America's oldest private historically black college is fighting for its life
The storied historically black university (HBCU) was in debt, and enrollment was beginning to decline. But it didn't seem like Wilberforce - the oldest private HBCU in the county - would soon be in danger of closing.
However, following two problematic presidencies, widespread student protests, and various internal issues, Wilberforce now finds itself in a fight to stay alive.
Wilberforce's leadership has recently played host to a group of visitors who may determine the future of the HBCU - an accreditation board that will soon determine if the university has improved enough to keep its accreditation. If it loses that accreditation, it's much more likely Wilberforce will close.
"To keep its accreditation, Wilberforce must address its ballooning debts, deteriorating buildings and leadership shortcomings," Charlie Tyson reported in Insider Higher Ed in June, after the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) threatened to revoke the school's accreditation.
An unprecedented crisis facing HCBUs
HBCUs like Wilberforce have struggled recently with unequal government funding, declining enrollment, and poor leadership. Many of them are on their last legs - including Knoxville College, which saw enrollment fall to 11 students this semester and suspended classes for the fall semester.
"With majority institutions, when a recession hits, they might go from brie to eating cheddar cheese," University of Pennsylvania education professor Marybeth Gasman has told BI. "HBCUs go from cheddar to nothing."
After nearly 160 years, Wilberforce may soon face 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's professors included the author W.E.B. DuBois, and its graduates include civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and sociologist William Julius Wilson.
But much has changed at Wilberforce over the past decade.
A decade in "free fall"
"Wilberforce has had two disastrous presidents and administrations," Richard Deering, a Wilberforce economics professor, told Eye on Ohio in 2013. "We've been in free fall for the last several years."
When Wilberforce President John L. Henderson retired in 2002 after 14 years, he left behind a distinguished legacy including new dorms and a student center. He also left a lot of debt.
The university's board of trustees "sought a replacement who crackled with star power, someone with the name recognition to serve as a powerful fund-raiser," according to Inside Higher Ed.
Flake cut majors and installed his allies in key administrative posts, according to Inside Higher Ed. Faculty members accused him of inflating his own salary while the school suffered. (In 2012, though, Ohio's attorney general found Flake's salary was "well within market range.")
In 2007, the Wilberforce faculty union issued a "no confidence" vote in his leadership. He resigned in January 2008.
The university's provost, Patricia Hardaway, replaced Flake but encountered her own problems in 2012-2013, when hundreds of students protested over what they argued were paltry course offerings and a deteriorating campus. Many threatened to transfer.
"Students are tired of being walked over and we're going to stand up and fight until we get the quality education we deserve," the head of Wilberforce's student government at the time told The Dayton Daily News.
The faculty also voted "no confidence" in Hardaway, who announced her retirement in 2013.
Protest at the WU…
"Transformative change agent president"
The university has now put its faith in Algeania Freeman, who took over as president in September. Since Freeman became Wilberforce's president, she's had a clear mission - to keep the university accredited.
Crucially, she has experience leading Martin University and Livingstone College in their battles to retain accreditation.Freeman told Ohio public radio station WYSO in September.
She has her work cut out for her. Wilberforce has millions of dollars in debt.
Wilberforce's campus has been in a state of disrepair, and it lacks the infrastructure to support its students, according to the letter threatening to revoke accreditation that was sent in June. While Wilberforce once hosted six student dormitories, the Cleveland Scene reports, only two remain operational.
The university's new leadership has also had to deal with rapidly declining enrollment. Wilberforce's proposed 2014 budget was based on 500 students even though it had just 377 students, according to the HLC.
Perhaps more distressing was the university's yield rate, the percent of admitted students who enroll. Of the 1284 applications Wilberforce received for fall 2014, it accepted 482. But only 32 students, or 6% of the acceptances, ended up enrolling.
Signs that Wilberforce could survive
Since Freeman has taken over at Wilberforce, she's brought in almost an entirely new administration to run the university's finances, enrollment, and academics.
"We came with our eyes wide open and we have labored non-stop, many 24-hour days, to make sure we put the institution in the place it should be in terms of operating effectively and efficiently," Freeman told Business Insider.
Wilberforce University Baccalaureate Ceremony 2014
Wilberforce has spent well over $2 million restoring the campus in recent months, and the new president is making a concerted effort to ensure students feel they have a voice in governing the university.
The efforts may be paying off. Wilberforce's enrollment saw a 9% bump for spring 2015. Freeman argued that this could also be seen as a 109% rise in enrollment, as it retained 100% of students from the previous semester and added 9% in new ones.
Freeman said the numbers for next year were promising as well.
"We have received over 1300 applications so far, as opposed to 1200 applications last year," she said. "And we still have about four to five months to go."
However, with current enrollment down to a few hundred students, classes have become tiny. This could be seen as a strength, though, as students get individual attention.
"There's only five, six students in a class sometimes," one Wilberforce student told the Cleveland Scene. "The professor will call you on your cellphone and say, 'Where y'all at? Get your ass to class.' You know what they do at Ohio State? You're a number. You log in to class with a number."
We reached out to Floyd Flake and Patricia Hardaway for comment and will update this post if we hear back.
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