To the Editor:
The Fisk Administration would like to express its deep disappointment with the article, “For Decades, Black Colleges Have Been Portrayed as Deficient. What Changed?” (The Chronicle, November 15). The article does more to portray Fisk as deficient than to explain what has changed. When it does turn to what has changed, it seems to reduce or even trivialize those changes to a haphazard decision around women’s gymnastics and the fortuitous impact of TikTok. Contrary to: “the fleeting opportunity to polish their blemished image” … the Fisk Administration has worked tirelessly to build a sustainable and highly scalable business model over the past six years.
The article spends an inordinate amount of time relitigating and reviving many of Fisk’s travails and yet, when it comes to the substantive and remarkable changes that have transpired — the article buries it amidst the “visible frustration of administrators": “when discussing how media coverage of fired and disgraced presidents, the art they almost sold, and the constant specter of financial crisis have subsumed the university’s storied civil-rights history, its recent enrollment rebound, establishment of a social-justice center, and the many uplifting stories they see every day among their students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.”
Regarding those many “uplifting stories,” here are a few that were shared and would undoubtedly have highlighted what indeed has changed over and above those deficiencies. Over the past six years, Fisk implemented a strategic vision that has yielded a host of unprecedented results including four consecutive years of operational surpluses, a 40-percent increase in enrollment, an 18-percent increase in overall test scores for incoming students, a 19-percent reduction in the institutional discount rate, five years of fundraising records (without being the beneficiary of a MacKenzie Scott donation), total of $70-million raised (with the single largest gift totaling $3-million), a 14-percent increase in alumni giving participation, four Rhodes Scholar finalists, a Chan Zuckerberg Award, a Grammy, 60-percent increase in academic grants, a $9.5-million line of credit paid off, a near doubling of the endowment (prior to the recent market downturn), a new data-science program, four new buildings and the completion of a deferred maintenance overhaul to the tune of $15-million.
Furthermore, Fisk has increased the percentage of students in corporate internships from 21 percent to 55 percent. Students are experiencing record starting salaries with outcomes rivaling the top institutions in the country. These amazing outcomes were recently validated with Forbes’ #1 ranking among all universities for academic stewardship/effectiveness, a ranking that no doubt reflects a series of unique partnerships that have been established over the past 6 years. These include Cravath, Swaine & Moore, HCA Healthcare, the Los Angeles Lakers, Google, Marsh McLennan, Asurion and Ryan Specialty Group.
One glaring example of the disservice done to what has changed and conversely to the homage paid to deficiencies appears in the following paragraph. Unwittingly or not, this paragraph completely conflates and thus, undermines any distinction between the “deficiencies and what has changed”. “News coverage highlighted Fisk’s status as an HBCU when the university spent more than three quarters of its endowment to keep afloat in 1976, when its enrollment plunged after the attempted sale of the Georgia O’Keeffe art in 2010, and when its president, Kevin D. Rome, resigned in 2020. Reporters pointed to Fisk’s troubles as evidence of the diminished relevance of Black colleges, even though at many HBCUs enrollment was growing. Today, Fisk has 645 students, and like other HBCUs whose enrollments are 1,000 or less, the prognosis for survival is not good,” stated a 2014 article in The New York Times.” The reference to Kevin D. Rome’s resignation in 2020 basically cements the timeline from 1976 to 2020 and by extension, fails to create any distinction around what has changed. Moreover, despite quoting Professor Gasman around: “Coverage focused on how HBCUs were able to “do more with less,” overly emphasized turmoil with HBCU leadership…” the article completely skirts what Fisk has been able to do with less and repeatedly brings up leadership turmoil.
Adding to this argument around Fisk’s continued deficiency, the following paragraph even suggests that Fisk’s tribulations are somehow responsible for the plight of other HBCUs: “Fisk’s decades of financial and leadership challenges illustrate how one HBCU’s troubles can drag down the reputation of the entire sector, reinforcing the stereotype that leaders of Black colleges are inept and incapable of managing money or providing students with an adequate education.”
When we initially discussed this story, it was our understanding that Fisk would serve as an example of what indeed had changed. Instead, it reads like: “In the media, the university has been consistently portrayed as “embattled,” “cash-strapped,” “poorly run,” and “on the brink of closure.” That reputation was solidified in 2010…” and if it was not for a 52-second TikTok post, Fisk would still be stuck discussing the art or some other deficiency. As previously mentioned, Fisk University has operated with a surplus for the past four years (which considering the negligible endowment spend out and the servicing of a student body that is 62 percent Pell-eligible and thus, unable to afford full cost) is a major achievement. The press has been incredibly positive for the past six years and almost every story has focused on the immense successes except for the two transitions in leadership.
It is noteworthy that the strategic vision has remained consistent throughout the two leadership transitions and that several key university leaders have remained in place throughout this upswing including the Chair of Board, the heads of institutional advancement, enrollment management, student life, and university facilities. To sum up and address the title of the article, we submit that while Fisk has endured plenty of deficiencies, the last six years have yielded major change and we could not be more excited about the future
The Fisk University Leadership