Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary was on a mundane business call when she got the news about the university’s latest victory regarding The Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
“I tore out of my office to find the provost and the academic deans of our university, and I just opened the door of our boardroom to say ‘We won!’ ” O’Leary said.
In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, the Appellate Court of Tennessee of Nashville threw out a limitation placed on an agreement between Fisk and an Arkansas art museum to share The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, which was donated by the late Georgia O’Keeffe.
A main portion of the opinion issued by Judge Richard Dinkins and Judge David Farmer revolved around the fact it was impossible for Fisk to care for the collection because of the school’s financial situation.
“In making this determination, the trial court relied on the testimony of Fisk’s President, Hazel O’Leary, who testified regarding the University’s finances and discussed the many cuts that had been implemented in an effort to reduce expenses, such as eliminating educational programming for students, reducing the salary of faculty and staff, and mortgaging buildings on campus,” the opinion read.
“When asked whether Fisk was ‘viable’ in light of its financial challenges, President O’Leary stated, ‘No, not at all.’ ”
Originally, Fisk tried to sell specific pieces of art to help offset financial woes, but last year they agreed to sell a $30 million “share” of the collection with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
A Davidson County Chancery Court ruled that $20 million of that money would have to be set aside for the maintenance of the collection, while $10 million could be used at Fisk’s discretion. Tuesday night’s appellate vote overturned that ruling.
Despite testifying in court about the school’s financial downfalls, however, O’Leary will need to prove to another governing body that the school is financially stable and heading in the right direction.
Early next week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will make a decision on the university’s accreditation status. The school has been warned twice over the past year that they need to have a better plan for financial stability.
If nothing improves, Fisk could be placed on probation or, even worse, be stripped of their accreditation.
O’Leary said the court ruling could help with persuading SACS.
“We need to rebuild our endowment if we are — as third-party examiners say we are — one of the top liberal arts institutions in America,” O’Leary said.
“This decision, not taken all the way home yet, will put us on the right track. The other reality is we need some good news. People like to give and support successes … . Now we’ll have an opportunity to prove that to people and donors and foundations and get the money we need to put our endowment on level with other institutions like Fisk.”
The university’s emphasis on the utilization of the art collection has drawn its detractors. Several notable alumni, including Vanderbilt professor Dr. Lucius Outlaw Jr., formed the Task Force for the Rescue and Restoration of Fisk University last year.
Outlaw and another representative of the group declined to comment when reached by The City Paper earlier today.
“We talk to people that present in a way that is both collegial and congenial,” O’Leary said. “I think that got lost early in this group of 17 that decided they would let off a bazooka every other month, just in time for a board meeting, I might add.”
Fisk’s board of trustees will meet in February and review a feasibility study that addresses ways to increase endowment, according to O’Leary.
And because of several changes to the school’s strategy, in addition to Fisk’s wins in court, O’Leary says she doesn’t foresee the school closing.
“We are celebrating our 145th year. It is not my intention on my watch that that should be the end,” she said. “It’s a new beginning.”