Can Carolynn Reid-Wallace Save Fisk University? 

Even if it means stirring up controversy, the historic school’s new president is going to do everything she can

Even if it means stirring up controversy, the historic school’s new president is going to do everything she can

Nine months in, Nashville has become aware that Dr. Carolynn Reid-Wallace is the new president of history-rich, dollar-poor Fisk University.

Very aware.

First came the City Paper story that Reid-Wallace’s new administration was considering selling Fisk’s distinguished Alfred Stieglitz art collection—containing Monets, Picassos, Renoirs and Toulouse-Lautrecs—given to the university by American painter and Stieglitz widow Georgia O’Keeffe. Reid-Wallace doused that fire. She explained that in outlining various scenarios in a planning meeting, she had merely asked whether “a piece or two” of Fisk’s nearly 3,000 items of art “might” be sacrificed for funds to revitalize a decaying institution whose campus cradled much of the early civil rights movement.

“Subsequently, I heard that Reid-Wallace was going to sell the university’s treasures,” she recalled in a recent Nashville Scene interview. “I read it in the newspapers.”

Just days later, she touched off a full-scale philosophical war between two columnists in The Tennessean, conservative advocate Tim Chavez and part-time Fisk faculty member Dwight Lewis, after news reports of campus opposition to Reid-Wallace’s declared intent to broaden the racial makeup of Fisk’s overwhelmingly black student body. It soon appeared that the opposition was so small as to be no more than a handful among Fisk’s near-900 enrollment, but Reid-Wallace faced the issue head-on by meeting with the students and encouraging dialogue. Chavez, meanwhile, charged that Fisk was maintaining reverse segregation, while Lewis noted that the 135-year-old private institution has traditionally represented several races.

Freshman business major Fitzgerald Heslop, 20, of Hartford, Conn., tells the Scene he has not encountered many Fisk students opposed to Reid-Wallace’s proposal and believes that the ones who are opposed aren’t fully informed. Heslop indicates that he feels diversity is a phantom issue at Fisk because students who choose to attend are unlikely to try to change its atmosphere. Rather, Heslop says, they “are students who recognize the history and the traditions on this campus and are drawn to Fisk by that tradition. So regardless of the people you come from in terms of race, it is the history that unites us all.”

The controversy notwithstanding, Reid-Wallace professes herself to be delighted with the public attention, and no wonder. Suddenly the Middle Tennessee community is conscious again of Fisk’s historic presence within it. Many Nashville-area residents have learned of the O’Keeffe-donated Stieglitz art collection for the first time and are showing up to see it. And anybody paying attention now comprehends that Reid-Wallace, an intellectual executive who arrived at Fisk from five years as senior vice president for education and programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is not a shrinking violet. She doesn’t mince words, either.

“You can look at me and see that I’m no spring chicken,” says the Virginia native, whose own undergrad days were spent at Fisk between 1960 and 1964. “I’m prepared to take the hit if there’s criticism, no matter what it is—because I’m responsible to a board of trustees that basically said to me, 'Your job is to transform Fisk and to help it achieve its goals and objectives, maintain its standards and lift those standards.’ And I shall do just that.”

In applying for the Fisk job, Carolynn Reid-Wallace set herself a task that fainter hearts would have shunned. Now, at a point when more political types, having attained office, would be backing away from their pledges, she continues to trumpet the same eye-widening promises she made to the Fisk board of trustees regarding the institution’s near future. She keeps pulling out a list of them for the benefit of all and sundry.

“What I told them was,” she says from her large, mural-decorated office on the second floor of CravathHall, once a Fisk library, “ 'If you want me to be your president, then what you will have to know is that we have a short time to do a great many things, and we’re going to do them.’ “

Reid-Wallace then reads off her aims: a university outperforming its reputation in two years, one with its reputation resurgent in four, and in seven—when she expects to retire—one “known for at least two world-class academic programs, one world-class institute and a reputation that is worldwide.” Plus a waiting list for admission to a Fisk that is currently underenrolled. Energized alumni. A host of job applications from top academicians from other campuses.

“I’ll stop there,” she says, laying aside the sheets of paper, “but in short I believe that it will be possible to transform this wonderful little jewel, and I want to do it in a way that will give us a chance to serve this community. I want to go out there and find students who otherwise wouldn’t come to college. I mean kids who are bright and smart who may not even know how smart they are. And I’m not simply talking about black students. I’m also talking about Hispanic students. There’s a growing community of Hispanics in this city, and I want to find them and reach them. And I want to go into the corridors of Jefferson Street and find those young black boys who are 9 and 10 and 11 now, before they get into trouble, before they’re into drugs, and show them the new Fisk, which will translate into a new world if they become a part of it.

“This is my commitment, because I believe that the democratic principles of America require us to practice more than the rhetoric of our eloquent language. You have to get out there and do it.”

Reid-Wallace says she has talked to Mayor Purcell about the city’s redevelopment plans for Jefferson Street, as well as her interest in a “safety zone” around Fisk so that more people—prospective students, as well as visitors from the larger Nashville metropolitan area—will be more inclined to come to a campus located “at the heart of an area that is economically depressed.” She characterizes the mayor’s response as highly encouraging.

To accommodate a community desire for nursing training, she has talked to Vanderbilt University about partnering in a new Fisk baccalaureate nursing program, and Vanderbilt officials—including vice chancellor for public affairs Mike Schoenfeld and Colleen Conway-Welch, dean of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing—confirm that they have been developing a program with her and add that they’re eager to work with her on others.

She has investigated leasing the Fisk art collection overseas for a year to 18 months; she says such a project would bring in as much as $20 million to $30 million, a figure that has been disputed as too high by some “local art experts” interviewed by The Tennessean. Reid-Wallace responded last week that the experts she has consulted include Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Ballpark, Fisk needs $50 million, Reid-Wallace says. Her daunting task strikes an observer as improbable in the seven years she has targeted. Yet in the face of her calm zeal, it is hard not to get inspired by such enormous ambitions. That’s certainly true of the staff that Reid-Wallace has gathered around her.

Having received a fellowship last spring that could be used at any university in the Southeast, young Smith College graduate Brianna Latham was looking at Vanderbilt and Belmont. Then, as daughter of a Fisk administrator, she was drafted last June to drive a visiting dignitary to a local hotel. It was Reid-Wallace.

“What are you doing with your life, young lady?” Latham recalls Reid-Wallace as bluntly quizzing her.

Latham mentioned her fellowship and the tempting choices she was weighing. Reid-Wallace then identified herself as the incoming president of Fisk, starting in July, and offered the young woman a proposition made irresistible by the energy of its offerer. Latham now works in communication and development for Reid-Wallace, a more than full-time job. Latham reports that she has e-mailed the president as late as 3 a.m. and received a reply by 5 a.m.

U.S. Senate hopeful and former U.S. education secretary Lamar Alexander, for whom Reid-Wallace worked during the final two years of the first George Bush Administration, says that she is “good at tough assignments.

“I recruited her to be basically the chief academic officer of higher education for the U.S. government,” Alexander recalls. “She tackled the student loan problem, which had been a multibillion-dollar mess for 10 years—because the students weren’t paying their loans back—and put it on a path to recovery. We were only there a little less than two years, and she turned that around. She, working with Congress, put in controls that under President Clinton were eventually implemented.”

Small in stature, with a commanding demeanor and a disarming smile, Reid-Wallace surely finds the Fisk controversies piddling compared to other challenges she has faced.

The former Carolynn Reid was born in Williamsburg, Va., a block from a revered shrine to the American Revolution in an era when Southern African Americans had little chance to enjoy the liberties it won. She was one of three children of the “superintendent of service” at the five-star Williamsburg Inn—and a mother who, she remembers, “was a housewife by his fiat.

“My dad was not a truly liberated man,” she recalls, then almost giggles. “He’s 87 years old now, and he still isn’t.”

But the home over which he ruled was culturally rich. The family didn’t sit down to the evening meal until he had come home from work and read his newspaper. At the table, Reid-Wallace says, “you had to comport yourself in a certain way, and you couldn’t leave without saying 'May I be excused?’ Even then it was to go and study. You had to study four-and-a-half hours every night.” And the two daughters who played piano had to practice an hour at the keyboard. There were three children, and the nightly routine included practicing piano or clarinet and saxophone.

“It was pretty regimented, pretty disciplined,” she remembers. “[My parents] believed in the value of education. My father had only one year of university—Virginia State University in Petersburg, or Virginia State College in those days. He was one of 12 children, and the way they did it was, one went, spent a year, got out to work and sent another.”

Reared practically next door to restored Colonial Williamsburg, Reid was a voracious reader. By age 11, having read everything in the library of her middle school, she tried to check out some books from the town’s public library, but when she brought her desired books to the counter, a “very unpleasant” librarian told her that “niggers can’t come in here” and to get out. She walked out feeling “pained, because it was the first time in my life that I had ever been personally insulted. I knew about segregation and insults, but it was the first time it ever had happened to me. I felt diminished, like an ant.”

But then a remarkable thing happened. As she walked out onto the sidewalk to go home, she heard a “psst!” from an open window behind her. Turning around, she saw a beautiful girl who apparently worked at the library, and the girl handed her the books she had brought to the desk to check out. The girl told Reid a day and a time when she should bring back the books, and an extraordinary informal partnership ensued.

“She and I did this for about three years,” Reid-Wallace remembers. “She selected the books, and I read Hawthorne, Melville.... I just read and read. She had exquisitely good taste, because I read things that I didn’t even study until I came to university. But then one day I went back to the window about the third year at the appointed hour on the appointed day, and I waited and waited. She was always on time and always there—it didn’t matter if it was rain, cold, sleet. And she never came. And I waited about an hour and realized I had to get home or I’d get a scolding. And I kept going back at that appointed time, and she never showed up.

“I still look for that beautiful girl. I sort of figured out after a long time that she must have graduated. Either that, or something must have happened, and she had to leave. I assume she was a student at William & Mary.

“That single, nameless person touched me so deeply, not only in terms of expanding my mind, but in terms of letting me know that all people who look a certain way are not always the same. And I honest to God tell you, I never learned how to hate, because I had been touched by this wonderful human being. In [a visit to] New York last week, as I walked going toward East 62nd Street, I found myself doing what I have done for more than half my life: looking for her. [What she did] is for me a perfect example of how one human being can touch you so deeply, until you could never ever be a way you might have been.”

Just as Reid-Wallace became painfully conscious that it wasn’t her nominal right to use the public library, she realized that she was also barred from attending her hometown college, William & Mary, which was just two-and-a-half blocks from her home. But, like the public library, William & Mary gave her something, whether its administration wanted to or not.

“I had to walk from school past the college every day of my school life,” she recalls. “Frankly, it was sort of painful, because I was a good student. I had very good board scores; I was the number two person in my class; I received the highest academic scholarship, the Rockefeller Scholarship. I couldn’t go [to William & Mary], but I absorbed some very interesting things. I’d see the college kids with books under their arms or hear them debating some issue, and I’d sort of linger to try to understand the discussion or look under the arms of people to see what the titles of the books were. So even though it was a disappointment not to be able to go to a school that you knew you had every right to go to, it was because of William & Mary that a part of my interest in proving myself developed and was nurtured over many years.”

In the early ’90s, when she was a member of the Bush administration, she was invited to the William & Mary campus to make a major address. It was the first time she had ever set foot on the campus.

“About seven or eight years before that time, Barbara Jordan [the late African American educator and congresswoman] had given the commencement address there,” Reid-Wallace says, “and she started it by saying, 'I know that I have arrived, now that I stand here.’ While I didn’t say that, I felt that. I knew, as I stood there and addressed those students, that something had happened in our nation—in my city, which I love very much—that had transformed the way we as Americans view the world.

“Even though it wasn’t good that I couldn’t go [to William & Mary], I have no bitterness. I learned a lot from that place as a youngster looking in, almost through a window. I learned a lot about what I could become and about why I should not aspire to be at the bottom of the heap.”

In 1960, as a 107-pound freshman, Reid-Wallace went off to college in Tennessee. Since early childhood, she says, she had heard of Fisk, which “was considered in my community an intellectual citadel.” One of the most prominent African American institutions in the nation, Fisk was “then the center of the black bourgeoisie,” writes author David Halberstam in his book The Children, which recounts the history of the civil rights movement in Nashville. It was an elegant place that required its young ladies to wear silk stockings and considered itself a peer of the Ivy League. Fisk educators, Reid-Wallace remembers, “basically told us, 'If you graduate from Fisk, you’re going to have certain kinds of skills and a body of knowledge that will allow you to hold your own with anyone’—and in those days they’d say, 'with any student from Harvard.’ “

Her parents sent her there “with one expressed mandate,” she says. “And they were real clear about it: 'You’re going to go there and stay four years, you’re going to get a good education and you’re going to go out and make a contribution to society.’ I came understanding that I had no choice. It wasn’t a debatable issue.”

The year Reid-Wallace arrived on campus—and stood in tears as her parents headed back to Virginia—may have been the most historic for Fisk of any since 1867, when the university was founded by General Clinton B. Fisk to educate ex-slaves following the Civil War. 1960 brought the formal opening of a second civil war, and Fisk was both an intellectual and a hands-on gathering ground for a crusade to crush segregation. A few Fisk students, along with many more from Tennessee State University and little American Baptist Seminary, soon began filing into downtown Nashville in long, orderly lines to sit in at whites-only lunch counters. Reid-Wallace didn’t go, but, she remembers, she “sat next to a man who became a champion of the civil rights movement.

“The guy who sat next to me in Humanities class is now a United States congressman, John Lewis. I’d stay in class and take the notes, and John would go out and march and get bitten by dogs and beaten by billy clubs and would come back sometimes with a pretty large eye or a pretty big lip. I didn’t fully understand what it all meant, but I knew that this man had put his life on the line for something he believed in, and from time to time I can even remember asking myself, 'If he’s doing that, how can you justify staying here studying Humanities [and] not being out there making the same sacrifice?’ And I rationalized it, saying all of the silly things that cowards usually say when they’re looking for a way to excuse their apathy. You know: 'I’m a girl,’ or 'My parents wouldn’t understand it,’ or 'I came here to get an education.’ So we took [notes] for them, so they wouldn’t flunk out. I mean, they were out there doing the important work, so the least we could do is give them the notes.”

Lewis and his fellow marchers eventually went on to Alabama, and so did Reid-Wallace, but as an English instructor armed with a master’s degree, beginning her teaching career at Talladega College. She might have stayed there forever, she says, but she married law student Addison Wallace and moved away with him to Howard University. Too soon, she endured the death of her husband.

“He was a wonderful man, and I loved him deeply,” she says in an obviously reluctant answer to a direct question. “He was an attorney by training, and he died before our first child was born. I was eight months pregnant. And even though it has been a very long time—he died in 1970—I don’t often talk about it, because it’s something I suspect I’ll never quite...come to grips with. But he was a good man. He never smoked a cigarette, and he jogged before I ever saw [another] American man jogging, and he was careful about what he ate, but he died of cancer. It ran in the family. [So] I have one child.” She describes her son, Addison N. Wallace Jr., as a military history expert who lives in Washington, D.C., and “a young kid who’s very sweet and loving and has a very big heart.”

Reid-Wallace moved on to a succession of jobs at Grinnell College, Bowie State University and eventually the City University of New York, where she was responsible for the academic programs of 21 colleges. Her first government position came in the early ’80s as program director with the National Endowment for the Humanities, which “gives money to professors, schools and scholars interested in humanistic research.” After that, she joined the administration of President Bush and served as assistant secretary of post-secondary education in the federal Department of Education under Alexander, responsible for financial aid across America and international education as well.

She says she worked in Republican administrations “because the Republicans offered me a chance to serve” rather than because of any personal party leaning.

“I don’t have any personal politics except to be a good steward of the principles of democracy,” she says. “My politics are the politics of America.”

Driving to Fisk, you come up 18th Avenue North across Charlotte and over railroad tracks. The other day, a middle-aged African American woman was unloading a couple of very used-looking fishing poles from a vintage automobile there, in front of a row of working-class homes. A few hundred yards farther on begin the Fisk grounds, some of the historic buildings in such disrepair that they appear to have been condemned. But most of this alma mater of such cultural giants as W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, David Levering Lewis and John Lewis remains striking, shimmering with the aura of a special place.

In the center of the campus, the presidential administration building, Cravath Hall, has had its exterior recently and magnificently restored through a gift from Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram. Cravath’s interior is soon destined for similar restoration as Reid-Wallace has set about trying to return much of the feel of Fisk’s glorious yesteryears. She shows old pictures of elegant classrooms, some with fireplaces surrounded by young African Americans, the men in suits and ties and the women in dresses moderately long. The walls are decorated with art by such painters as Aaron Douglas, whose work adorns the homes of Bill Cosby and others with, as Reid-Wallace puts it, “the means.”

“When I was at Fisk,” she continues, “I had so many professors, black professors and white professors, who gave a lot. These people would have you in their homes for dinner. They would do tutoring after class. Mr. Arna Bontemps, who was the librarian in this very building, became a friend of mine, and he was a great bibliophile. Books have always fascinated me, and I can remember just sitting there asking him question after question about this, that and the other—Lytton Strachey and the Harlem Renaissance and 19th century English poetry—and he could always recommend something. Now that I think about it, how did he have the time to give me? But that’s the level of personal engagement that I got, and it still exists here at Fisk.”

She now has students into her own home for dinner at least once and sometimes twice a month. Others “have dropped by when there wasn’t a 'formal fireside chat,’ as I call it, to say, 'What’s cooking, Prez?’ What they [are] now [learning] is: I don’t cook very well,” she says with a laugh.

Not on a stove, perhaps, but there’s a hum of stepped-up activity and a developing air of expectation at Fisk—against the background of Reid-Wallace’s measured, confident voice talking about what she plans to do with the $50 million that she already is working at raising.

“If I had $50 million, I could revolutionize this school in terms of the quality of curricula, the sophistication of our recruitment enrollment strategy and the deferred maintenance that has all but settled in around the place,” she says. “With that amount of money, there’s no question in my mind that this university would be able to be on the cutting edge in two or three major areas, including race relations. I am right now, without $50 million, looking for a way to turn that very old and at one point distinguished [Race Relations] institute into a first-rate research institute that begins to serve not only the state but the country and the world. Fifty million dollars would help me get some really good, first-rate faculty and pay some of the good ones I have in order to keep them. It would help me get my standards up and get my buildings in shape and in general begin to recruit high-quality students.

“I have been in conversation with people who are deeply committed to the vision that I’ve articulated and to honoring the important historic role that this institution has played in American higher ed. And some of these people are people from this state who are really smart, and they understand that there is a role and a need for a school like this. Some of these people are national in scope, some of them are from foundations, some are private individuals and some are from the United States government. I spend a fair amount of time on the road in meetings trying to articulate the vision and saying that this is not just words. This is a blueprint for the state and the nation.”

The unifying potential of Fisk and its physical and historical assets are suggested, she indicates, by the fact that people from such affluent places as Franklin suddenly are visiting the Fisk campus. Everybody has to live in the same world, goes her message, and Fisk must be put in a position to unite the community’s disparate elements for the good of all. Those Franklin visitors, she said, “are driving over and saying, 'We’ve lived here for years, and we didn’t know’ “ the Stieglitz Collection was here. But it is.

“And my goal is to use what is here to attract people and to go out and save people from the despairs that can sometimes inflict themselves upon the unlearned,” she says. “I am particularly committed to finding a way to get more black men onto this campus, because too many of them are in our prisons. Too many of them are on a corner of a street somewhere shaking, needing a fix.

“It’s my job and the job of people here—and other places as well—to try to help remedy that.”


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters

* required

More by Jack Hurst

  • The Lady Captain

    Senior Hillary Hager leads the women Commodores into the Sweet 16
    • Mar 25, 2004
  • “It’s Not About Me”

    Vandy women’s Melanie Balcomb puts players first
    • Mar 4, 2004
  • Perry Wallace

    The other guys on the court played basketball. He played for history.
    • Feb 19, 2004
  • More »

All contents © 1995-2015 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation