Alumni, friends come to the rescue of oldest US black university

About 300 Boston civic and business leaders, both black and white, recently gathered at Saks Fifth Avenue's downtown store for an after-hours fund-raiser. For a local charity?A political candidate? No, for a black university 1,100 miles away.

The reception was organized by local alumni of Fisk University in Nashville, in an effort to raise $15,000 for the financially troubled school. Founded in 1866, Fisk, one of the nation's 10-oldest predominantly black colleges, almost closed last winter because it could not pay a fuel bill.

The university's new president, Henry Ponder, is working with the US Department of Education in a recovery effort that could be a model for other troubled black colleges.

"We shall operate in the black in 1984-85," pledges Dr. Ponder, who left Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., to head Fisk July 1.

Following the near-closing, an emergency drive to help the college was initiated by James Cheek, president of Howard University, also a black school. Fisk made it through the 1983-84 school year, but basic problems persist.

Fisk has suffered setbacks in the past decade: a drop in student enrollment from 1,600 to 600; an erosion of its endowment by more than 50 percent; and rising operating costs without an increase in revenue.

These steps have been taken to help Fisk:

* Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell has commissioned a task force on Fisk, which has recommended that the university restructure many of its operations and academic goals.

Under the Bell program, Ponder and Fisk's trustees will work with a new board of advisers for one year in a management-assistace project. These advisers will be selected by college trustees, the White House Office of Private Sector Initiatives, and the Education Department's Office of Postsecondary Education.

* Fisk will conduct a national fund-raising campaign to develop an endowment large enough to enhance faculty research and salaries, student scholarships, and special projects, as well as classroom equipment and study materials, and campus maintenance needs.

* After one year of transition, Fisk will seek to recruit freshman classes of 500, to restore a student body size of 1,600 or more.

"The new fisk will teach young people how to live in a world of high technology, a world that often forgest about people's minds, "Ponder recently told new and returning students. "We shall be a liberal-arts college, among the best. We shall teach students how to cope with the demands of a fast-changing world."

His short-range plan for Fisk is "to get the school going for 1984-85, to let students know we are here to stay."

Secretary Bell's program is part of President Reagan's 1981 executive order calling for increased support of the nation's predominantly black colleges, says Barbara Davidson, coordinator for the Fisk task force.

"Fisk University needs and merits our assistance," the President wrote in a July 27 letter to Timothy Donaldson, head of the United Negro Colege Fund. "If this project works, it will serve as a model for helping other distressed institutions."

"I personally am concerned about Fisk University and the financial crisis it has faced in recent years," says John H. Johnson, president of Johnson Publishing Company, the nation's largest black business. His company's charity arm, the Ebony Fashion Fair, will hold two Boston fashion shows Sept. 30 to raise funds for Fisk.

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