There are plenty of opinions floating around about Fisk University, one of Nashville’s most prized institutions, and its precarious financial situation. Unfortunately, it seems many who could afford to support the university have been hypnotized by a spell cast since Obama’s election: that we now live in a “post-racial America,” an absurd idea on its face, but one that somehow negates the value of a historically black college in Nashville.
“In a society where black males are still stereotyped and portrayed as sexual predators, drug abusers and offenders, attending Fisk was a counterbalance to what the world expects of me,” Mike Harris, a 2010 Fisk graduate said. “Every day, not only was I surrounded by successful black instructors (almost all who possess doctorate degrees), but every day, I was reminded over and over of the achievements of the first black men and women in history to receive a Ph.D. Attending a historically black college instilled in me an expectation of something far beyond what is reflected back beyond these few city blocks.”
Mike wasn’t around 15 years ago, when Fisk’s then-president, Henry Ponder, lured Ray Winbush from his post as professor and director of the Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt. At the time, Fisk’s Race Relations Institute had no director, no budget and few programs. Winbush’s mission was to resuscitate the once-prominent institute. With a $2.6 million grant from the W.F. Kellogg Foundation, Winbush did just that.
In July 1997, the Race Relations Institute came alive after years of dormancy. Like the original institutes organized by former president Charles S. Johnson in the 1940s, the summer institute was a gathering of scholars, authors, artists, entertainers and community activists. The campus teemed with activity, and on any given day you might see Desmond Tutu, James Earl Jones, Julia Wright (daughter of author Richard Wright), Dick Gregory or Chuck D from Public Enemy — among numerous others.
In addition to drawing record crowds, the institute brought the media and more potential funds for the university. But the value of Fisk University is more than the exhaustive list of celebrities, former graduates and fundraisers.
All historically black member schools mirror the larger community what predominately white institutions easily lose sight of: Despite the illusion of a post-racial America, unemployment, housing, criminal justice and education all still reflect grim realities for non-whites. According to recent studies, blacks are still three times more likely to drop out of school and end up in prison, and three times more likely to be unemployed. Black household incomes are just 58 percent of white families’ with the same education, and blacks are likely to pay higher interest rates on their mortgages.
But money remains a major problem for Fisk. Winbush, who is now director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, left Fisk in 2002 — shortly after Carolyn-Reid Wallace took over as president. Reid-Wallace’s tenure was one of several short presidencies that proved fiscally harmful to the university and resulted in the dissolution of the Race Relations Institute.
“That Fisk has had six presidents since 1995 doesn’t help the current situation either,” Winbush said. That’s a new president every 2.5 years, on average. Fisk had only 13 presidents during the previous 118 years; each served an average of nine years.
Winbush suggested that if each member of Fisk’s board of directors were required to raise $100,000 per year over the past 10 years, no one would be talking about selling its priceless Stieglitz art collection to patch up $2 million in annual losses. Most importantly, though, Winbush said younger Fisk alums — those who’ve graduated in the past 20 years — need to organize. If each gave just $50 per month, the university would have a reliable source of income at the beginning of each year.
“While prayer is always good, Fisk needs money — lots of it, and quickly,” he said.