Fisk University Struggles Through Financial Crisis
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
All this month TELL ME MORE is going back to school. We're placing a special focus on education. Earlier this week we talked about how historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs, are trying to improve their graduation rates, especially among young black men.
Today we're going to focus on another challenge: financial stability. Now, of course that's a problem faced by many institutions of higher education, especially right now when the economy is lagging. But we're going to zero in on the - on one institution where the financial woes are particularly poignant, owing to the institution's storied past.
We're talking about Fisk University. It is Nashville's oldest university. It boasts a long roster of prominent alumni, including the poet Nikki Giovanni, NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. And by the way, we'll tell you the truly remarkable personal story of the man who directed the Jubilee Singers for many years. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.
But, first, we have to talk about Fisk's weak balance sheet. Almost all of its assets are mortgaged, except for an art collection donated to the school some 60 years ago by artist Georgia O'Keefe. The collection is worth some $70 million. The school has tried to raise funds by selling off a part of the collection. But Tennessee courts have consistently blocked the school from doing so.
We wanted to know more, so we've called on Jennifer Brooks. She's a higher education reporter for The Tennessean newspaper. She's with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. JENNIFER BROOKS (Reporter, The Tennessean): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Why has the sale been blocked so many times over the years?
Ms. BROOKS: Well, when O'Keefe made her donation to the university, she had a number of explicit conditions and one of them was that the collection never be sold.
MARTIN: And so, has - the school has tried to do this. So they have just been told no.
Ms. BROOKS: They're petitioning for release from the terms of her request. And the state is fighting it tooth and nail saying that if Fisk is allowed to sell off something that was given to them, then other donors might balk at giving to Tennessee universities and museums in the future.
MARTIN: There was a development just this week. Tell us what it was.
Ms. BROOKS: It was a very interesting development. The Tennessee attorney general floated a proposal to the courts that would've removed Fisk's art from the university and placed it in a local art gallery - the First Center for the Visual Arts - and would've held it there until such time, as Fisk was able to properly care for the collection again - until Fisk was solvent. And Fisk reacted to that about as well as you would expect when someone's coming to take your one asset away from you.
Students took to the streets. They rallied outside the First Center and stormed the city with a letter writing campaign that actually seemed to have had an effect.
MARTIN: Just how bad is Fisk's financial situation? And why is it in the circumstances that it's in?
Ms. BROOKS: Well, it's hard to say exactly how bad Fisk is. It's a private university. We can't look at their books. Hazel O'Leary, the president, testified in court that if Fisk cannot sell off a share of its art for $30 million, they'll be forced to close their doors. The state attorney general argued that Fisk isn't in that dire condition. They've been saying that they're about to close for about six years now and they have not closed. So it's a circular argument. It goes around and around.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit, if you would, about why Fisk is such an historic institution and why it engenders such passion. As you mentioned, students took the streets to protest this latest, you know, round - an effort to take the art collection away, even though, as we've said, university leaders have tried to at least sell or leverage it in order to raise funds. So, why does Fisk engender such passion?
Ms. BROOKS: There is no place like Fisk - the history of this place. You go there and you see a school where students, who were recently slaves, went to get an education. This was a school that was built with walls two feet thick and with watch towers on the roofs to keep an eye out for the Ku Klux Klan that might come riding to burn a black college.
This is a school when during the Civil Rights Movement other historically black colleges and universities expelled the students who took part in the Freedom Riots. Fisk celebrated the students. Fisk students led the lunch counter protests. They got Nashville peacefully desegregated.
MARTIN: So it's just a very historic place with a very deep and rich history and obviously a very sort of strong alumni core. But you said that Fisk saw -we heard that Fisk saw an increase in its enrollment this year and that there is - there are some bright spots. Is there any sign that there might be some relief coming from any quarter to address this situation?
Ms. BROOKS: Well, the interesting thing was when the attorney general made his proposal, the community did rally around Fisk. You know, whatever people might think about Fisk's financial problems, the fact that the school has not been very effective at fundraising, there was something about this threat from the outside that had people saying, no, there is something at Fisk that's worth protecting.
And they rallied around to save the school. The city agency that would've been in charge of paying to move the art said, no, we're not going to get involved in this fight until the court ruled. And then the judge stepped in and said, I do not accept the attorney general's proposal. It's a temporary solution. And instead she instructed both parties in the lawsuit to go back to the drawing board and take a look at the proposed sale agreement. And that's the only thing they'll be dealing with, whether or not Fisk will be allowed to sell Georgia O'Keefe
MARTIN: A very brief - sorry, Jennifer - just very briefly, we only have about 10 seconds, but how does the larger national community feel about Fisk? We're talking about African-Americans, but how about other members of the community, are they as supportive or not? Very briefly.
Ms. BROOKS: This is the first time a lot of people have really thought about Fisk. And I think they are getting an impression that there's something in this university that's worth saving.
MARTIN: Jennifer Brooks is a higher education reporter for The Tennessean newspaper. She's been following the situation closely and she joined us from Nashville. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. BROOKS: Thanks for having me.
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