Accrediting Agency Rejects Fisk University Financial Plan

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by Reginald Stuart

Financially troubled Fisk University was dealt another setback Thursday in its efforts to remain a significant player in higher education when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools rejected the Nashville university’s financial update and added more items to the important agency’s list of concerns about the historic school’s viability.

At its summer meeting in Charlotte, N.C., which ended Thursday, SACS continued its “warning” status for Fisk until December, giving it six more months to address a variety of issues or face being placed on probation or dropped from membership in the widely respected regional accrediting body.

Fisk has been on warning status from SACS since December 2010, with the Atlanta-based agency citing the school’s weak financial condition as the key reason for refusing to grant Fisk a clean bill of health. In its final statement Thursday, SACS expanded the scope of its concerns to include questions about whether Fisk’s administrators were qualified to lead, the qualifications of its academic officials and the school’s compliance with Title IV education programs.  

“They need to find some money,” said a higher education official intimately familiar with Fisk’s condition and its accreditation problems. The official, who would not speak for attribution, said the school has relied too heavily and too long on its failed efforts to monetize its priceless Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs and said the school needs to look at other possibilities, even in a down economy.

Fisk officials, who have been locked in expensive litigation over the past five and a half years about its various plans to sell parts of or interest in the collection, have insisted the proposed sale has nothing to do with the accreditation efforts. The Tennessee Court of Appeals was set to hear arguments this month from Fisk and the State of Tennessee on the latest round of efforts by Fisk to sell half interest in the collection for $30 million cash and arguments from the state and a small group of Fisk legacy alumni against any sale.

SACS did not elaborate on its decision. Fisk, which was hopeful its stepped up fundraising of recent months would turn SACS around, had no immediate comment on the SACS action. 

Fisk was not the only HBCU to get bad news from SACS, as the lingering bad economy and its impact on the ability of schools to raise money appeared to play a role in the inability of various institutions to hold their ground.

SACS reaffirmed the accreditation for 10 years of Paine College (Texas), Benedict College (South Carolina), Livingstone College (North Carolina) and Spelman College, the widely respected Georgia private college for women.  Concordia College of Selma, Alabama, was removed from probation and, based on its updated report to SACS, reaffirmed for accreditation.

Bennett College had its accreditation continued “for good cause” but was placed on probation for six months over questions about its financial ability. Southern University at Shreveport was denied reaffirmation and placed on “warning” status, due to questions about its financial stability and other issues.

SACS denied reaffirmation to tiny St. Paul’s College in Virginia and placed it on probation for another 12 months due to financial stability concerns. SACS continued St. Paul’s accreditation.

Meanwhile, Tugaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi, was placed on probation for 12 months while its accreditation was continued. Again, SACS expressed concerns about financial difficulties at Tugaloo.

“With the economy the way it is, a lot of schools coming up for accreditation are having financial difficulties,” says Concordia College’s Ruthie Orsborn, the person responsible for institutional effectiveness. Orsborn, whose school had been on probation for three years, says the school and its surrounding community in Alabama’s Black Belt rallied to the school’s rescue helping the school and its new president, Dr. Tilahun Mendedo, raise some $4 million in three years to help the small Lutheran college regain its financial stability.

“We never lost our faith,” Orsborn says. “Concordia came together as a team, sat down, looked at what we had to do and we did it.”

SACS reconvenes in December in Orlando for its annual meeting.

 

CORRECTION MADE 7/1/11 AND CLARIFICATION: This story when originally published on June 24, 2011 regarding Fisk University’s standing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools contained several incorrect statements based on an inadvertent lapse in reviewing of the public record.

The story has been corrected. The following text provides background on the Fisk University accreditation record.

In December, 2009, SACS reaffirmed Fisk’s accreditation for 10 years, with questions. SACS wanted Fisk to address specific concerns the agency had about Fisk’s finances. SACS ruled in December, 2010, Fisk had failed to satisfactorily address its concerns regarding compliance with SACS “core” and “comprehensive” standards. At that time, the university was placed on “warning” status.

Last month, SACS voted to continue the “warning” status for six more months, citing the university’s continued failure to comply with several “core” and “comprehensive” standards based on a “monitoring” report filed this spring with SACS by Fisk.

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