Fisk University’s Hazel O’Leary to Continue Helping Fisk after Retirement

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fisk University president Hazel O’Leary said Tuesday that she plans to continue helping the financially embattled institution after her retirement.

O’Leary spoke to reporters after announcing late last week that she’s retiring in December after eight years.

For at least two years, she has been involved in a legal battle over whether the university can sell a $30 million stake in an art collection donated to the school by the late American artist Georgia O’Keeffe to handle its financial needs.

O’Leary said Tuesday that she has “always been a generous donor to Fisk, and I intend to continue to do that.”

” I have said to my board of trustees … that I will do whatever,” said O’Leary, adding that she’s currently helping with a comprehensive fundraising campaign for the university.

The 74-year-old, who was U.S. Energy Secretary from 1993 to 1997, has been Fisk president since August 2004.

In Washington, O’Leary was the first woman and black to head the Energy Department. She has been credited with helping persuade President Bill Clinton to end testing of nuclear weapons.

She reiterated to reporters on Tuesday that Fisk has achieved top tier performance among liberal arts institutions in academics, student retention and engagement, and that she’s optimistic about the university’s future.

For instance, she said Fisk has averaged more than $5 million in annual donations during the past five years, exceeding the historically Black colleges and universities’ average annual fundraising amounts by 45 percent.

O’Leary said her decision to retire was tough, but she realized she’s simply “running out of energy.”

“It’s just timing,” she said. “I’m 74 years old. This is a complex job with many buttons to push.”

Nevertheless, O’Leary said it will be tough to leave the students, many of whom she takes time to greet when she’s walking on the campus.

“There is no joy greater than working with these young people and touching their lives and making a difference for them,” she said.

Sophomore LeTroy Billups, a music business major, said O’Leary will be missed.

“The students are going to take it real hard,” he said. “She was very student-oriented. She always greeted us. Every time I saw her on the yard, she would come up to me, give me a hug, and ask me how was my day.”

O’Leary said she decided to wait until the end of the year to retire so she could help tie up some loose ends, such as allowing Fisk to complete its 2012 audit, and submit the fourth monitoring report required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges.

Last year, the state board reaffirmed Fisk’s accreditation, but put the university on probation for one year to get its finances in order.

Then, there’s still the dispute over the art collection. O’Keeffe stipulated that the collection of 101 pieces could not be sold or broken up. But Fisk has argued it has a financial need to complete a $30 million deal to sell the 50 percent stake in the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.

The state has opposed the sale to protect the public’s interest in retaining an invaluable collection. It includes O’Keeffe’s own 1927 oil painting “Radiator Building Night, New York.”