The Fisk Univiersity Court Case; More Important than You Might Think

Fisk University, like many other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, has had significant financial problems for nearly a half century. There are many factors (and at least a few individuals) to blame. If you are interested in learning more about Fisk and its economic history, a simple search will yield a wealth of well-researched articles. There is no need to repeat their conclusions here.

Instead, we will spend a few moments considering Fisk’s plan to sell donated art, an upcoming court case related to that plan, and the possible repercussions.

Fisk’s current financial crisis is real…there is no argument about that. Now millions of dollars in debt, the University is having to struggle to try to provide a high quality education to its students. And, because of those struggles, Fisk is in imminent danger of being stripped of its accreditation. Without accreditation, Fisk is almost certainly finished. In fact, barring a quick change of economic fortune, Fisk’s future is at great risk even if it manages to retain its accreditation.

As you would expect, Fisk’s administrators and trustees are determined to save it. I hope they can. Everyone will be better off if Fisk and institutions like it continue to educate our citizens.

However, if the courts allow Fisk to finance its survival by selling art donated to it for exhibition, it will set a precedent that may greatly limit the ability of colleges, universities and other institutions to generate gifts and gift income. Donors give colleges all kinds of gifts; money, securities, land, yachts, computer equipment, laboratory equipment, solar powered cars, and art, to name a few. The ideal gift, from the viewpoint of a college or university, is a so-called unrestrictive gift…a gift the institution can use as it wishes.

But, many gifts are restricted. Money may be donated to help construct or restore a particular building, create a specific program of study, endow a scholarship for students majoring in chemistry, or enhance a university’s athletic program. The art that Fisk now wishes to sell was donated so that Fisk could exhibit it…so it could be enjoyed by students, faculty, and visitors. So it could enhance Fisk’s prestige.

It was not donated to be sold to pay down Fisk’s debt or finance its operating expenses.

Thus, if the courts allow Fisk to sell the art in question despite its now deceased donor’s intention, it would suggest that donor agreements can be breached if the receiving institution decides its perceived needs mean more than its promise to a donor.  And that could trigger a major decline in giving to colleges, universities, museums, and other institutions that, just like Fisk, deserve and require donor support.

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