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Historically, Black Fisk University is on the rise again

In the 1940s and 1950s, Fisk University was vibrant and had one of the most impressive faculties in the country, including writer and poet Langston Hughes, author and composer James Weldon Johnson, sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the poets Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullin, and the painter Aaron Douglas. The Nashville-based university was the first historically black college and university (HBCU) to have a chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Academic Honor Society. Moreover, the institution was on the minds of influential philanthropists who made regular and large donations. However, from the mid-1960s, the institution fell on hard times while navigating the social turmoil of the time.

Over the next few decades, Fisk suffered from shaky enrollment, frequent executive turnover, and intermittent financial instability. Despite these challenges, the institution has always been academically strong, never losing its footing in terms of producing students who earn graduate degrees, including doctorates and medical degrees. Fisk is consistently ranked in the top 10 on US News and World Reports ranking of HBCUs, and is currently ranked 13 on the ranking of the best performing media on social mobility.

Amid the country’s financial woes, recent racial unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic, Fisk University has quietly turned around. In recent years, enrollment at the institution has increased from 630 to 1,041, giving the institution its highest number of students since 1979. Additionally, the academic caliber of incoming students has significantly increased with test scores rising from 54e at 71st percentile in terms of national averages. Fisk has also enjoyed stellar fundraising over the past few years, with the total endowment doubling.

According to Fisk University Executive Vice President Jens Frederiksen, “Fisk has been incredibly effective in delivering and communicating amazing results to students and, by extension, extraordinary return on investment. Many of these unprecedented results are the result of a concerted effort to invest in leadership and professional development programs.

Fisk just added the new Roland Parrish Career Center, which was its first new building in over 35 years. The institution also secured funding last week to construct two new buildings: a living and learning center that will accommodate the phenomenal growth of the student body and provide a more modern living and learning environment; and a 21st Century Arts and Sciences Building. In the words of Frederiksen, “Competition for these elite students is intense and residential facilities remain a key factor in student choice. Fisk is their home and we are committed to providing the best living/learning environment possible.

Fisk has many comparative advantages when it comes to programming – from its extraordinary art galleries (most of which were donated by artist Georgia O’Keeffe) to the internationally acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers, from its focus on social justice to its strength in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). As Frederiksen explained, “Life sciences have always been a core component of the Fisk experience with Meharry Medical School across the street and the Vanderbilt Bridge program. [a master’s degree program focused on science]. Fisk has consistently ranked in the top 10 of small liberal arts institutions for research spending, and the lion’s share comes from STEM fields.

The goal of the new Arts and Sciences Building is to create an academic building with laboratories and resources on par with the institutions that Fisk students compete with on a daily basis. Frederiksen said, “Fisk prepares its students to become the next generation of leaders and executives in all industries. Research and innovation are essential to this mission and the University is making a strategic effort to build an infrastructure to match this vision.

As mentioned, Fisk has always been highly ranked academically. Most recently, the institution was ranked number one by for academic stewardship. According Forbes contributor Michel T. Nietzel, academic stewardship is “a ratio calculated with a formula that quantifies the academic impact of a college, given its overall resources. Think of it as a comparison between a school’s academic performance and its institutional dollars. Frederiksen is excited about this ranking and from his perspective, the ranking “is truly a testament to everything that has happened at Fisk over the last 5-6 years and the unwavering commitment to providing students with results that rival the best universities in the country Academic Stewardship Rankings are a testament to this exceptional return on investment model as well as the thoughtful management of the university as a small, sustainable business that maximizes its resources to have the most great impact.

Fisk has had a tough few decades, but according to Frederiksen, “he’s on his way back to that role as ‘the strongest HBCU in the country.’ It’s truly a unique institution that has contributed so much to the fabric of American life and we believe the next decade will see Fisk again as a leading force in American education.” He added, stressing the importance of the small historically black institution: “So many bright minds depend on Fisk to help them realize their dreams and open up new horizons of opportunity.The President and the entire management structure have remained focused on implementing this vision for the future of Fisk.

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