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Fisk Clears Major Stopgap Fundraising Hurdle

Fisk University, struggling to right its financial ship, cleared a major hurdle toward that goal last week with news that it has raised $4 million in unrestricted cash since December, allowing it to collect $2 million more in a challenge grant, pay past due bills and finish its fiscal year with a small surplus.

“This phenomenal accomplishment comes at a special time for our university,” said P. Andrew Patterson, vice chair of the Fisk board, in a statement released last week by the university. “Our alumni, trustees and friends are engaged,” said Patterson, whose school has been plagued by a steady decline in its financial health for most of the past five years.

Fisk urgently needed to finish its fiscal year ending June, 30, with a significantly improved set of financial records, including a surplus for the current year, as it prepares to seek renewal this fall of its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

The financial health of an institution is one of three major focuses of the 10-year accreditation process. Weaknesses in finances can lead to warnings and even loss of accreditation, a determination that could cause a school to be disqualified from receiving federal student aid. Fisk depends on federal student aid for more than 75 percent of its students.

Since its last review, Fisk’s fortunes have sunk to new lows, with nearly all of its assets mortgaged and half its endowment borrowed to keep the small historically Black college afloat. At various times over the past year, Fisk officials have said the school owes its endowment between $6 million and $8 million.

Fisk officials feel showing a surplus for the current year and a significant reduction in debt will go a long way toward easing concerns the SACS team may raise. In its announcement, Fisk said it paid $4 million in bills this month, eliminating “accounts payable” dating to 2004.

The urgently needed financial boost traces its roots to a December surprise from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York. It came to Fisk’s rescue, after hearing about the historic school’s declaration last fall that it would be out of working capital by December 2007, absent an urgent infusion of money.

The Mellon foundation gave Fisk $1 million in unrestricted cash and promised another $2 million in unrestricted cash if Fisk could raise $4 million in unrestricted cash on its own by June 30. Mellon also gave a grant to UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) to help Fisk put in place a long-term fundraising plan for developing sustainable giving.

In response, churches in middle Tennessee donated thousands and Fisk trustees pledged to raise $2 million, including giving more from their own funds. Foundations and other wealthy individuals were solicited. Fisk alumni were asked to give $1 million.

Despite a general distaste among donors for giving unrestricted funds, Fisk did get modest amounts of money (some would say significant giving the economy and retrenchment in giving) from a variety of sources. A few foundations, including the Ford and Mott foundations, pitched in. Regions Bank, Wachovia Bank and Hospital Corporation of America pitched in. The alumni, leaned on heavily in recent years, came through.

Fisk did not disclose the names of all donors who responded to the Mellon challenge, only saying there were 1,161 new donors to the university this fiscal year.

“We pulled off a minor miracle in seven months,” said Dr. Sulayman Clark, hired this time a year ago by Fisk President Hazel O’Leary as Fisk’s chief fundraiser, who she called her “go to” man. “People should be justifiably proud, particularly our alumni,” said Clark, who quietly resigned his high-profile post at Fisk two weeks ago.

Fisk officials said their fundraising efforts would continue toward the launch of a capital campaign in 2012. They did not return repeated phone calls

seeking more information on the announcement or their future plans.

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