Historically Black College Struggles Financially

Fisk University senior Alexander Ngwuogbe and other students gather after an October meeting on the Nashville school's financial status. Fisk reported operating losses that totaled more than $7 million in 2005 and 2006.
Fisk University senior Alexander Ngwuogbe and other students gather after an October meeting on the Nashville school's financial status. Fisk reported operating losses that totaled more than $7 million in 2005 and 2006. (By Jae S. Lee -- Tennessean Via Associated Press)
By Erik Schelzig
Associated Press
Friday, December 28, 2007

NASHVILLE, Dec. 27 -- Despite two years of trying, Fisk University has not been able to turn any of the valuable art donated by painter Georgia O'Keeffe into cash.

Although a legal fight over the latest $30 million proposal to share the 101-piece art collection with an Arkansas museum is scheduled for trial in February, leaders of the struggling historically black university acknowledge that it could be years before any money changes hands.

So the Nashville school that was founded in 1866 to educate former slaves has had to look elsewhere to keep its doors open -- a difficult task in a community that has been asked to come to the school's financial rescue several times before.

"There is a fatigue factor there," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat and a former Nashville mayor. "There's a lot of people who give money traditionally for valuable projects who have given money to Fisk in the past, who don't think they've necessarily fixed the underlying problems.

"They are really in the mode of 'I'm kind of through with that.' "

Fisk President Hazel O'Leary this month set a goal of raising $6.2 million by June 30, an effort that got a big boost this month when the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced it would give the school grants worth as much as $3 million.

The Mellon Foundation, which awards grants to historically black colleges and universities among several other endeavors, said Fisk will receive $1 million up front.

A separate fundraising effort by black churches in Nashville has netted about $25,000 so far.

Fisk's board of trustees in December 2005 voted to try to sell off two signature pieces of the art collection to help keep the school afloat. Those efforts became bogged down in court battles over whether the sale of paintings violated the terms of O'Keeffe's bequest, and a Fisk lawyer told the judge that the school was likely to run out of cash before the end of the year.

The Mellon grant has halted that cash-flow crisis, but some feel that the school waited too long to focus on fundraising efforts because of a preoccupation with selling the art that was donated in 1949.

"Why opt for the strategy of selling your art rather than developing a capital campaign?" asked Lucius Outlaw Jr., a Vanderbilt professor and Fisk alumnus. "The normal way of managing an institution is to have developed and implemented a plan for substantial fundraising to build an endowment."

Davis Carr, a former member of the school's board, said donors are frightened off by Fisk's decades of financial problems.


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