In May 1983, six months before Walter Leonard announced his resignation as the president of Fisk University, he told the board of trustees: "The situation is critical."
Actually, it had been for a while. When Leonard took the job in 1977, Fisk's endowment had dropped to $3.1 million, from $14.6 million in 1968.
According to news reports at the time, Fisk had been using the endowment to pay bills.
Years later, things hadn't changed much. In the early 1980s, the Nashville Gas Co. turned off the campus's heat because it had an unpaid balance of $170,000. A group of community members, led by John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean, put together an emergency fund drive — it included standing on street corners asking for coins and cash.
"Everybody was trying to figure out a way to help," Brooks Parker, a Nashville businessman who was involved in the effort, said last week. "There's just always been a struggle at that school, and we were thinking about the students."
Federal 990 statements indicate that Fisk had more revenue than expenses in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, with excesses of $1.8 million and $1.3 million in those years, respectively. But the school ended fiscal 2004 with a $796,000 deficit, according to its 990 statement. Fiscal 2005 — the last year for which 990 information is available — Fisk ended with a deficit of $3.5 million.