Nashville Post

'We believe in the approach we are taking to increase enrollments'

Fisk president discusses historic university's current state, future

President Williams Fisk University President H. James Williams is nearing the completion of two years of work at the helm of the North Nashville-based institution. With Fisk having recently announced plans for a new residence hall (read more here), Post Managing Editor William Williams caught up with Williams to get his take on multiple topics. 

Fisk University officials are targeting a first-quarter 2015 groundbreaking for a residential building that would represent the first major construction on the North Nashville campus in about 40 years. Your thoughts?

The university has not had a project of this magnitude since the construction of Shane Hall, back in the early 1970s.

Fisk enrollment for the 2014-15 academic year is up 20 percent from the mark of last year. This represents the third straight year of enrollment increase at the university. Enrollment, which was under 600 students a few years ago, is now well more than 700 students. I understand Fisk officials are projecting to have more than 900 students enroll in the fall of 2015 and 1,000 in the fall of 2016. As part of your strategy, you are sending recruiters to large cities in which prospective Fisk students live. How is the overall effort to boost enrollment likely to unfold?

We believe in the approach we are taking to increase enrollments. The strategy of placing recruiters in target markets is already paying dividends.  Still, on the other hand, we must continue to grapple with the issue of providing sufficient scholarships and other resources to support students, especially those from economically disadvantaged families.

Your planned living-learning residential project is meant, in large part, to accommodate the enrollment growth. Fisk has yet to release an image but the Nashville office of Ohio-based Moody Nolan will serve as architect. How will the building look and function?

The building will function in the manner in which cutting-edge student “living-learning centers” across the country are now designed to function.  It will allow students not only to live in relative comfort (for example, only two persons sharing a shower) but also to be able to meet in small groups for study or play (for example, small meeting rooms and larger gathering spaces for students, as well as exercise facilities).

It is important for the building to compliment the best of the university’s existing architecture, most notably Jubilee Hall.  The architect understands this and has captured that concept very well. In fact, the university will use the “look” of this new building to characterize the future “look” of campus building projects.

A year ago, you announced that Fisk had its accreditation reaffirmed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and, as such, had been removed from probation. How significant was that?

That was very significant in the university’s resurgence.  There is no doubt in my mind that the uncertainty around accreditation had a definite “chilling” effect on retention and recruitment.  Now prospective students and their families can focus on the university’s academic programs and other learning opportunities, rather than whether the university would be around for the students to graduate.

Of course, having that issue resolved also provides encouragement and motivation for the faculty and staff. We all believe we can do what we must to bring to fruition a true “Fisk Renaissance.”

After some years of operating under budget deficits, Fisk has been in the black since 2012-13. What type numbers regarding your finances can you share?

What I would say at this juncture is that the university is continuing to develop the discipline necessary to manage its finances effectively.  The new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system will help us communicate better and better monitor our activities. Moreover, we are developing a standard of expectation that we will live within our means and show no more deficits.

I will also say that the university has a very strong balance sheet, with very little long-term debt (a bit less then $8 million), which bodes well for the university’s long-term financial goals and objectives. In addition, the university has a current budget of approximately $33 million (approximately $10 million of which is derived from federal grants and contracts), which we expect to grow steadily as we ramp up our enrollment and our academic, research, and service programs.

This time last year, Fisk and Vanderbilt officials announced a bridge program. The program would include a Fisk undergraduate degree — weighted toward courses in natural science, mathematics or computer science — obtained within three years. The degree would be followed by a master's degree in computer science from Fisk, bridging to a biomedical informatics doctoral degree from Vanderbilt. At the time, you noted the earliest students would start the program would be fall 2015. Where does this effort stand?

The program was proposed last April in response to a solicitation from the National Institutes of Health as part of its national “Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity” (BUILD) Initiative.   We proposed a “bridge” consisting of a Fisk B.S. leading to a Fisk master’s in computer science leading to a Vanderbilt Ph.D. in biomedical informatics.  This project was critically dependent on the success in the BUILD grant since we do not have at present a master’s in computer science. The effort would have been for five years, the total amount of a BUILD award was $20 million and our existing “Fisk/Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program” (that at present accepts physics, astronomy, materials, biology and chemistry grads only) would have played an important role in the project proposed to NIH.

Three weeks ago, the NIH released the names of the awardees and, unfortunately, we were not selected. Nevertheless, with support from a smaller grant from the National Science Foundation, Fisk has developed a track in bioinformatics and biomathematics and will continue to look for additional opportunities that will help us in the future jumpstart the master’s in computers science at Fisk. 

In mid-2013, shortly after you assumed the Fisk presidency, the university board of trustees saw some significant personnel changes. Where does the board stand now?

In my opinion, the Fisk University Board of Trustees is doing an excellent job. The board is active and engaged while allowing the senior leadership team and me do the work we must do.  The board’s expertise is considerable and the leadership is superb. 

In June 2012, and after a long legal battle, the Davidson County Chancery Court approved the establishment of a joint ownership of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection between the Fisk and Crystal Bridges. The operating agreement required the university to set aside $3.9 million of the $30 million sale proceeds for a fund used for the care and maintenance of the collection at Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery. The court dispute cost the university $2.4 million in legal fees (for work done from 2005-2012) and created much debate. More than two years later, how has the arrangement with Crystal Bridges played out?

The partnership with Crystal Bridges has worked out very well.  The university and Crystal Bridges have worked very well together.  Moreover, it has opened the door for both parties to work more closely together. Crystal Bridges stepped up tremendously to assist Fisk in its efforts to secure reaffirmation of its accreditation. In addition, Crystal Bridges is working with the university to develop a strong internship program for Fisk students.

I recently noticed Fisk now has large-scale ads on Metro Transit Authority buses. Your thoughts?

Since I arrived, the university has redoubled its efforts to recruit more Nashville and Middle Tennessee students. The ads are a part of that effort.  In addition, the university is trying to revive its visibility and presence in the larger Nashville community.  I think the ads help in that effort as well. 

The university also has roadway billboard ads, and ads in the Nashville International Airport and Opry Mills mall. We will continue to look for effective ways to share the word about Fisk’s resurgence and efforts to become a larger part of the greater Nashville community. 

Meharry Medical College, your next-door neighbor and a fellow HBCU (historically black college and university), has undergone a flourish of on-campus construction of residential and academic buildings. Given the geographic proximity to Fisk and the symbiotic relationship the two institutions have, is Fisk’s effort with its planned residential hall being spurred, in part, by Meharry’s moves?

Actually, it has not. We applaud Meharry’s efforts and recognize and value our century-long relationship. However, we do not, at this point, enjoy as much of a symbiotic relationship as we might. I believe, however, that we are trying to build upon our historic relationship in ways that will enhance both institutions.

About a year and half ago, you and I once talked briefly about Fisk possibly eventually offering a degree in a discipline that no other Nashville-area college or university offers. I mentioned, for example, architecture. What is your feeling regarding such a move?

We hired a new, innovative and entrepreneurial provost this year.  Dr. Rodney S. Hanley is leading the redevelopment, strengthening and expansion of the university’s academic programs.  A key to that effort, as delineated in the university’s new strategic plan (which the board plans to approve during its February meeting), is the exploration of new, cutting-edge, 21st century programs that will make Fisk even more competitive in the market place.

In what areas does the university remain deficient and how do you anticipate addressing the shortcomings?

While I would not use the word “deficient,” like any university intent on remaining competitive and ensuring its longevity, Fisk lives in a mode of “continuous improvement,” which simply means that we always see room for improvement.  Suffice it to say, there is always much more work to do.

Do you think you will be at Fisk for the long haul?                                 

I want to end my career here at Fisk University.   I want to exhaust whatever energies and leadership abilities I have trying to prepare Fisk University to thrive for the next 148 years. Still, I understand that I report to a board of trustees that ultimately has the power to decide whether — and to what extent — I can do that. Fisk forever.