Another Untimely Departure
Fisk University president’s abrupt resignation springs yet another leadership crisis for the HBCU
By David Hefner NASHVILLE, Tenn.
It’s déjà vu all over again at Fisk University with the untimely departure of another president who is leaving behind a financially depressed school with no stability at the helm and no assurances in sight.
Last month’s resignation of former President Carolynn Reid-Wallace, who served a two-year stint, marks the university’s fourth president or interim president in the last seven years (see Black Issues, Nov. 6). The only thing that seemed to stun local alumni more than her resignation was the board of trustees’ timing in announcing it: the same day the school’s newly renovated administration building was being publicly showcased during the weekend leading up to Jubilee Day, the most historically significant day on the school’s calendar.
The unexpected news turned a weekend that was supposed to be filled with pride and promise into one ambushed by uncertainty.
“No one in their right mind … would plan (to announce) anything like this around this time,” says Fisk University alumna DeVonie Cunning, 23. “It goes to show that it was an impulse thing. It was something that happened at the spur of the moment because of something that happened at a meeting or whatever.”
Cunning doesn’t know what led to Reid-Wallace’s resignation. For that matter, not many Fisk loyalists do. Many believe, as Cunning does, that her exit was the result of a feud between her and the trustees. Some believe she left for personal reasons.
“We don’t know if it was caused by financial problems or if she just decided on her own that it was time to move on,” says student Ashley Barnett, 18. “No one really knows and they’re not telling us everything we need to know.”
The “they” Barnett is referring to are the university’s trustees, who are increasingly becoming the object of concern to many Fiskites. Fair or not, many alumni and students are starting to suggest that the university’s woes are not due to the failure of individual presidents but rather the board that hires them.
In fact, three former board members have publicly voiced their concerns about the board urging it to re-examine itself before hiring another president.
One former trustee, Del Glover, who resigned a week after Reid-Wallace stepped down, was quoted as saying the board needed to examine “why Fisk continues to have a succession of presidents. Not all of them could have been poor choices.”
For her part, Reid-Wallace left quietly, deviating from the publicity-driven way she reined as president, frequently thrusting Fisk into the media spotlight with bold ideas of a new, racially diverse institution.
Instead of fanfare, Reid-Wallace submitted her letter of resignation on Oct. 2, it was accepted by the board of trustees on Oct. 3, and she said the next day during a press conference that she was leaving Fisk because she had accomplished what she came there to accomplish. She has refused to give further interviews.
“The school was going in a good direction when she was here,” Barnett says. “I think she would have kept it going in a good direction. Her leaving hurt a lot of students’ feelings. A lot of students were depending on her. … She didn’t even come to tell us she resigned.”
The board of trustees adamantly denies that a feud existed between them and Reid-Wallace. The board chairman, Reynaldo Glover, a Chicago lawyer and 1965 Fisk graduate, admits that some trustees, including himself, did not always see eye to eye with Reid-Wallace. But he rejects the notion that a riff drove the former president away or that she was being micromanaged.
“The notion that the board forced her out, that’s just not true,” Glover says, adding, “I don’t know what micromanaging means. Collectively, this board (demonstrated) its support of Dr. Reid-Wallace by spending close to half of its liquid endowment to follow her vision and giving her the power to hire and fire. …Was there some disagreement? I think so. But there was never a time in my judgment that the board acted at any time outside its fiduciary responsibilities.”
But in an Oct. 27 letter to chairman Glover, two former trustees, Timothy B. Donaldson and Norman E. Hodges, both 1956 Fisk graduates, questioned Glover’s assessment, calling the relationship between the board and the college president “insidious.”
“How can the trustees even think about going ahead so hastily in their search for yet another president, without coming to grips with the insidious issues which are in such desperate need of resolution, pertaining to board-president relations,” they wrote.
“Fisk cannot continue to survive without strong and effective board leadership,” they continued. “We urge you to take steps, now, to ensure that the future of the institution is secured.”
The eight-page letter was sent to Glover, selected alumni and Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean.
Reid-Wallace, a 1964 Fisk graduate who served on the board of trustees before becoming president, had bold ideas for what she called “The New Fisk” (see Black Issues, June 20, 2002). She wanted to see Fisk with new dormitories and a wellness center; new academic alliances with local colleges and universities; a redefined Race Relations Institute to bring different races together in dialogue; a re-energized academic fervor reminiscent of the days when W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas and John Hope Franklin attended or taught here; a more racially diverse student body; and, perhaps most importantly, more financially stable.
In just two short years, none of Reid-Wallace’s bold agenda had been fully accomplished, but many students said she was heading in the right direction.
There are no new dormitories and no wellness center; academic alliances have been forged with Vanderbilt and Belmont universities but they’re extremely new and thus unproven; the Race Relations Institute hasn’t regained its footing after losing its two prominent directors, both of whom left for jobs at other historically Black universities; many say the school has increased its commitment to being an academic powerhouse but such a status is only achieved over time; the university is still almost all Black; and, of the estimated $28 million that reportedly has been raised over the last two years, Reid-Wallace is only partially responsible for it.
“That was attributed to not only Reid-Wallace but the board,” Glover says.
But by most accounts, Reid-Wallace was re-energizing the campus and providing vision and stability. Despite the fact that few people agreed with her efforts to make Fisk more racially diverse, they admired the progressive things she was doing.
“There were campus renovations, and we’ve come up on our education and teachers and faculty,” says senior Amberly Mann, 21.
Ultimately, however, her departure may have come down to fund raising and Reid-Wallace’s opinions about diversifying Fisk, two things the former president viewed as connected. Reid-Wallace believed diversity was a necessary step in creating a ripe environment for a robust fund-raising campaign. But many trustees disagreed with her push to enroll more Whites and other races.
“While I completely and totally supported diversity, I never wanted to lose our primary mission,” Glover says. “We never had a vote on that issue, but we did have a number of discussions on that subject, and there were a number of us who never wanted to see this school leave its mission. But it never rose to a level of pros or cons, for or against, or both.”
Says Mann: “People really disagreed with her on the diversity thing. …I think she may have felt like people weren’t backing her, but I guess we’ll never know.”
What is known is that Fisk is once again in search of another commander in chief. Until then, a three-person committee is running the university until an interim president is named. Glover, who recently received a vote of confidence by the university’s faculty senate, said this presidential search will include input from students, faculty and alumni.
“From my perspective, it’s more important that we do it right, than we do it quick,” he says. “Fisk University is going to be fine. …Failure is not an option.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com