told a Tennessee court the institution was essentially running on empty. It had mortgaged all of its property, used much of its endowment before O’Leary became president and was running annual deficits of $2 million. The school has not updated that assertion since that disclosure, nor has it reported raising any significant amounts of money to address those major issues.


The school says it needs some $100 million to appropriately position itself for the future and says the $30 million from the art collection ownership sharing agreement could serve as seed money. A long promised capital campaign has yet to materialize. 


In the Fisk statement announcing O’Leary’s retirement, she is quoted as saying Fisk “…is in better shape than when I arrived and it will continue to enjoy a long and distinguished legacy.”

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