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Fisk University Seeks New Leader, New Direction

When officials at tuition-driven Fisk University raised the veil of secrecy a few years ago surrounding the university’s financial condition, the details they laid out were less than encouraging.

The Nashville-based university, the home of the historic Jubilee Singers, was losing several million dollars a year and had not received any major private support for a school of its stature in at least two decades, the Fisk officials told a Tennessee judge. Fisk had mortgaged all its property it could to raise cash to keep its doors open, they explained.

Enrollment, one of a university’s two principal sources of income, was nose-diving, the university told the court. It had cut salaries, suspended contributions to its pension plan and vacation accrual and was deferring all but the most essential building maintenance.

The bleak financial report came to light in a court battle Fisk is still waging in an effort to raise new money by monetizing — first by selling parts and, more recently, part ownership of its treasured Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs. The 101-piece collection, once valued at more than $70 million, had been donated to the school by the late artist Georgia O’Keeffe with strict conditions prohibiting its sale. The legal battle lingers in the state’s court system with no end in sight, a fact that further clouds the outlook for Fisk.

Fisk did not have to disclose it was in trouble with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, the regional accrediting agency for most colleges and universities in the South. That embarrassing situation was already a matter of public record, as SACS had been questioning the university’s financial stability and quality of leadership.

In the nearly two years since Fisk publicly detailed its financial crisis, SACS has maintained Fisk’s accreditation while steadily raising red flags about the school. Two years ago, SACS placed Fisk on warning status. In December, SACS placed Fisk on probation, giving it a year to demonstrate it is a financially viable entity with a “qualified” leadership team or risk more severe sanctions.

Today, as more than a dozen HBCUs search for new presidents, few present more challenges to presidential prospects than Fisk, say many seasoned higher education observers who see the clock ticking on the once venerable institution.

By the same token, those interviewed — veteran fundraisers, organization consultants, current and retired presidents — say Fisk has a narrow window of opportunity to signal its various constituencies — potential students, government agencies, alumni, corporations and philanthropists — that it is serious about rebounding. They say it needs to articulate a new and ambitious long-range vision with a new leadership team with good public relations skills to execute it, an ingredient for success they say has been missing from Fisk’s public agenda for years.

What Does Fisk Need?

“The trustees need to pause and take a look and ask themselves, ‘What in the world are we looking for?’” says one former president who is a recruiting consultant focusing on college presidential candidates. “They are not going to be able to go out and get some big name to raise money,” the consultant says.

“There are too many people looking for a person like that,” he says, adding that some 15 percent of the nation’s colleges are engaged in searches for new presidents, including Fisk, Morehouse College, Tennessee State University and South Carolina State University among HBCUs on the hunt.

Indeed, while the wisdom of keeping President Hazel O’Leary on the job until December has drawn mixed reviews, some say the time can work to the trustees’ favor. Some Fisk admirers want a quick change in leadership now that O’Leary has said she’s leaving.

Others think that trustees can use the time to bring in a mixed (higher education, federal government and corporate America) team of three to four well-respected individuals who can conduct a thorough inquiry among Fisk’s various constituent groups to ascertain what they think the school needs. Then the team can advise trustees on the type of person to seek.

Fisk is a brand name many people seasoned in running a business would rush to aid, if asked, say several observers, adding that Fisk’s next president should be an individual with such business experience. Most interviewed say the search should be open and not limited to staff on campus or alumni of the school. Some suggest that trustees turn to a retired president with credentials who can run the school on an interim basis while trustees consider the type of person the school really needs to help revive Fisk and carry it to the next level.

“There are a lot of people you don’t quickly recognize,” says a veteran development officer familiar with Fisk’s condition. He and others say Fisk trustees need to cast a wide net beyond the ranks of current presidents and provosts to include people with successful experiences in corporate America, deans of business schools, people with good people skills, who are able, and ready, to make a case for a new Fisk.

“Fisk has the cache to remain,” says the development officer. “Others have had more challenges than Fisk. People are just waiting for, ‘What’s the plan? Where are you going to be 20 years from now? What are your steps five years, 10 years from now?’”

Several higher education veterans suggest that Fisk set its eyes on identifying a person with what they call “gamesmanship.”

“You want a gamesman,” says a retired president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You want someone who is highly competent in the area of finance, has dealt with finances and fundraising, someone who will make very difficult decisions and still have the sensitivity to deal with faculty and the community,” the veteran educator says. “You want someone who appreciates liberal arts, shared governance and participatory democracy.”

A respected “gamesman” can pull the “right” people to the table and hammer out a plan to resolve Fisk’s current problems, including the prolonged skirmish over using its art collection to raise money, those interviewed agree. With the “right person” leading the team, the school can negotiate its debts, find a way to quickly end the art collection litigation and revive enthusiasm among wealthy donors, foundations and corporations, they say.

A tall order and high expectations for sure, those interviewed acknowledged. Still, such an ambitious goal is a must, they say, if Fisk hopes to revive itself and persuade a weary SACS of Fisk’s long-term financial viability and qualification of its leadership. It has been done in the past, with the right team in place, they add.

The candidate pool is quite large, those interviewed agree. The pool shrinks significantly, they say, when you carefully sort through the crowd, says Robert Sevier, senior vice president of Iowa-based Stamats, the higher education fundraising firm.

“There are a lot of people who want the job (of president) but don’t necessarily want to make the tough decisions,” says Sevier. “They want to be the job but not do the job,” he says.

Sevier, whose firm has consulted with universities on fundraising for several decades, says today’s successful presidents have two qualities in particular — the ability to “build an extraordinarily strong senior team that can run the school day to day and the ability to raise money. The new president needs to be more of a team leader and less of an institutional manager,” says Sevier, asserting the next Fisk president needs to have “a vision of such magnitude that it attracts resources.”

The big question is whether the oft-criticized Fisk board of trustees is up to the challenge.

There is no shortage of doubters who assert the university’s poor performance in the past decade is a direct reflection of choices and decisions of Fisk’s trustees. It was the trustees who decided to put the treasured art collection in play, only to see it become a divisive, publicly embarrassing, drawn-out affair. It was the trustees who chose Fisk graduate O’Leary as president and stood solidly behind her as the university’s fortunes, shaky when she came on board, continued to falter under her leadership.

“The Fisk board is too ethnocentric,” says a former HBCU president familiar with the university’s challenges. He says the board of trustees is imbalanced with too many Fisk graduates “who want to go back to the good old days. The good old days were not that good,” says the former president, who declined to speak for attribution to avoid possible conflicts of interest. “Fisk has a self-perpetuating board. They need to clean it out,” says the veteran educator.

The spokeswoman for Fisk did not return calls. Attorney P. Andrew Patterson, vice chairman of the board of trustees and chairman of the university’s presidential search committee, could not be reached for comment.

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