Nashville Post

'We believe in the approach we are taking to increase enrollments'

Fisk president discusses historic university's current state, future

President Williams Fisk University President H. James Williams is nearing the completion of two years of work at the helm of the North Nashville-based institution. With Fisk having recently announced plans for a new residence hall (read more here), Post Managing Editor William Williams caught up with Williams to get his take on multiple topics. 

Fisk University officials are targeting a first-quarter 2015 groundbreaking for a residential building that would represent the first major construction on the North Nashville campus in about 40 years. Your thoughts?

The university has not had a project of this magnitude since the construction of Shane Hall, back in the early 1970s.

Fisk enrollment for the 2014-15 academic year is up 20 percent from the mark of last year. This represents the third straight year of enrollment increase at the university. Enrollment, which was under 600 students a few years ago, is now well more than 700 students. I understand Fisk officials are projecting to have more than 900 students enroll in the fall of 2015 and 1,000 in the fall of 2016. As part of your strategy, you are sending recruiters to large cities in which prospective Fisk students live. How is the overall effort to boost enrollment likely to unfold?

We believe in the approach we are taking to increase enrollments. The strategy of placing recruiters in target markets is already paying dividends.  Still, on the other hand, we must continue to grapple with the issue of providing sufficient scholarships and other resources to support students, especially those from economically disadvantaged families.

Your planned living-learning residential project is meant, in large part, to accommodate the enrollment growth. Fisk has yet to release an image but the Nashville office of Ohio-based Moody Nolan will serve as architect. How will the building look and function?

The building will function in the manner in which cutting-edge student “living-learning centers” across the country are now designed to function.  It will allow students not only to live in relative comfort (for example, only two persons sharing a shower) but also to be able to meet in small groups for study or play (for example, small meeting rooms and larger gathering spaces for students, as well as exercise facilities).

It is important for the building to compliment the best of the university’s existing architecture, most notably Jubilee Hall.  The architect understands this and has captured that concept very well. In fact, the university will use the “look” of this new building to characterize the future “look” of campus building projects.

A year ago, you announced that Fisk had its accreditation reaffirmed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and, as such, had been removed from probation. How significant was that?

That was very significant in the university’s resurgence.  There is no doubt in my mind that the uncertainty around accreditation had a definite “chilling” effect on retention and recruitment.  Now prospective students and their families can focus on the university’s academic programs and other learning opportunities, rather than whether the university would be around for the students to graduate.

Of course, having that issue resolved also provides encouragement and motivation for the faculty and staff. We all believe we can do what we must to bring to fruition a true “Fisk Renaissance.”

After some years of operating under budget deficits, Fisk has been in the black since 2012-13. What type numbers regarding your finances can you share?

What I would say at this juncture is that the university is continuing to develop the discipline necessary to manage its finances effectively.  The new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system will help us communicate better and better monitor our activities. Moreover, we are developing a standard of expectation that we will live within our means and show no more deficits.

I will also say that the university has a very strong balance sheet, with very little long-term debt (a bit less then $8 million), which bodes well for the university’s long-term financial goals and objectives. In addition, the university has a current budget of approximately $33 million (approximately $10 million of which is derived from federal grants and contracts), which we expect to grow steadily as we ramp up our enrollment and our academic, research, and service programs.

This time last year, Fisk and Vanderbilt officials announced a bridge program. The program would include a Fisk undergraduate degree — weighted toward courses in natural science, mathematics or computer science — obtained within three years. The degree would be followed by a master's degree in computer science from Fisk, bridging to a biomedical informatics doctoral degree from Vanderbilt. At the time, you noted the earliest students would start the program would be fall 2015. Where does this effort stand?

The program was proposed last April in response to a solicitation from the National Institutes of Health as part of its national “Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity” (BUILD) Initiative.   We proposed a “bridge” consisting of a Fisk B.S. leading to a Fisk master’s in computer science leading to a Vanderbilt Ph.D. in biomedical informatics.  This project was critically dependent on the success in the BUILD grant since we do not have at present a master’s in computer science. The effort would have been for five years, the total amount of a BUILD award was $20 million and our existing “Fisk/Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program” (that at present accepts physics, astronomy, materials, biology and chemistry grads only) would have played an important role in the project proposed to NIH.

Three weeks ago, the NIH released the names of the awardees and, unfortunately, we were not selected. Nevertheless, with support from a smaller grant from the National Science Foundation, Fisk has developed a track in bioinformatics and biomathematics and will continue to look for additional opportunities that will help us in the future jumpstart the master’s in computers science at Fisk. 

In mid-2013, shortly after you assumed the Fisk presidency, the university board of trustees saw some significant personnel changes. Where does the board stand now?

In my opinion, the Fisk University Board of Trustees is doing an excellent job. The board is active and engaged while allowing the senior leadership team and me do the work we must do.  The board’s expertise is considerable and the leadership is superb. 

In June 2012, and after a long legal battle, the Davidson County Chancery Court approved the establishment of a joint ownership of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection between the Fisk and Crystal Bridges. The operating agreement required the university to set aside $3.9 million of the $30 million sale proceeds for a fund used for the care and maintenance of the collection at Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery. The court dispute cost the university $2.4 million in legal fees (for work done from 2005-2012) and created much debate. More than two years later, how has the arrangement with Crystal Bridges played out?

The partnership with Crystal Bridges has worked out very well.  The university and Crystal Bridges have worked very well together.  Moreover, it has opened the door for both parties to work more closely together. Crystal Bridges stepped up tremendously to assist Fisk in its efforts to secure reaffirmation of its accreditation. In addition, Crystal Bridges is working with the university to develop a strong internship program for Fisk students.

I recently noticed Fisk now has large-scale ads on Metro Transit Authority buses. Your thoughts?

Since I arrived, the university has redoubled its efforts to recruit more Nashville and Middle Tennessee students. The ads are a part of that effort.  In addition, the university is trying to revive its visibility and presence in the larger Nashville community.  I think the ads help in that effort as well. 

The university also has roadway billboard ads, and ads in the Nashville International Airport and Opry Mills mall. We will continue to look for effective ways to share the word about Fisk’s resurgence and efforts to become a larger part of the greater Nashville community. 

Meharry Medical College, your next-door neighbor and a fellow HBCU (historically black college and university), has undergone a flourish of on-campus construction of residential and academic buildings. Given the geographic proximity to Fisk and the symbiotic relationship the two institutions have, is Fisk’s effort with its planned residential hall being spurred, in part, by Meharry’s moves?

Actually, it has not. We applaud Meharry’s efforts and recognize and value our century-long relationship. However, we do not, at this point, enjoy as much of a symbiotic relationship as we might. I believe, however, that we are trying to build upon our historic relationship in ways that will enhance both institutions.

About a year and half ago, you and I once talked briefly about Fisk possibly eventually offering a degree in a discipline that no other Nashville-area college or university offers. I mentioned, for example, architecture. What is your feeling regarding such a move?

We hired a new, innovative and entrepreneurial provost this year.  Dr. Rodney S. Hanley is leading the redevelopment, strengthening and expansion of the university’s academic programs.  A key to that effort, as delineated in the university’s new strategic plan (which the board plans to approve during its February meeting), is the exploration of new, cutting-edge, 21st century programs that will make Fisk even more competitive in the market place.

In what areas does the university remain deficient and how do you anticipate addressing the shortcomings?

While I would not use the word “deficient,” like any university intent on remaining competitive and ensuring its longevity, Fisk lives in a mode of “continuous improvement,” which simply means that we always see room for improvement.  Suffice it to say, there is always much more work to do.

Do you think you will be at Fisk for the long haul?                                 

I want to end my career here at Fisk University.   I want to exhaust whatever energies and leadership abilities I have trying to prepare Fisk University to thrive for the next 148 years. Still, I understand that I report to a board of trustees that ultimately has the power to decide whether — and to what extent — I can do that. Fisk forever.


  1. Fisk University to Unveil New Home for Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  2. 87th Annual Spring Arts Festival
  3. NAIA All American Honorable Mention: Stevonna Scott
  4. Wynell Edwards Retires After 47 Years of Service to Fisk
  5. Fisk Jubilee Singers® concert adds special guests
  6. Fisk University to Host Sesquicentennial Scholarship Gala at Music City Center
  7. Fisk University Establishes Research Center with $5m Grant From National Science Foundation
  8. Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer
  9. Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
  10. Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston
  11. Fisk Forum
  12. Dearly Departed
  13. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  14. Alpha Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Celebrates 90th Birthday with Fisk Beautification Project
  15. Fisk University Celebrates its Sesquicentennial with Various Events Year-Round
  16. Jazz on The Move: The Music and Life of Nat King Cole
  17. Frist Center for the Visual Arts Celebrates WFSK 88.1 with Free Admissions for Faculty, Staff and Alumni
  18. WFSK 88.1 Hits Milestone with Educational Programming
  19. Renowned Vocalist Presents Program of African American Spirituals
  20. Monique Odom ’95 Named Deputy Director of Metro Nashville Parks
  21. Around Campus
  22. Kim Whitley Wins Hollywood Game Night
  23. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  24. Jazzy 88 WFSK - Upcoming Events
  25. Dearly Departed
  26. Jacquelyn Favours '13 Joins Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
  27. Fisk Professors Win $333,249 Research Award
  28. Elizabeth Taylor ’02 Joins The Tennessee State Board of Education
  29. Kimberly Goods ’93 Named Teacher Of The Year
  30. Fisk Sunday
  31. Fisk Coverage Of Founders’ Day
  32. Women Of Perfection Participate In Annual MLK Day Of Service
  33. Kansas City Public Schools Names Dr. Mark Bedell ’97 New Superintendent
  34. Berklee College of Music Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  35. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  36. Dearly Departed
  37. Sesquicentennial Exhibits – John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library
  38. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  39. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  40. Religious Leaders for Fisk Prayer Brunch
  41. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  42. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  43. University News - October 30, 2015
  44. University News - October 24, 2015
  45. Legacy Day
  46. University News - October 17, 2015
  47. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  48. Interim President
  49. Leadership Transition
  50. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  51. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  52. 2015 Homecoming
  53. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  54. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  55. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  56. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  57. Title IX
  58. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  59. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  60. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  61. Math Club Orientation
  62. Lady Patriot
  63. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  64. The walk for healthcare
  65. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  66. Volleyball Camp
  67. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  68. Board of Trustees - New Members
  69. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  70. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  71. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  72. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  73. Fisk 100 Revisited
  74. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  75. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  76. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  77. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  78. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  79. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  80. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  81. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  82. Alumna Named Executive Director
  83. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  84. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  85. 2015 Retool Your School
  86. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  87. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  88. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  89. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  90. Fisk University News - January 2015
  91. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  92. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  93. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  94. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  95. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  96. Christmas at Fisk
  97. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  98. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  99. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  101. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  102. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  103. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  104. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  105. Jubilee Day
  106. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  107. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  108. From a Spark to a Flame:
  109. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  110. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  111. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  112. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  113. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  114. Gables Elementary
  115. Press Release 04/24/14
  116. Press Release 04/10/14
  117. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  118. Retool Your School
  119. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  120. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  121. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  122. Business Week at Fisk University
  123. 2014 Honors Convocation
  124. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  125. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  126. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  127. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  128. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  129. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  130. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  131. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  132. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  133. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  134. Fisk Homecoming Schedule
  135. Fisk Homecoming
  136. Allstate Quotes for Education
  137. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  138. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  139. Honorary Degree Nominations
  140. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  141. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  142. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  143. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program