Dr. H. James Williams, Fisk University President (File Photo)
Fisk University President Dr. H. James Williams and a team of top Fisk administrators were set to visit Atlanta in early December to make the institution’s final pitch to the powerful Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to give Fisk a clean bill of heath on its accreditation.
The outcome of the Fisk meeting with SACSCOC officials, to be announced December 10, will have a profound impact upon Fisk, as the 77- member board of SACSCOC is to decide whether to remove Fisk from membership in the group or continue its accreditation without conditions. Fisk is Nashville’s oldest institution of higher education.
Accreditation by SACSCOC, the premier panel of higher education peers who set performance standards for college and universities across the South, is the yardstick used by the federal government in determining whether an institution of higher learning is eligible to receive federal student aid funds.
Loss of SACSCOC accreditation would cost Fisk millions of dollars in income and could precipitate a precipitous decline of the institution. When colleges or universities have lost their SACSCOC endorsements in the past, the actions have triggered a rapid demise of institutions and some times closure as in the case of Morris Brown College in Atlanta and St. Paul’s College in Virginia.
A decade ago, Barber-Scotia College, in North Carolina, saw SACSCOC remove its accreditation largely over governance and oversight issues. The private liberal arts college, which had an enrollment of 1,000 students at the time of the SACSCOC action in June, 2004, has since seen a steady decline in its finances and enrollment.
Today it has an enrollment of 50 students.
“We’re going to be guardedly optimistic” about Fisk’s prospects, Dr. Williams said in
a recent interview. “We feel confident,” he said in a measured tone, reflecting on the efforts he and his team have put forth this year to address SACSCOC’s concerns.
Acknowledging the seriousness of the hour, Dr. Williams hastened to add: “We don’t want to be cocky about it.” He said he and his team are taking nothing for granted as they prepare for their final one hour, closed-door presentation before a five-member subcommittee of the board that review compliance progress so far this year.
SACSCOC has had Fisk on probation or warning status for four years, registering numerous concerns during the tenure of past president Hazel O’Leary about the institution’s financial viability, governance and leadership. The university’s well regarded academic programs have not been called into question.
Over the years, there has been puzzlement in the higher education community over why Fisk had failed to clear its name, despite the specifics in each the SACS report. Since being issued its initial “warning” status, the university had filed four unpersuasive “monitoring” reports with SACSCOC leading up to a SACSCOC notice this time a year ago that Fisk had one more year to comply. The monitoring reports are aimed at measuring a flagged institution’s progress toward compliance.
Fisk filed a fifth “monitoring” report in September of this year. That report was followed by a previously scheduled October visit to the university campus from a SACSCOC monitoring committee.
The recent site visit provided the monitoring committee an opportunity to interview school employees, review documents, ask questions and make suggestions related to compliance. After the site visit, the committee sent the university a letter offering guidance on how the institution could tweak its final pitch in preparation for its December meeting with a SACS board committee.
“In recent years, SACS has developed and implemented a review process,”’ said
Dr. Larry Earvin, president of SACSCOC and Houston-Tillotson College in Texas. “In that light, it’s reasonable for all schools to meet that expectation,” said Dr. Earvin, a Tennessean who graduated from Riverside High School in Chattanooga before going to college and eventually earning his PhD from Emory University in Atlanta.
Dr. Williams, recruited last winter from his post as Dean of the College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, has spent much of his time at Fisk working to help the institution present itself in a better light in December than it has in previous years.
“In the final analysis, what SACSCOC wants us to show is we are financially viable,” Dr. Williams said, when asked about the university’s work since December a year ago when it was given its final chance to get its house in order. “We have shown we are, in fact, financially viable.
“In the past couple of years we had deficits and had to make the case of why we had deficits,” Dr. Williams said. “This time, we’ve finished the 2012-13 year in the black, exceeded our fundraising goals for 2012 and 2013. We’re in the black for the first quarter of this year (2013-14) and have made a number of fundamental changes in how we handle our financial affairs. Plus our enrollment is up in the last two years,” said Dr. Williams, to its current 645 students. “We’re even looking to get better for the future,” he said, noting the university’s recruitment and retention efforts have been recalibrated to function more effectively.
The SACSCOC board has a broad agenda for its winter meeting of which the fate of Fisk is among key items being decided. Based on past procedures in dealing with institutions considered “at the end of the rope” by SACSCOC, Fisk will be given up to an hour’s appearance before a SACSCOC board subcommittee selected to review the university’s most current monitoring report and comments from the site committee that visited the university in October.
In addition to Dr. Williams, the Fisk team will include board chair Barbara Bowles, Fisk Chief Financial officer Gary Moore, vice president of enrollment management Anthony Jones and vice president of institutional advancement Edwina Hamby.
Dr. Williams and his team will be allowed to speak and make any final comment before the SACSCOC board subcommittee which will then makes its recommendations to the organization’s executive council.
The 13-executive council then accepts the recommendations of the board committee or makes recommendations of its on to the full 77 member board. The entire board then takes a final vote whether to clear the asterisk from its accreditation of Fisk or vote it out of the organization, the equivalent of stripping it of its SACS accreditation standing.
“All eyes are on SACS,” said Johnny C. Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a long established non-profit fund that raises million of dollars each year to support minorities attending HBCU’s. “It’s the most important thing facing these institutions,” he said of Fisk and other colleges and universities having compliance issues with the SACSCOC.