By Reginald Stuart
NASHVILLE, TN — When Fisk University’s new president, Dr. H. James Williams, and his team of university administrators went to Atlanta early this month to make their final arguments for keeping the historic institution’s accreditation, they expected tough questioning from the panel of peers whose thinking would weigh heavily in a final decision about the university’s future. The grilling they got from the panel of nearly 20 people had all the characteristics of a final exam, as they knew this test had only a pass or fail grade. In the end, Dr. Williams and his team passed the exam and earned Fisk a new lease on life.
They received a decision Tuesday from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) that four years of serious questions SACSCOC had about the university had been successfully addressed and the university was no longer on probation.
“We wanted to have something to celebrate and we do,” Dr. Williams said in commenting on the SACSCOC decision. He called December 10 “another Jubilee Day,” a reference to October 6, 1871, the day the original Jubilee Singers embarked upon a fundraising trip to save the university by performing for contributions at concerts.
Indeed, the SACSCOC decision removing Fisk from probation was a sorely needed boost for the university, Nashville’s oldest institution of higher education. It doesn’t solve all of the university’s enrollment and financial status challenges, D. Williams admits. It does clear the a major hurdle that could have hastened the demise of the institution had the outcome been different.
“We now know what issues we have to fix and unfortunately it took us to the brink to realize it,” Dr. Williams said in an interview after the SACSCOC announcement. “SACS forced us into engaging, to look at ourselves differently.”
“We still have work to do,” Dr. Williams said. “Now, we know what it is,” he said, reflecting on the final appearance he and his team was allowed to have with the SACSCOC subcommittee before final deliberation began.
Fisk has been working on its final appeal to SACS for months. There have been monitoring reports to the agency along the way. A compliance site committee visited the campus this fall, all part of the SAC- SCOC process for helping institutions conform with SACSCOC standards.
The final Fisk appearance before SACSCOC, at the end of last week, lasted only an hour. It was an intense one.
The SACSCOC subcommittee peppered the Fisk officials in a closed- door meeting with a wide range of questions requiring specific answers. It asked about efforts overhaul the Fisk board of trustees, a panel well-known for its credentials and good intentions but significantly short of fundraising reach.
Fisk officials were asked a series of questions about current enrollment and enrollment projections, current finances, budgeting procedures and income projections. Pledges of contributions were one thing, one panel member noted.
Real cash support is another. The Fisk team was able to verify it was talking about real cash in hand, beyond the funds collected from sale of half ownership in the prized Stieglitz college of art and photographs.
After the panel finished, the Fisk officials would still have to wait until at least Monday night of this week before they would hear a decision. Some officials promptly left for Nashville. Others, including Williams who was a rookie at leading an accreditation team, stayed to attend workshops and seminars on what an institution needs to do to keep its accreditation.
By noon Tuesday, official word was out. Fisk was clear. The Fisk campus was unusually quiet, as the university had closed the weekend before for the winter break. The absence of students and teachers was noted. It did not stop others from congratulating Dr. Williams and his crew on the SACSCOC decision nor one admirer of the institution who had been holding back her support of the university until the SACSCOC issue was resolved from verbally making a substantial pledge to the institution.
Dr. Williams, who is set to be formally installed as president in April, said he is sending letters to the students by the end of this week and plans to have a campus family assembly when school resumes next month.
The clean bill of health is good until 2019. SACSCOC members must apply for reaffirmation of their accreditation once every 10 years. The root of Fisk’s past problems were questions that were raised just as it had gotten clearance before, enhanced by its rapid fall in enrollment, financial problems that prompted it to want to liquidate all or part ownership in its priceless art collection and questions about the ability of its administration.
Today, the university has some $19 million in its endowment, an amount that could be aided by the rebound in the stock market, has an endowment for its historic art gallery and new president, Dr. Williams, who has skills in handling and managing finances and is considered accessible and a good listener.
In another closely watched decision, SAS- COC announced it was removing Florida A & M University (FAMU) from “probation” status. The decision gives the nation’s largest Historically Black College an opportunity to focus on rebuilding a legendary image tarnished two years ago when a drum major for FAMU’s nationally recognized marching band died at the hands of several fellow band members involved in an unauthorized and illegal band hazing exercise.
In other actions, SACSCOC reaffirmed the accreditation of tiny Shaw University and removed Jarvis Christian College from “probation.” It continued the “probation” status of the Interdenominational Theological Center. It also placed Norfolk State University on “warning” status, along with Allen University.
Meanwhile, at Fisk, President Williams acknowledged the university still needs to raise millions of dollars to strongly secure itts financial future. That said, he asserted the biggest challenge facing the institution now that the accreditation issue has been resolved, it to continue to rebuild the university’s enrollment.
“Fundamentally, we need to grow our enrollment,” Williams said. “That’s the first and foremost.”
The SACS new for FAMU had also dominated the agenda of interim president Larry Robinson and his staff for months.
When Robinson announced the SACSCOC decision Tuesday via conference call to his board of trustees, the news was greeted with a long round of applause from the board members and an audience of FAMU family gathered in the president’s conference room on the university campus in Tallahassee.
The SACSCOC winter board meeting, which began last Thursday, had been widely watched by institutions of higher education across the South, the region over which SACSCO performance standards are considered next to the law of the land when it comes to higher accreditation performance standards.
“It’s been a great day for the HBCU community,” said Johnny C. Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Washington-based non-profit advocacy and fundraising group for students attending Historically
Black Colleges (HBCUs). “HBCUs have not been receiving any great news lately,” he said referring to the SACS decisions on Fisk and FAMU.
Taylor, who has sat on several university boards of trust, said his hope on the larger scale is that HBCU’s reach a point where dealing with accreditation issues becomes a matter of routine. Accreditation is important, he said, yet takes too much time of HBCU’s that could be spent on building their programs, student bodies and financial resources.
“It concerns me we are spending an inordinate amount of time on this,” Taylor said. “We’re being reactive. “We can’t be doing strategic work and spending an inordinate amount of time on what should be routine,” he said.
Atop the SACSCOC agenda at its spring meeting, set for June, is the status of South Carolina State University (SCSU), the state-controlled, four-year liberal arts institution that has had five chief executives in the last five years and has been plagued by squabbling among its various board members over the years.