Ten years ago, Wilberforce University was struggling but stable.
Historically Black University (HBCU) was in debt, and the inscription was starts to decline. But it didn’t look like Wilberforce – the county’s oldest private HBCU – would be in danger of shutting down anytime soon.
However, following two problematic presidencies, widespread student protests and various internal issues, Wilberforce now finds himself in a struggle to stay alive.
Wilberforce management recently welcomed a group of visitors who could determine the future of the HBCU – an accreditation board that will soon determine whether the university has improved enough to maintain its accreditation. If he loses that accreditation, it’s much more likely that Wilberforce will shut down.
“To maintain its accreditation, Wilberforce must deal with its inflated debts, deteriorating buildings and leadership gaps,” Charlie Tyson reported in Insider Higher Ed in June, after the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) threatened revoke school accreditation.
An unprecedented crisis facing the HBCUs
HBCUs like Wilberforce have recently struggled with uneven government funding, declining enrollment, and poor leadership. Many of them are on their last legs, including Knoxville College, which has seen enrollment drop to 11 students this semester and classes suspended for the fall semester.
âWith majority institutions, when a
hits, they could switch from brie to consuming cheddar cheese, âMarybeth Gasman, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, told BI. âHBCUs are going from cheddar to nothing.
After nearly 160 years, Wilberforce could soon suffer the same fate.
Founded in 1856, Wilberforce was the first college owned and operated by African Americans. Its founding president became the first African American to lead a university. Wilberforce faculty included author WEB DuBois, and its graduates include civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and sociologist William Julius Wilson.
But a lot has changed at Wilberforce over the past decade.
A decade in “free fall”
âWilberforce has had two disastrous presidents and administrations,â said Richard Deering, professor of economics at Wilberforce. A look at Ohio in 2013. “We have been in free fall for several years.”
When Wilberforce President John L. Henderson retired in 2002 after 14 years, he left behind a distinguished legacy, including new dormitories and a student center. He also left a lot of debt.
The university’s board of trustees “searched for a replacement that crackles with the power of the stars, someone with name recognition to serve as a powerful fundraiser, ” according to Inside Higher Ed.
Wilberforce alumnus and former congressman Floyd Flake took over in 2002. The school let its new star president stay as a senior pastor of a 15,000-member mega-church in Queens. He only spent one day a week on campus, Deering told Insider Higher Ed.
Flake cut majors and installed his allies in key administrative positions, according to Inside Higher Ed. Professors accused him of inflate his own salary while the school was suffering. (In 2012, however, the Ohio Attorney General found that Flake’s salary was “well in the range of the market. “)
In 2007, the Wilberforce teachers’ union cast a vote of “no confidence” in his direction. He resigned in January 2008.
University provost Patricia Hardaway replaced Flake but had its own problems in 2012-2013, when hundreds of students protested against what they said were paltry course offerings and a deteriorating campus. Numerous threatened to transfer.
“The students are tired of being trampled on and we are going to stand up and fight until we get the quality education we deserve,” the head of the Wilberforce student government at the time told the Dayton Daily News.
The faculty also voted “no confidence” in Hardaway, who announced his retirement in 2013.
Demonstration at the WUâ¦
“President, transformative change agent”
The university now trusts Algeania Freeman, who took over as president in September. Since Freeman became president of Wilberforce, she has had a clear mission: to keep the university accredited.
Most importantly, she has experience leading Martin University and Livingstone College in their battles to retain accreditation.
âI am the person who is called upon when institutions have problems with their accreditation, with their deficit spending, with a low number of students. I’m that transformative change agent president. ” Freeman told Ohio State Radio Station WYSO in September.
She has her work cut out for her. Wilberforce has millions of dollars in debt.
The Wilberforce campus is in disrepair and lacks infrastructure to support its students, according to the letter threatening to revoke accreditation sent in June. While Wilberforce once housed six student dormitories, the Cleveland Scene reports, only two remain operational.
The new management of the university has also had to deal with a rapid decline in enrollments. Wilberforce’s proposed budget for 2014 was based on 500 students even though it only had 377 students, according to the HLC.
Perhaps the university’s rate of return, the percentage of admitted students who enroll, was more distressing. Of the 1,284 applications received by Wilberforce for the fall of 2014, it accepted 482. But only 32 students, or 6% of acceptances, ended up registering.
Signs Wilberforce could survive
Since Freeman took over at Wilberforce, she has set up an almost entirely new administration to handle the university’s finances, enrollment, and academics.
âWe came with our eyes wide open and worked tirelessly, several 24-hour days, to make sure we put the institution where it should be in terms of functioning effectively and efficiently,â Freeman told Business Insider.
2014 Wilberforce University Baccalaureate Ceremony
Wilberforce has spent more than $ 2 million to restore the campus in recent months, and the new president is making a concerted effort to ensure that students feel they have a voice in the governance of the university.
The efforts can pay off. Wilberforce enrollments were up 9% for spring 2015. Freeman argued that this could also be seen as a 109% increase in enrollment, as he retained 100% of the previous semester’s students and added 9% again.
Freeman said the numbers for next year were also promising.
“We have received over 1,300 applications so far, up from 1,200 last year,” she said. “And we still have about four to five months to go.”
However, with current enrollments of a few hundred students, the classes have gotten tiny. This could be seen as a strength, as the students are given individual attention.
âSometimes there are only five, six students in a class,â a Wilberforce student told the Cleveland Scene. âThe teacher will call you on your cell phone and say, ‘Where are you? Bring your butt to class â. Do you know what they’re doing in Ohio State? You are a number. You log in to class with a number.
We have reached out to Floyd Flake and Patricia Hardaway for comment and will update this post if we have any news.