This past week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools rejected Fisk University’s financial update and extended the institution’s probation. This decision puts Fisk in jeopardy.
I have written several times about Fisk for both the Chronicle and Diverse in the past year. As I’ve said before, Fisk is a very special place. It is a deeply historical institution that boasts fantastic art (and not just the Georgia O’Keeffe collection), the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, strong programs in the sciences, superb graduate-school preparation, and the Jubilee Singers.
In recent years, the Nashville-based HBCU has been mired in controversy. It has been fighting a legal battle over its valuable art collection (which needs to stop), acquiring a large amount of debt, suffering from accreditation problems, and receiving criticism from disgruntled (and often very well known) alumni.
At the same time, Fisk University has remained in the list of top ten HBCU’s as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. The institution has a substantial track record of producing students who go on to pursue graduate degrees, especially, but not limited to, the sciences. Even while in the midst of immense challenges, Fisk has served its students well.
Still, the longstanding problems that the institution has experienced, coupled with little movement forward, call into question the leadership of the venerable institution. If the current leadership and board continue to be in place, they must change course. The current strategy is not working. Struggling to sell (against the donor’s wishes) the O’Keeffe art collection has been costly and has resulted in the institution’s leadership taking their eyes off the goal. Fundraising strategies need to engage alumni and those who care about Fisk in much greater ways. Moreover, Fisk needs to own up to its mistakes, challenges, and needs with potential funders and supporters.
Fisk University has a stellar legacy and the potential for a great future. However, its leadership, alumni, and supporters need to circle the wagons, demonstrate the institution’s strengths, be open to new and innovative ideas, and let go of failing practices. There are many, many individuals (including me) across the country that care deeply about Fisk University, as well as other HBCU’s. Are these supporters being asked to give to the institution financially? Are they being tapped to provide ideas, strategies, and support for the institution?
When we are having trouble as individuals, we reach out to our friends. I hope that Fisk University will reach out its friends (all of them) and ask for what it needs. My mother always told me that there is no shame in asking for help. It demonstrates resourcefulness.