President Bullish on Fisk’s Accreditation Outlook After Financial Overhaul

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by Reginald Stuart

 

James Williams

Fisk University President Dr. H. James Williams is an academician with a Ph.D. in accounting and law degree in taxation.

Historic Fisk University opened its doors this month with a new president and sense of optimism about its future, hoping the steps it’s taking to overhaul its financial underpinnings and operations will help it win a clean bill of health from its major accrediting agency.

“Everything hinges on SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools),” said Fisk President Dr. H. James Williams, referring to the Atlanta-based higher education accrediting agency.

“Things are okay,” Williams said in a recent interview reflecting on his first six months on the job. “We’re making progress in addressing the SACS issues.”

Williams, an academician with a Ph.D. in accounting and a law degree in taxation, was recruited from his post of dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. A graduate of North Carolina Central State University in his home state, Williams earned graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin, University of Georgia and Georgetown University.

Fisk is on probation with SACS, the major accrediting agency for most institutions of higher education in the South. The university has until December to demonstrate compliance with the SACS standards or risk more punitive action that could make the tuition-driven institution ineligible to receive federal student aid funds, a major source of income.

While fully accredited and its academic offerings never called into question, Fisk was placed on probation nearly two years ago by SACS for a variety of other reasons, including concerns about its long-term financial viability, the quality of its administration and its management.

Williams said the university is on track to meet the SACS challenges, asserting it cleared the “first hurdle” this summer when it closed its books June 30 on its most recent fiscal year (2013) with a positive financial standing.

Fisk finished the year with a small surplus, he said, due to a boost in financial aid for the university, including alumni and several new supporters, one of whom gave the institution a $1 million unrestricted cash gift.

Finishing the fiscal year above water wasn’t easy, Williams added, even with the added outside support. Soon after he took on his new job, he put nearly all the university’s employees on unpaid furloughs, cut the already pared university budget and cut salaries across the board by 1.6 percent for all but senior-level staffers.

Senior-level staffers were asked to take a 12 percent pay cut between last March and June, Williams said. Williams noted he was no exception to the slashing, having gotten one full pay check after he started work then being included in the 12 percent pay cut.

The internal cuts were complemented by the university’s ability to raise some $6.1 million in the final months of the recent school year. Of that amount, $5.1 million was in unrestricted funds, Williams said.

That unrestricted money gave Fisk the flexibility it needs today to address a number of pressing issues, including boosting financial aid to many students whose college plans have been derailed by the U.S. Department of Education, which dramatically changed its lending criteria. The new Parent PLUS loan (PPL) criteria, imposed last year, have resulted in many parents being unable to borrow funds to support their children’s tuition costs.

“It’s been a major hit for sure,” said Williams, noting many Fisk students rely on a combination of grants and loans to pay their way through college. More than 80 percent of the students at Fisk, a tuition-dependent institution, require such aid to attend and graduate from college.

Williams said the PPL situation, which has negatively impacted enrollment and projected income at a number of institutions across the country, especially historically Black colleges, is expected to have a negative impact of Fisk’s final numbers for this fall.

By late spring, with some 3,000 applicants, Williams said he and his enrollment staff felt confident in being able to boost fall 2013 enrollment significantly above the 700 level compared to 610 students enrolled in the fall of 2012. Given the PPL loan denials and other considerations, Williams said Fisk now hopes to count about 680 students for the fall. Final numbers are expected by early September.

Williams, who has already scheduled 30 unpaid furlough days for the 2013-14 school year, said he and his staff have built a lot of “flexibility” into the university’s budget for the new year.

That posture will allow the institution to deal with the anticipated revenue shortfalls stemming from developments like the PPL loan denials to parents of current and prospective students and the impact of the five percent across-the-board cut in federal budget spending, commonly referred to as sequestration. Fisk expects to feel a little pain from that action, though far less than some peer institutions, Williams said.

Meanwhile, the focus is on SACS, Williams said.

Williams, whose depth of knowledge and experience in the fields of finance, accounting, management and academia were major lures to Fisk trustees in choosing him as its new chief, said the university is preparing for a SACS committee site visit set for October 20-23.

Williams has also organized a team of five Fisk officials (including himself, the university board chairman and three vice presidents) to represent the university in December when it appears at the winter meeting of the SACS Commission on Colleges. That SACS body will decide whether Fisk comes off probation, based on its work under new leadership, or faces more punitive actions.

“It’s all about finances,” said Williams, noting he has added three people on the business side of university operations and “shored up” human resources. He said while he has “had to insist on a number of changes” in business side operations, he has not “micro-managed” the financial overhaul of Fisk’s operations.

“I’ve respected the leadership roles of the people I have in place,” he said. “I have been consultative.”

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