Interim President wants to improve finances

Frank Sims A day after the surprise announcement that H. James Williams had resigned as president of Fisk University, his temporary replacement was at work reassuring the community that all was well.

In one of his first actions as interim president, Frank L. Sims sent a letter to parents telling them that the administrative shake-up would not affect education at the school. Sims repeatedly emphasized that point Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Tennessean.

Sims, 64, a retired business leader from Atlanta and Fisk board member with close family ties to the university, said that he would spend the next year making small changes that would enable the next permanent president to tackle the “tremendous challenges” that lie ahead, particularly when it comes to the school's finances.

“We’re going to have to be competitive on the education side and on the financial side," Sims said. "We’re doing very well on one of those. We’re not doing too well in the other, and that’s where we have to focus."

Sims said he will spend most of his brief tenure focused on strengthening Fisk’s financial footing and streamlining administrative practices, leaving the academic programs, which he considers to be sturdy, in the hands of the provost and faculty. He plans to meet with key donors and community leaders in the coming weeks while continuing to collaborate with students during regular town hall meetings.

Before serving on Fisk’s board of trustees, Sims spent 36 years climbing the corporate ladder at Cargill Inc. At the height of his professional career, Sims said, he managed an $8 billion branch of the company with 5,000 employees.

That experience led other board members to consider him when they began looking to replace Williams. Leaders at Fisk have been working for years to improve the university's finances.

Fisk's accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges was put on a two-year probation, which was lifted in 2013 after an overhaul of financial practices.

Sims said he would use his business experience to pinpoint any other changes that need to be made.

“We wanted someone on an interim basis who could come and help us with an assessment of policies we have in place, controls we have in place or lack of controls we have in place,” Sims said. “Those are things that I think I bring.”

Board Chairwoman Barbara Landers Bowles said earlier this week that Williams' decision to resign was "more or less mutual" and based in part on his disagreements with the board. Sims did not elaborate on the reasons behind the departure, although he did say the board had been mulling the possibility for several weeks.

Moving forward, Sims said, he would focus on the board's short-term plan to address the institution's most pressing concerns: growing the endowment, increasing fundraising and making renovations to campus buildings. Williams' plan to break ground on a new residence hall this year has been tabled.

“That will not happen anytime soon," Sims said. “We believe we have other priorities as to where those dollars should be spent.”

Fisk will stand by its plan announced earlier this year to freeze tuition for students who entered the university this fall as freshmen, Sims said. He was optimistic that the tuition freeze and other financial incentives for students would remain in place for future classes, although he said that would depend on the availability of funding.

Funding for scholarships is becoming more and more important as Fisk continues to compete with a growing number of prestigious universities with deep coffers. Minority students who might have flocked there in the past can often get better financial aid elsewhere.

It's a challenge Sims won't be able to conquer on his own.

“Our next president has to be someone capable of building our endowment," he said. “I think it’s key to the future of Fisk. We must build the endowment of this college if we’re going to be able to sustain the type of education that we want to provide our kids in the future.”

Although Sims did not graduate from Fisk, he has surrounded himself with passionate alumni at home. His wife, Robyn, and her mother went to Fisk, and his son graduated in 2013.

Sims and his wife have donated to the university for some time. After he retired in 2008, the family moved to Atlanta, where the Simses became involved in the local alumni chapter before he joined the board. He said the institution's significance was immediately apparent, and it's one he's grown to cherish.

“The history and tradition behind this university is one that we cannot lose, and it is clearly one that I want to do everything I can to try and help preserve and grow," he said. “I can tell you that I am passionate about education and I’m very passionate about Fisk. And my wife and I will continue to do everything we can in support of this institution.”

What's next

Fisk's board of trustees will meet in October to form a search committee charged with finding the university's next president.

The committee probably will identify a search firm to help in the process. Interim President Frank L. Sims said an "ideal timeline" would be to select a president within a year. He said he is not a candidate for the permanent presidency.

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