Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Ponder's Progress: President Departing A Revitalized Fisk at `Top of Game'

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Ponder's Progress: President Departing A Revitalized Fisk at `Top of Game'

Article excerpt

Ponder's Progress: President Departing A Revitalized Fisk At `Top of. Game'

NASHVILLE, TN -- When Dr. Henry Ponder announced this fall that he would leave the presidency of Fisk University in June. many observers looked for the hidden reason.

There had to be a better explanation than simple retirement for why the charismatic leader would leave his post of 11 years, some thought.

But Ponder, who refuses to reveal his age, explains his decision through a sports analogy.

"I am a fan of most sports and I tend to have personal emphathy for most sports personalities," he said. "I have felt hollow inside when some sports greats stayed too long. All their years of greatness tended to be lost in their desire to hang on one more year."

Following his belief that "sports heroes should retire while at the top of their game," Ponder said he was stepping down now that morale and finances were back on stable ground.

He also put his money where his heart is, leaving the college $400,000 with the creation of the Eunice Wilson Ponder and Henry Ponder Endowment Fund. The money is unrestricted.

Dramatic Turnaround

When Ponder became president in 1984, Fisk was $4.3 million in debt and couldn't get credit from vendors. Enrollment had dropped to 600 from a high of about 1,200.

Morale at the 126-year-old college was even lower. Many in the Nashville community remember when Fisk students stood on street corners with buckets, collecting spare change to turn on the heat in their dormitories and classrooms.

Changing that negative image and restoring confidence in the university was a tough nut to crack, Ponder admits, especially because most people did not see the day-to-day progress that was taking place on campus.

"As late as [last] May, some alumni came here and were surprised at the campus; they had heard it was raggedy," Ponder said. "That's a 5- or 10-year-old perception we're fighting."

Ponder's public-relations campaign focused on the appearance of the school, patching leaky roofs and improving teacher morale by raising salaries for the first time in 10 years.

Best Value

Evidence of the school's revitalization is seen in a walk around campus, past the historic Fisk Memorial Chapel and a renovated Little Theater.

Currently populating the campus is an energetic student body, now topping 900.

Under Ponder's direction, the last several years have seen Fisk named repeatedly in Money magazine as one of the best education values. …

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