James Williams knew he had a tall task facing him when he accepted the president’s job at Fisk University. But those issues were compounded last week when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools extended Fisk’s probation for another year due to financial issues.
Despite the university closing on a controversial $30 million sale of a historic art collection earlier this year, the SACS accrediting body determined that Fisk still needed to prove financial stability and adequate financial controls.
2013 will mark the third straight year that Fisk has operated under probation. SACS removed concerns about the qualifications of academic officers and administrators in their most recent decision.
But Williams, dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, recognizes the issues and believes he’s up to the task. Williams has an extensive background in business, which includes work as both a public accountant and a corporate and tax attorney.
While at GVSU, Williams — who has an MBA and a doctorate in accounting among other degrees — helped establish an MBA program and spurred development of new facilities for the business school.
The City Paper spoke with Williams about the challenges he’ll face when he takes office on Feb. 1:
How did you find out about the Fisk job and what attracted you to it?
I was called by the search firm. ... Fisk has such a great reputation and great tradition and outstanding academic background. It sounded like a great opportunity. And I knew at the time that Fisk had challenges, but what organization isn’t having challenges these days? What institution of higher education doesn’t have challenges?
In my final analysis, it was more about the Fisk future I could see than about where Fisk is now.
We learned last week that Fisk will still be on SACS probation when you start the job in February. What is at the top of your to-do list?
Well, obviously, it has to be SACS. We need all of those findings eradicated this year. I’ve been able to see that there are great strides in the right direction. It also requires another audit. I think this is a big time frame, so I’ll be paying close attention to that well before I get there in February.
Fisk has made headlines for being wrapped in a legal battle over selling Georgia O’Keefe’s donated art collection to help the school’s bottom line. The sale of a half-share of the collection was finally approved after several challenges from the state attorney-general earlier this year. If you were president, is that something you would have pursued?
I have kept up with it; I kept up with it even before I became interested in the job. I won’t say what I would do or would have done. However, the decision was made, and it was done. From my vantage point, the thing we have to do now is figure out how to move forward in a very positive way.
[We still] have a half-interest in a valuable art collection. And quite frankly, the city and the university ought to make sure the city has opportunities to embrace it.
Last year, Fisk’s enrollment dipped to fewer than 600 students. School officials have talked about the necessity of boosting that number. How would you accomplish that?
Clearly, that has to be a priority for us. We have SACS and the financial situation. Then we have to deal with enrollment on one hand, and fundraising. So enrollment is a big deal for me. Enrollment did increase [last year], and we are looking to increase it until we are realizing all of our physical resources.
The big pitch I would make [to prospective students] is just the outstanding academic programs for which Fisk is famous. There’s no doubting that. They have been productive.
We posed this question to new TSU President Glenda Glover, as well: There tends to be a discussion of identity when it comes to historically black universities. What do you envision Fisk’s identity to be in the current higher education landscape?
I think Fisk should maintain the identity that it has. I saw diversity on the campus, but it is primarily and historically a black university. That’s what Fisk should remain. It’s another [piece] of the mosaic of higher education in America.
Different students need different things, and that’s why we have small liberal arts institutions. ... Students have different opportunities to educate themselves, and Fisk is an excellent and outstanding opportunity to educate themselves. And that’s students of all ilk — all ethnicities and all races.