Remembering O’Leary and her legacy at Fisk University

Hazel OLeary

Hazel Reid O’Leary, the face of Fisk University since 2004, began her tenure at the university with an ambitious goal: “We decided to focus on the vision of being the best small liberal arts university in America,” President O’Leary said.

Now, having retired from Fisk, effective January 31, the university is well on its way to reaching the ambitious goals she set.

Fisk was ranked in the top 20% of private institutions on Forbes’ ‘2012 Top Colleges List,’ and the No. 2 Liberal Arts College/University in Research in the South—and also the No. 1 Liberal Arts HBCU in Research in Washington Monthly’s ‘2012 Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities’ list.

Prior to coming back to lead her alma mater, O’Leary was the seventh U.S. Secretary of Energy, from 1993 to 1997, appointed by President Bill Clinton, the first and only woman and first and only African American to hold the position.

“At the heart of what we do as a team of faculty, students, board, alumni and friends of Fisk is student development and learning,” O’Leary said. O’Leary worked with administrators and faculty around campus to inspire students to appreciate Fisk’s rich academic experience steeped in the liberal arts tradition. Fisk faculty and students exhibit a passion for learning and personal growth, and they are committed to ethical leadership and engagement in our local and global communities. The ‘Fisk family’ thrives with attention to the D.E.T.A.I.L.S., i.e., Diversity, Excellence, Teamwork, Accountability, Integrity, Leadership and Service.

Under her leadership, Fisk University maintained important relationships with other local universities including Belmont and Vanderbilt, awarded more Master’s degrees in physics to African American students than any other institution in the country, and averaged $5.1 million in private financial gifts from alumni and friends of the university.

Strategies to overcome financial challenges included streamlining the registration process, implementing software to track fundraising, and promoting collaboration among business offices, administration and student leaders. Fisk used grant money from the Dept. of Justice to upgrade security features, maintain the campus and keep buildings secure, installing exterior cameras throughout campus, placing emergency call boxes in strategic locations, mounting card readers at the entrance to residence halls, and positioning interior and exterior cameras in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery.

During her tenure, Fisk has been awarded more than $125 million by federal and state agencies for research and academic programs, but O’Leary’s most notable achievements have been with the students. More than 17% of Fisk students are selected for internships, well above the nine percent national average. In 2012, 61% of students who earned a Fisk degree entered graduate or professional school, well ahead of the national average of 23%. O’Leary and her team had an improved retention rate of 84% as of Fall, 2012, and the six-year graduation rate increased from 47% in August 2010, to 59% in June 2012.

“President O’Leary stands as one of the most accomplished American women of her generation,” said Robert W. Norton, chairman of the board of trustees. “She served at Fisk during a difficult time in its history.”