Vision for a ‘New Fisk’ Has Students, Alumni Asking ‘At What Expense?’
Survey shows president, students far apart on plans for reviving the HBCUBy David HefnerNASHVILLE, Tenn.
Fisk University’s newly elected president, Dr. Carolynn Reid-Wallace, has created quite a stir in Nashville and within the tightly woven Fisk community.
It all started in March when she hinted that Fisk needed to be more racially diversified in order to help the small, financially strapped private school raise more money. The comments, shocking to some and understandable to others, led to a front-page article in Nashville’s The Tennessean newspaper indicating that less than 30 percent of Fisk students supported Reid-Wallace’s 9-month-old administration.
That same day, the president was quoted in another Nashville newspaper, saying she was considering selling pieces of Fisk’s famed Stieglitz Art Collection of modernist masterpieces as a way of bailing the university out of financial woes. The collection is estimated to be worth more than $10 million, but Fisk officials say a clause in the contract forbids the school from selling the art. Reid-Wallace immediately denied the newspaper report, saying she was misunderstood.
But by then, the damage had been done. Within weeks, the director of Fisk’s art gallery, Opal Baker, resigned. Though Baker declined to say why, in published reports it appeared as if she either was not being consulted about or disagreed with some of the changes Reid-Wallace had in mind for the gallery. In one press report, when Reid-Wallace suggested taking the Stieglitz Collection on tour in order to raise money, an idea that is still being considered, Baker refused to comment on the move.
For better and worse, Reid-Wallace has pushed Fisk to the front pages of Nashville’s mainstream media, sharing her vision of what she calls the “New Fisk.” As a result, she says, people of different races are touring Fisk’s campus more and discovering not only its history but its potential.
“There’s no question that no other (Fisk) president in my recollection has gotten more press coverage,” says Dr. Axel Hansen, a 1941 Fisk graduate and former trustee.
Reid-Wallace understands the challenges before her. A former senior vice president for Education and Programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, she graduated from Fisk in 1969 and served as a trustee for six years. In recent months, she has shared her vision and goal of transforming her alma mater into the “New Fisk.”
“I’ve been out there on the road and telling people about the ‘New Fisk,'” Reid-Wallace says. “We simply haven’t had the money to do the basic things.”
But it isn’t totally clear what the “New Fisk” is or whether students and alumni of Fisk are ready to tread such uncharted, if not undefined, ground.
Fisk University, the once-bustling mecca that educated American intellectual and civil rights icons such as Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. John Hope Franklin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., has in recent years fallen from grace. Once recognized as one of America’s best private colleges for Blacks, Fisk no longer enjoys such blanket notoriety. Exactly what happened is up for debate, but most say it started in the 1980s and many say the bottom line is lack of money.
Since 1996, Fisk has had two full-time presidents and one interim leader, and each has fallen short in the daunting task of fund-raising. Where they have failed, Reid-Wallace says, she will succeed. To her credit, she recently received a combined donation of $10.5 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior ($4 million), a Nashville foundation ($2.5 million) and an anonymous donor ($4 million).
“I’m going to raise a ton of money,” says Reid-Wallace, 59. “We are going after millions that we have to have in order to transform this school.”
Some are wondering what cost Fisk will pay in order to climb out of its financial abyss. They’re worried that the “New Fisk” that Reid-Wallace talks about is too heavily based on employing and enrolling more non-Black administrators and students.
“Money is not everything,” says Dr. Raymond Winbush, who recently resigned as director of Fisk’s Race Relations Institute. “Fisk has always been in financial trouble. Fisk has to get on a firm financial standing but it cannot be at the expense of the historical mission. To me, that’s obscene.”
Winbush, who brought the 60-year-old Race Relations Institute back to national and international prominence, says he had decided to resign before Reid-Wallace’s appointment as president, but his decision was confirmed after she took office. “I knew there was no commitment to the Race Relations Institute by this administration,” he says. (Reid-Wallace has said her administration is indeed committed to continuing the legacy of the institute.) On July 1, Winbush will become director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.
Like Winbush, Hansen agrees Fisk does not need to spend time trying to diversify its student body.
“I’m not saying I’m opposed to (diversity), but primarily Fisk is for African Americans,” Hansen says. “I don’t think (diversity) should be a big objective. I think there’s more to undergraduate education than textbooks. It’s also self-esteem and pride.”Traditional Identity
Increasingly, skepticism is centering on whether Fisk will retain its traditional identity or lose pieces of it because of the economic realities of running a college. As competition for recruiting good students mounts, premiums are being placed on successful fund-raising campaigns and building projects.
Reid-Wallace said she believes a more racially diversified student body will make fund raising easier.
“Fisk University will always be a historically Black institution, but I’ve also said in the 21st century we must diversify. One of the many reasons why is something called economic reality,” says Reid-Wallace, Fisk’s first female president. “But I’m not just talking about Black and White. I’m talking about those mothers, or the student who takes one of my Internet degree programs who lives in Gambia. I’m going to Puerto Rico. Diversity is getting Hispanic students who live right here in Nashville. And diversity, yes, means Whites, too.”
Students overwhelmingly disagree with enrolling more Whites and other ethnic groups at Fisk, according to a survey the administration recently commissioned. The survey, conducted by the Washington-based Research Strategies International, LLC, indicated that only 33 percent of students “agreed or strongly agreed” that Fisk should be more racially mixed. (According to the survey, a majority of trustees, administrators and faculty are in favor of more diversity.) The survey also showed that only 28 percent of students support the new administration.
“We cannot afford to lose our strong historical traditions of Fisk and our heritage,” one student said. “This institution should not try to become more diversified. Our history is really all we have.”
Ironically, amid growing disagreements between students and Reid-Wallace, the research group said a good relationship between students and the president was paramount for Fisk’s success. The research group also recommended the administration “preserve the traditions of Fisk University.”
“Institutional identity can be a very sensitive subject area since it is strongly related to brand identity,” the research group wrote in its executive summary. “Fisk University has undergone many administrative and presidential changes over the past five years, yet tradition and history have been two ‘constants’ for the students. It is strongly recommended that students and alumni be included in institutional changes that affect university tradition and the possible racial diversification of the student body. Changes that take place without student or alumni input may directly and indirectly affect Fisk in years to come.”
The research group recommended that Reid-Wallace focus initially on “enhancing student services and improving campus facilities.”
Soon, the inside of the Fisk’s administration building will be renovated. Historic Jubilee Hall is getting new windows at a price of $640,000. Eventually, says Reid-Wallace, she wants Fisk to have a new fine arts building, a new men’s dormitory with kitchens and a study area, and a wellness center. She also wants to double freshman enrollment. Fisk enrolled about 900 students last year, including 157 freshmen.
Whether these kinds of changes alone constitute a “New Fisk” is still unclear. But one thing is clear: More people in Nashville are talking about Fisk than in recent history. And to Reid-Wallace, that’s good.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com