Fisk University is at a crossroads.
It has touted record fundraising in recent years and launched several new academic programs. This fall marks its largest enrollment in years. But just as the semester began, Fisk’s president was put on leave following allegations about his conduct off-campus, and the school announced his departure last week.
Now, the administration and alumni are trying to figure out what it means to move forward after an unusual start to the year.
Fisk officially welcomed its freshman class less than two weeks ago, at opening convocation. Dr. Vann Newkirk, the school’s provost at the time, spoke on behalf of the administration.
“You’ve come, and you’ve followed in the footsteps of greatness,” he said, listing off some of the notable past students at the historically Black university, including Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Absent from the ceremony was President Kevin Rome. At the time, he was on leave, after news broke that a temporary order of protection had been filed against him. A Nashville man claimed Rome drugged him, brought people over to have sex in his apartment, and later broke into that apartment, according to a court petition filed in early August. The man says Rome, through another person, then threatened his life.
The temporary protection order was dismissed in mid-August, and Rome has denied the allegations. He faces a civil court hearing next week. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Whether the claims are true or not, the unfolding events have been hard to watch for Fisk alumni.
“Overall, it’s a slap to the university’s face, because that’s not us as a university,” says Tony Girder, a 2018 graduate of Fisk.
Girder had met Rome during his student job in the school’s catering department. He thought of the president as a mentor, he says, and was devastated by the news of the allegations, which he still hopes to hear are false. But he says he also understands the school’s next step: Last week, just a few days after convocation, Fisk announced Rome’s departure.
“I’m not mad at the school for their decision,” Girder says. “I wanted to move on.”
‘Small speed bump in the road’
Moving on means focusing on the future, says Vann Newkirk. The university provost was appointed interim president after Rome left the school.
“I think we’ve had a small speed bump in the road, and we’re going over that bump,” Newkirk says. “I think what my charge is, is to make sure that after we go over the speed bump, we accelerate.”
The school is already on a good path. In the past year, Fisk added five majors to its offerings, including opening up a branch in Clarksville where students can study homeland security. School enrollment this fall topped 900 students, its largest count in years. And the university has aimed high with its fundraising goals, raising more than $20 million in the past two years.
Newkirk, for his part, is eager to build up Fisk’s relatively new institute of social justice, which it just renamed after the late alumnus John Lewis.
“We were known for our social justice activism for years. And I’d like to build that pathway and then improve conditions for people, not just in Nashville but across the nation,” he says.
Newkirk dismisses the idea that the allegations against Rome or the leadership shakeup might harm Fisk’s reputation. These developments, he says, should not distract from the school’s success.
“It was a small hurdle, we’ve overcome that hurdle, and we’re going forward. We’re not going to look to our left. We’re not going to look to our right. We’re going to look forward.”
A moment to reflect
But moving on too quickly might gloss over some valuable lessons from this moment, says Crystal DeGregory, a historian who studies historically Black colleges and universities. DeGregory is also a Fisk alum herself who runs a few Facebook groups for other alumni, so she’s seen the wide range of reactions from people who love the school.
“We are all deeply invested in the fate and the future of Fisk. And we all want what’s best for her,” DeGregory says.
For Black institutions, DeGregory says, any misstep often leads to white people dismissing the whole organization, if not disparaging the entire race. So many alumni think what’s best for Fisk is to close this chapter on President Rome quickly, she says. Many have expressed relief that the controversy seems to be over, at least on the school’s part.
But in this case, DeGregory says the Fisk community would benefit from dwelling in the discomfort — because of the seriousness of the allegations, and the fact that they were against the university’s top official. What to do about potentially bad-behaving powerful people is a dilemma that many schools have had to face, including others in the past several weeks.
Though Fisk hasn’t commented on the specifics of this situation, DeGregory says it speaks volumes to her that the school quickly cut ties.
“What that leads to is an awareness that whether or not these allegations are true, that they are true in many other instances, and that they will be taken seriously and not merely dismissed because of the people involved in the allegation,” she says.
“I believe that you can want the best for a place and understand that the pursuit of its best takes you through an uncomfortable time.”
Fisk University should focus on the future, she says, but this chapter is still an important part of its story.