Historically Black Colleges Still Struggling

Ed Gordon explores the financial and academic health of historically black colleges and universities with Roosevelt Wilson, editor and publisher of the Capital Outlook black weekly in Tallahassee, Fla., and Hazel O'Leary, President of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

ED GORDON, host:

As schools ready to open, there's an air of excitement at many campuses across the country, including those of historically black colleges and universities. But with that excitement also comes concern for many, and that concern revolves around money. At Florida A&M University, for example, administrators are working to clean up a financial mess. For years, mismanagement, delinquent bills, accounting errors and declining enrollment have plagued the home of the Rattlers. But as A&M battles to correct these problems, other schools have found ways to grow and flourish. One of those schools is Fisk University, which was just named by Newsweek as one of the country's hottest universities.

Joining us is Roosevelt Wilson, editor and publisher of the Capital Outlook, a black weekly in Tallahassee, Florida. Also with us, Hazel O'Leary, the president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. We should note that Ms. O'Leary was also US Energy secretary under President Clinton.

I welcome you both to the program. Appreciate it.

Dr. HAZEL O'LEARY (President, Fisk University): Thank you.

Mr. ROOSEVELT WILSON (Editor and Publisher, Capital Outlook): Thank you very much.

GORDON: Mr. Wilson, let me start with you. We should note that you're a former administrator at Florida A&M, and you were also a journalism professor and athletic coach there. You spent 34 years there. Talk to me about the problems. This is not atypical, unfortunately, to many historically black colleges and universities across the country.

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely it is not. The problem started, surprisingly, a couple years ago. A member of the former Board of Regents said that the board kind of looked the other way when it came to holding FAMU to the same standards as the other institutions in the university system for fear of being called racist. The current interim president was shocked to hear that. She said, you know, `We don't want to be treated different from anyone else.' But what happened at that--and that, without a tight accounting every year of the finances and everything like that, the system--the situation gradually deteriorated, until our former president, immediate past president, Dr. Fred Gainous, came aboard and the state auditors were asking for some information, and they never got it, and that was one of the reasons he was dismissed. And Dr. Bryant came in and started looking, and it was kind of like going in to make an appendectomy and finding cancer.

GORDON: Ms. O'Leary, we should note that you've gone home again. You're a Fisk grad. And Fisk went through its own problems and difficulties, financial and otherwise, but now finds itself on sure footing. How did that happen?

Dr. O'LEARY: Well, I think it happened with the press and the support of many people who understood the value of Fisk University to the African-American community, to our students presently, and, perhaps most importantly, to the nation. I want to say a few things--and I don't want to eat up the air time, but Fisk University produces more African-Americans who go on to earn their PhD in the sciences than any other university in America. So now you have to contemplate Yale, Harvard, MIT. We're on track to take number one with respect to PhDs in physics. We'll probably do that in the next two to three years.

So first you have to look to the mission of the school, which was the case at Fisk, and then you have to look at the metrics, the outcome: What is the value of the value of the university to the community and, finally, to the nation? And I think the realization, once we began to focus on what we do and do well, caused all of Fisk's friends, those fallen away, those never friendly with Fisk, to recognize that it was a jewel that needed investment. And that's what makes every school go. It's capital.

GORDON: Mr. Wilson, to...

Dr. O'LEARY: If you don't have the capital, you can't run a great school.

GORDON: To a great degree, Mr. Wilson, isn't that what we need to do, whether you be a graduate of one of these universities or not, just within the black community, is understand the importance, quite frankly, of all of these schools and try to shore them up as best as we can, financially and otherwise?

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely, and I congratulate Dr. O'Leary because Fisk is an example of what all of us can be. And at one time, Florida A&M, in 1997, was college of the year, named by The Princeton Review. And--but as you say, Ed, we have a culture of not giving, and we have to change that, particularly with the public institutions such as Florida A&M. The myth is that it is state-supported. It is state-assisted. We need the dollars just like Fisk and, you know, Morehouse. We need contributions from our alumni and supporters. But I don't know if it's that false sense of confidence that the state is not going to let us go down the drain. We can't make it on state appropriations alone.

Dr. O'LEARY: I agree entirely.

GORDON: President O'Leary, we also--pick up on that point.

Dr. O'LEARY: One of the things that needs to be said...

GORDON: But let me just ask this, if you would. One of the things that I want to make sure that you speak to is the idea of accountability and making sure--ofttimes I speak with and to students on these campuses, and their concern is accountability, not just from professors but the school itself, and what they owe the student.

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I--absolutely. And that's one of the things Dr. Bryant--Dr. Castell Bryant came in, she said, `Don't treat us any different from anyone else.'

GORDON: Right.

Mr. WILSON: You know, 99 cents plus 1 cent makes a dollar on any campus.

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: And so we have to be accountable, just like everyone else, and it's inexcusable for us not to be. And we cannot look for any kind of excuses. We just have to fix it and...

GORDON: And, President O'Leary, same question to you in terms of accountability. I know you've gone far and away to cancel your own inauguration and make sure that the hundred thousand dollars that was set aside for that is going to be used as new scholarship money for students.

Dr. O'LEARY: Absolutely. But I want to also focus on the fact that, you know, it is an academy, each one of our institutions, but it is also a business. And, you know, one of the skill sets I bring to my challenge and my honor is that of a businessperson, and I do believe in accountability. What's clear at Fisk--that we are student centered; not that students run the place, but the real metric for how well we do is what occurs with the student and the student's engagement, from the day the student arrives until the day the student moves through life and achieves those things we want the student to achieve.

One of our initiatives this year was to reinvent registration, which, when I arrived, was--could be a 44-stop episode that lasted for days, if not weeks. We worked to improve that by looking at the system and focusing on servicing the student. By and large, the freshmen who enrolled just last week got it done in two to three hours in one place. And that's the kind of accountability we need at every turn.

GORDON: And we should note very quickly that rubber meets the road when people give to these universities and give dollars, Mr. Wilson, correct?

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely, but universities have to be accountable. The people have to be comfortable that the money is going for where it was intended to go. They can't have the perception that it's going down a black hole. And I say that's why that is so important. And one of the things that--and Dr. O'Leary was talking about the registration. One of the problems at FAMU is that we have people who've been there for decades and who've done it one way for so long until the president runs into problems trying to get them to change.

GORDON: Yeah, resistant to change.

Mr. WILSON: And I'm sure Dr. O'Leary's experienced at least a little of that.

GORDON: And, Doctor, I'm sure you did, but you put your foot down and made sure that people understood that there's a new day.

Dr. O'LEARY: Exactly, but I did it by engaging everyone in a strategic planning effort that focused us all on what is the business at Fisk, and it is producing an excellent product in the student.

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. O'LEARY: We aligned the school with their goals, forced collaboration, and everybody's tied to metrics.

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. O'LEARY: We've benchmarked ourselves to the best practices and measure how well we do.

GORDON: Well, President O'Leary, you've done a fine job already at Fisk University. We congratulate you and wish you luck with the rest of your tenure there, and we hope that others will use your road as a road map, if you will. And, Roosevelt Wilson, editor and publisher of the Capital Outlook, thanks for joining us.

Dr. O'LEARY: Thank you so much.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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