Why Fisk is Surviving the HBCU Debt Crisis, and Other Schools Are Drowning

Restaurateur Roland Parrish has donated $3 million to Fisk University to establish an on-campus career development and conference center. School officials say the gift, one of the largest in school history, will support the construction of the Roland G. Parrish Center for Career Planning and Development.



“I believe in the Fisk future and the University’s leadership,” Parrish said in a release. “Fisk’s extraordinary history is well documented. I am excited about its future and the impact this will have on students for generations to come. My hope is that this gift will inspire others to get even more engaged.  The campus has been void of construction for a number of years.  It takes something like this to remind people that Fisk is about succeeding, not surviving. The sky is the limit for Fisk.”

Parrish’s quote tells us all we need to know about which HBCUs have the best chances of survival in an uncertain future of enrollment, philanthropy and public funding. Fisk is a brand name that carries the larger label of ‘HBCU,’ and because of its history and value to the overarching brand, it has an advantage over other struggling black college campuses in how much people are willing to believe in its survival.

For all that it carries academically, socially, politically and financially, the term ‘HBCU’ is a brand of defiance; black people defying systems and structures designed to box black Americans into second-class citizenship valued only as industrial and economic assets. 

The defiance to be more, to be equal, is what has kept Fisk University and many other black colleges buoyant over generations of troubled water. For as long as Fisk has been recognized as a premier training ground for black minds and a symbol of Black emancipation in its most refined form, the school has struggled with financial hardship for just as many years.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are the heroes and heroines of the institution because students traveled the country raising money to keep its doors open. Fisk is in business today because a near-priceless art collection bequeathed to its halls was sold to offset debts created by decreasing enrollment. 

A lot of HBCU boards and presidents believe that revealing the scope of debts can be damaging to their attempts to work their way out of the deficits. The most recent federal data shows that Fisk made more than $1.4 million in 2015-16, but owed more than $11 million in capital debts and leases.

These are the kinds of financial ratios which land schools on accreditation probation. But because Fisk’s public legacy is equal parts academic excellence and economic uncertainty,  its financial issues have always served as a rallying point for institutional support.

Parrish’s $3 million gift adds to the university’s $14 million in total fundraising over the last two years at Fisk, and as those totals grow and costs decrease, prospects for accreditation reaffirmation increase with every picture of a check presentation. 

Fisk has long put its institutional value and its vulnerabilities on the table for everyone to see. Years ago, Paul Quinn College was 30 days out from running out of cash but was willing to be upfront about its struggles. Today, its breaking ground on new buildings and expanding into neighboring cities. 

Southern University at New Orleans was nearly merged into the nearby predominantly white University of New Orleans. School officials, alumni, and students publicly pushed back, even years later against the legislative effort and shared context behind the data lawmakers were attempting to use as the reasoning behind closing the school. The bill was killed

Truthtelling has paid off for HBCUs beyond the brink. Other HBCUs seemingly refuse to do the same and because of that pride or strategic miscalculation, they won’t earn the same emotional or financial investment from the international community of HBCU stakeholders.

We know which schools aren’t doing well. But until their leaders have the strategic humility to expose the depth of their issues, we’ll match their halfway appeals with halfway support and less than halfway enrollment.

It is hard to create an unsinkable HBCU institutional brand without first schools first acknowledging that at present, not only are they sinkable but halfway underwater. It is clear that Fisk gets the value of telling its entire story, and its paying off in big ways. 

3 comments
  1. “Giving to FISK is nifty so don’t be so doggone thrifty!”
    “Being a ’50 percent-er’ will ensure a FISK FOREVER!”

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