For Financial Stability, HBCUs Must Release the ‘Everything Must Go’ Mentality

When black colleges sell valuable assets and cut programs, more than money is at stake.

When black colleges sell valuable assets and cut programs, more than money is at stake.

Fisk University graced the pages of the New York Times yesterday, in an expose on the sale of Florine Stettheimer’s “Asbury Park South.” The sale of the piece, and one other, caused controversy because of the timing and the value gained by Fisk.

First, because it was sold as the university generated national controversy for trying to sell a famous collection of artwork bequeathed to it by Georgia O’Keefe, on the condition that the terms for the gift be broken in order to save the school from closing.

The second, and most dubious part of the sale of ‘Asbury Park South,’ Fisk received a low six-figure amount which university officials would not discuss, but art experts suggest that the work may be worth up to $3 million.

Last week, Saint Augustine’s University sold ownership of Raleigh’s Meadowbrook Golf Course for $2.9 million. Believed by many to be Raleigh’s first black-owned country club, town officials say they plan to lease the club back to the university, so that members can continue to use the historic 9-hole course.

Garner seals $2.9 million deal with St. Aug's for Meadowbrook
Town Manager Rodney Dickerson explains how the Town of Garner came to purchase of Meadowbrook Country Club for $2.9…

Decreasing enrollment can make any school do strange things, and HBCUs certainly have seen their share of strange in recent years. But among the list of strange things to do in the face of a financial crisis, selling valuable assets, especially land, isn’t one of the first options.

Fisk secured $30 million to broker partial displaying rights for its Stieglitz collection, and that is a number that can transform prospects for accreditation, debt servicing, endowment investment and student scholarships. It’s easy to understand how former Fisk president Hazel O’Leary and board members arrived at that decision, despite the international reaction it created.

But a six-figure payout for a piece of art worth $3 million calls into question, at a minimum, the entrepreneurial mettle of the school’s leadership and at worst, its trustworthiness before students and alumni. If O’Leary and the board sold the Stettheimer work without having it appraised, in addition to selling it in secret, what other priceless artifacts, papers, gifts and assets might the university have sold for minimal gain without any public knowledge?

And what has become of that money?

Since the arrival of president Everett Ward in 2014, Saint Aug’s has cut more than 100 positions in adjunct faculty and staff, in addition to furloughs and cuts to summer school offerings. Ward, who was elected as general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. last week, now oversees a campus nearing its first anniversary of accreditation warning status for three violations related to campus financial stability and controls.

Questions linger about its enrollment prospects for the fall, as several HBCUs are expecting record gains in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Recently, Shaw University and North Carolina Central University reported increases in applications and alumni donations, partially attributable to the movement.

But in a story on the phenomenon with Raleigh and Durham’s HBCUs, Saint Augustine’s did not respond to requests for interviews. And $3 million dollars, with some of the money going back to rent the golf course the school just sold, isn’t a drop in the bucket for a long-term plan for financial stability.

There are strategies campuses can take to create alternative revenue streams that can stabilize finance and pay off debt. Repurposing or developing facilities for mixed-use, entering industrial partnerships for workforce development or credentialing, accelerating research capacity for commercial use, and using existing or new media properties to generate advertising revenue are just a few options.

But even if survival is impossible without selling assets, at least you can say you didn’t allow the campus to suffer the indignity of yielding valued property for cents on every dollar the buyer, who will probably be white, will earn from our fleecing.

Schools like Howard University, Paul Quinn College, Shaw University and Florida A&M University are creating the opportunities for alternative revenue, without selling or auctioning off valuable properties or assets. They aren’t cutting 30 percent of campus workforce, which would make it harder to recover if enrollment increases prompted a wave of new hiring, which would demand more HR staff and higher introductory salaries to meet current market demands.

Yes, the HBCU struggle is real and always has been. But black creativity and innovation has always been more real, and a mandatory element for survival in this country. Here’s hoping that more of our leaders and institutions realize this fact, before there is no more land or artwork to sell.