Fisk’s Loss 

An ambitious president departs a very troubled place

An ambitious president departs a very troubled place

At this rate, Fisk University should just start running the help wanted ad full-time. With the resignation of its (mostly) beloved president, Carolynn Reid-Wallace, late last week, the beleaguered but historically rich institution will have had four presidents in the last decade. The departure of this one, however, may cut the deepest.

Bright, energetic, brutally honest and focused on seizing a new direction for the school, Reid-Wallace had flamed hopes of a revitalized Fisk University to an utterly captivated city. A well-educated woman with a long pedigree in higher education, Reid-Wallace had announced countless initiatives that had the effect of both pulling Fisk into the broader Nashville community and improving it on its own. From the beginning, however, Reid-Wallace was hobbled by two forces. One was a group of meddling board members who micromanaged and made her professional life nearly impossible. And the second was that she may have moved too far, too fast, for an institution whose history is about all it has.

Tragically, Fisk University is not in a position to abide by the status quo. Finances are shaky—a budget shortfall of several million dollars earlier this year necessitated staff firings. Truth is, finances have been bad for decades. A newly restored Cravath Hall, which houses the institution’s administration, was unveiled this week (see the story on page 13), but other structures have been crumbling for years. Student enrollment, which finances much of any university’s operations, stands at only about 850.

“I can’t really go into particulars,” Reid-Wallace tells the Scene about her impending departure. “There are certain protocols I’m operating under.”

But the conflicts involving Reid-Wallace have been well-documented before. Arriving in Nashville in the fall of 2001, she neither set her sights low nor suffered fools gladly. Perhaps the first apple cart to be upset was her tentative exploration of touring the university’s revered art pieces—the Stieglitz Collection—overseas, which art experts informed her might have brought in millions of dollars. Some thought her calculations wildly ambitious; others of a more conspiratorial bent claimed she was trying to sell the collection altogether.

But it may have been her bold announcement that the university needed to adopt a more “internationalist” student body that raised the most hackles. Since its founding shortly after the Civil War as a liberal arts college focused on the education of freed slaves, Fisk’s identity has been intimately bound up with the African American race. That association was only heightened in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, when many Fisk students were on the front lines of some of the more violent episodes of the day. Reid-Wallace recalls that while a Fisk student herself in the early ’60s, the student who sat next to her in a humanities class, John Lewis, who went on to become a congressman, “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.”

But for Reid-Wallace, who hired several white administrators at the school, including her chief of staff, diversifying the place became a central part of her mission. She spoke of more Hispanic students, or students from Asia and Africa, even white students. She discussed cooperative arrangements with Belmont and Vanderbilt universities, even if critics voiced concerns that Fisk would be aligning itself with white institutions. Suddenly, the very nature of the place seemed up in the air, even if her plans might have been both necessary and forward-looking.

But to those who would listen, she promised a wholly revitalized place. She vowed to raise $50 million to upgrade the institution’s academics and to hire better faculty. “In short, I believe,” she told the Scene in a 2002 interview, “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.”

Very quickly, the reports of ambitious plans at Fisk spilled out from beyond the university campus borders, across nearby Jefferson Street, and into the corridors of influence across the city. Mayor Bill Purcell’s urban improvement efforts in the Jefferson Street area were clearly connected to Reid-Wallace. Her board was broadened to include some seriously wealthy individuals, including record label owner Mike Curb and Cal Turner, of Dollar General. Generally speaking, Fisk entered the consciousness of the city. But in two other worlds she made inroads as well: One was to the federal government, where she had a serious ally in U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, for whom she worked when he was secretary of education; and the second was the world of higher education in general, in which she had spent a lifetime working.

It is fair to say that Reid-Wallace’s urgings didn’t come painlessly. Some board members were infuriated over her hirings and firings. Leah McKissack, whose family has operated an architectural firm in Nashville since the early 20th century, was said to have been joined by others in disputing some of Reid-Wallace’s decisions. Fellow board member Yvonne Thompson, who lives in Cleveland, was critical as well.

Some say these board members’ intervention in Reid-Wallace’s activities reached levels of the bizarre. One board member, who asked not to be identified, told the Scene, “Some board members just browbeat staff.” Another person familiar with the board opined, “It’s a bunch of people who really have nothing else to do.” At one point, board chairman Reynaldo P. Glover apparently encouraged board members to allow Reid-Wallace to go about doing her job, but some board members didn’t take the advice to heart.

Reaction to Reid-Wallace’s resignation, which is said to have come during a lunch last week with Glover, was largely one of dismay. The university’s general alumni association wrote the board a letter, signed by alumni vice chairman Van A. Pinnock, saying it was its understanding that she had resigned “largely due to an unsatisfactory relationship with some or all of the members of the Board of Trustees.... Be advised that the alumni at Fisk University are prepared to continue our support of the university in its fundraising and student recruitment efforts under either of the following conditions: (1) to resolve whatever differences exist to ensure that President Carolyn Reid-Wallace remains at the leadership helm; (2) The present Board of Trustees resign en masse.”

Meanwhile, the Student Government Association president called for Reid-Wallace’s immediate rehiring and wrote the board’s chairman to say her resignation was “a deleterious strike to the morale of the campus.” Fisk board member Lewis Lavine says that while her resignation “is a real loss for the institution,” he hopes “the institution will take her vision and find a solid manager to implement it. This really is the next step.”

Reid-Wallace won’t talk specifically about her departure, but it’s clear how faculty and students feel about her. When John Hope Franklin, one of the nation’s leading African American scholars, visited the campus earlier this week as part of “Jubilee Day,” the outgoing president was there beside him. As huge a presence as Franklin was, Reid-Wallace found herself center stage. When she rose to deliver a few remarks, the audience, too, rose, giving her a standing ovation.

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