Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary announced Feb. 17 plans to retire at the end of the year, falling short of her stated goal of reversing the financial dilemma facing the 146 year-old Black university.
Her announcement comes as the institution’s status among Historically Black Colleges and Universities has stabilized but remains far from the goal of financial security she set when she took the helm eight years ago and is enmeshed in an accreditation struggle and a legal fight over a plan to raise cash by selling high-priced assets.
“While much remains to be done, I am confident that Fisk, the institution I love and have led these past eight years, is in better shape than when I arrived,” she said. She gave no reason for the decision to retire but addressed some of hurdles she has faced in her retirement statement:
“Our drive for continuous improvement has been daunted by our failure to increase new student enrollment during the economic downturn,” she said. .. In her statement, O’Leary said that the school’s academic record of achievement by its graduates is not to be ignored.
The university, rated 135th in Forbes Magazine’s America’s Best Colleges and Universities in 2011, reported 46 percent of its students were accepted into graduate and professional programs in 2011, according to the Nashville Tennessean.
“The public record indicates that Fisk has achieved top tier performance among liberal arts institutions in academics, student retention and engagement,” she said in her statement.
O’Leary served in the cabinet of President Bill Clinton where she was the first Black and first woman to serve as energy secretary. She is a 1959 Fisk graduate.
Robert W. Norton, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, noted the daunting task she faced at the helm. “She served at Fisk during a difficult time in its history including cuts in student loans, a tightening of credit markets and a decline in new student enrollment. For eight years she has brought the needed vision, leadership and stability to enhance Fisk’s position as a highly ranked liberal arts university,” he said.
The school noted that during her tenure, Fisk increased research grant funding from approximately $3.7 million in FY 2007 to a total of $63.6 million in the 2008-2012 fiscal year period. Fisk also ranks in the 77th percentile of all institutions in the United States receiving federal science and engineering research funds.
Its six-year graduation rate increased from 47 percent in August 2010 to 53 percent in February 2012. Attempts to reverse the school’s decline had resulted in a surge in enrollment which was 842 students when she took office in 2004. It rose to 957 in 2006 but fell to 550 last fall.
But the decision to step down comes amid continuing accreditation problems and expensive litigation over a plan to monetize its 101-piece Alfred Stiegletz collection of art and photographs. The school faces a legal challenge by the state of Tennessee and a group of Fisk alumni over its plan use the collection, donated by artist Georgia O’Keefe, widow of Stiegletz, a famed photographer and art promoter, to raise $30 million.
“With any college president, a primary concern is going to be image, funding and whether you’re producing graduates,” said Jarrett Carter Sr., founding editor of Baltimore-based HBCUdigest.com, told the Tennessean. “Fisk is producing graduates — it’s doing exceptionally well there. Image and funding became very real issues for them, issues that were intricately tied in the last couple of years. You had alumni asking questions about what the university was doing with money.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) placed the school on “warning” status in 2010 http://afro.com/sections/news/afro_briefs/story.htm?storyid=69749 and last June rejected an O’Leary plan for financial recovery.
While the school continues to be authorized by the accrediting institution to award undergraduate and graduate degrees and is still eligible for federal grants and contracts, Fisk’s progress toward achieving financial stability and student retention will be reviewed by the SACSCOC in September.