UCC's historic Fisk University is facing major financial crisis

UCC's historic Fisk University is facing major financial crisis

October 25, 2007
Written by Bennett Guess

The president of UCC-related Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., has said the historic school could run out of operating funds before year's end.

In an Oct. 25 front-page story in The Tennessean, Hazel O'Leary, who became president of Fisk in 2004, acknowledged the school's serious financial condition.

The historically black university is trying to sell its stake in an art collection donated by Georgia O'Keeffe.

The school wants to use money from a $30 million deal to share its Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art, but that deal has been stalled for two years. The case is expected to be heard by a Tennessee court in February, but The Tennessean reports that the school will run out of money two months before the case will be considered.

"The fly in our ointment is the case hasn't moved along," O'Leary said.

Fisk faculty have not received a pay increase since 2003, and staff members making over $65,000 have agreed to salary cuts. Fall enrollment is down 10 percent due to decreased scholarship assistance.

Between 2002 and 2004, the school spent $7.5 million from its $14.7 million endowment. The remaining funds in the endowment are restricted. The school also has little borrowing potential, since all campus buildings have been used as collateral for existing loans.

Fisk is one of six historically African-American colleges related to the UCC. It was founded in 1866 by the former American Missionary Association, an outgrowth of the Amistad Support Committee and a forerunner of the UCC's present-day Justice and Witness Ministries. Fisk's faculty and alumni include intellectual and historical giants, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Aaron Douglas.

If the art deal doesn't go through, O'Leary and Fisk's board of trustees hope to come up with an alternative since the school doesn't have any other assets to mortgage.

"Right now, no specific plan D to talk about. It's being worked on but it's not ready to talk about," she said.

Leaders such as trustee Howard Gentry hope reversing the school's current financial crisis doesn't mean students will have to beg for money. The famed Fisk Jubilee Singers choir began when students went on a fundraising concert tour in 1871 to save the then-5-year-old school.

"You should not have your students on the corner begging, but maybe some of the trustees, some of the others, not necessarily go on the corner begging, but go to the corners of these United States of America," Gentry said.

"Stay tuned because before Dec. 15 will tell the world whether we've made it or we haven't," O'Leary said.

O'Leary said the school must find a way to come up with enough money to keep the university operating until the trial begins.

This is a problem school officials have kept quiet about in the past. But recent media attention has caused O'Leary to frequently receive phone calls from alumni and people in the community asking how they can help.


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