News » Features

America's Oldest Historically Black Private College Is On the Verge of Losing Its Accreditation. Can It Be Saved?

Lost in Wilberforce

by

3 comments

There's a rumor in the dorms that Meat wants to challenge Jarred to a freestyle battle. Meat thinks he's got chops too, here in the school year's early going, and in truth he's shown promise. But Jarred Hill, a fifth year senior, former class president and member of the Royal Court, enjoys something like Floyd Mayweather status on the Wilberforce University circuit. And right now, outside Allen Commons, he doesn't even dignify the rumor with a shrug.

Allen Commons, the Student Union, is empty inside except for a single student in congress with his iPhone and a paint crew on the second floor. Catering trays and condiments in the central hall suggest recent festivities. Christmas decorations and caps and gowns in plastic bags suggest not-so-recent ones. A prominent banner discloses the upcoming renovation of the cafeteria — COMING SOON, its visible pixels plead — and though there's no real touristic urgency to flock to Xenia, Ohio, do be advised that a New Orleans-style deli looks to be part of the equation.

Jarred waves me over when I stumble outside Allen and asks me point-blank what I'm doing here, what I'm taking pictures of. It's not the first time today I've been eyed with skepticism or disapproval. One student asked me, without introduction, from where I was visiting. It's not like the racial dynamics are over my head or anything. Aside from two professors and two administrators — and the paint crew, to be fair­ — I'm the only white person I've seen on campus.

Wilberforce University is, after all, the oldest historically black college (HBCU) in the country — in all of the Western Hemisphere, according to at least one campus plaque. It was founded in 1856 and boasts an impressive military and academic lineage, once even counting W.E.B. DuBois among its faculty. Lately, though, it's been the subject of some bad press.

In June, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, a regional accrediting agency, issued something called a Show-Cause letter to Wilberforce. That letter crystallized five key areas where the university has been deficient, dramatically so, areas which Inside Higher Ed identified as the result of "more than a decade of financial hemorrhage and plummeting enrollment." (The degree to which those things are both causes and effects makes for riveting fireside debate, for what it's worth).

But now, in very real and substantive ways, Wilberforce must address enormous debt, a deteriorating campus and serious holes in the administration, holes which include the President of the University, all before December 15, or risk losing its accreditation. They'll submit a report, an assessment team will visit the campus, and judgment will be rendered.

Accreditation is of course the fundamental symbol of institutional stability, and though John Hausaman at the Higher Learning Commission told me it would be inappropriate to speculate what might happen to Wilberforce if theirs were to be stripped, one foreseeable outcome would be the school's prompt closure. That's what has been happening to other HBCUs around the country (there are 102 of them in total, though they're sadly fading fast), many of which had and have been struggling with the same enrollment and fundraising issues that Wilberforce is now.

"Credits no longer count from non-accredited schools," Hausaman said in a phone interview. "So..."

So naturally folks are pretty jumpy down here these days. And journalists like yours truly haven't helped. Interim President Wilma Mishoe (MEE-shoo), after escorting me into her office for a private vetting session, wondered why everyone seems so eager to write the historic university's obituary.

"This is an opportunity for the press to befriend us and to tell our story in a positive way," Mishoe said, while deflecting phone calls from Senators in Delaware, where she lives and plans to return once the Wilberforce board selects a permanent president. "But the media in Ohio, and even nationally, seem bent on putting us in a negative light."

Indeed, certain things have been noticed: One blogger for an HBCU-specific outlet pointed out, with exasperation, that Wilberforce's new website doesn't even have a functional "donate" button. (This is still the case). Multiple in-depth reports have quoted doomsdayish professors and revealed some discouraging figures. At the beginning of July, for instance, the number of students who'd put down deposits for this academic year was nine, one weary economics professor confessed. President Mishoe confirmed last week that the total freshmen enrollment for 2014 was 39.

Current students told me that several of their classmates have transferred or simply haven't shown up because of a fear that the university won't be able to right the ship. "What's the point?" is the basic stance from that set. When classes began back on August 3, it was fair to wonder whether it would be the school's last first day of school ever.

It'd be naïve to assume, then, that this sort of speculation and premature eulogizing (all instantly available and shareable via social media) doesn't have an impact on the tenor of campus life. It does. Administrators have become cautious and secretive and micro-managerial. Some students and professors have become embarrassed and/or disgruntled and/or disengaged.

In many others though, the "crisis" (President Mishoe's term) has been a rallying cry; it's instilling in the Wilberforce community writ large a sense of something like combat-readiness. Mishoe said that that's one of the silver linings in all this. There has been a massive "coming together" of administration, alumni, faculty, and students: a refusal to throw in the towel, an impulse to preserve and protect.

Just have a look at Jarred Hill. Outside Allen Commons, he squints at me and my camera and waits for an answer he's expecting not to like. He's sitting on a concrete wall and six young black men are arrayed below him at tables and chairs. Though these guys are members of different, and in some cases rival, fraternities, Jarred seems to be the leader and emotional thermometer for all of them. They look to Jarred when I say that I'm a writer, that I'm working on a story.

"Is it a positive story or a negative story?" he asks, an echo of my earlier conversations with administrators. I try to explain that it's not expressly either, but I'm not here to take cheap shots, if that's what he means. I just want to talk to as many people as I can, to dig a little deeper. And in that respect it's more positive than some of the coverage I've seen.

"Oh yeah? What you got?" He wants to know.

Before I can answer, we're stalled by two consecutive breaking-news events: The first is that Kevin Love has been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick. This is blockbuster material, and kicks off a heated and deeply partisan debate about NBA allegiances. These guys are scholarly fans, make no mistake. Jarred, a Pittsburgh native, pledges fealty only to the University of North Carolina. He played basketball at Wilberforce his freshman year, he tells me, but was derailed by a motorcycle accident.

The second is that Meat has crested a nearby hill and is walking toward us from Henderson Hall, one of Wilberforce's two operational dorms (down from a former fleet of six). There is no jolly irony in Meat's name. It connotes girth, and lots of it, particularly in the midsection. Meat's wearing black jeans, a black Mafioso t-shirt, headphones and a conquistador's grin as he struts this way, toting a bottle of pop by the cap. Jarred asks out loud if that's a man or an oil spill approaching.

Meat has just bested an adversary whose name I can't quite make out — Eaton? — in a freestyle showdown. The segue to the rumor of his challenge seems almost scripted.

"You know I'm one of the most honest dudes on campus," Jarred tells Meat, dead serious. "I don't stunt. I don't front. I don't flex. But I will fuck you up."

Meat clicks his tongue and says that he's got street bars and complex bars in his arsenal. Bars in the musical sense. "I know you throw those complex bars at me," he tells Jarred. "But I can reverse that shit on you."

"Your cerebral cortex cannot comprehend the complexity of my complex bars," says Jarred, with the kind of theatrical cadence and gesturing that makes me think these might be introductory salvos in an impromptu face-off right here. "You can't fuck with me."

Meat can't and doesn't, and no official bars are spit. He does reiterate that Eaton's reversals were pretty bush-league, by most lyrical standards, and tells some stories about recent opposition — yesterday, he was accused of stealing material — but pretty soon Jarred loses interest. He's more concerned about Meat not showing up to class this morning. Meat produces an alibi that Jarred's not buying, and Jarred gives him such a hard time that he walks away to chat with a few other friends nearby.

Jarred tells me later that that's one of the elements that makes Wilberforce so special. No one gets to cut class unnoticed.

"There's only five, six students in a class sometimes," Jarred says. (That's the case with fraternities too). "The professor will call you on your cell phone 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."

Meat and another guy are now freestyling behind Jarred over a vamping iPhone beat. The former class president nods with approval.

"Here?" he says. "It's family."

***

From Cleveland, Wilberforce University is what Midwestern moms might call a good three-hour drive. But what it is, please rest assured, is a bad three-and-a-half.

If you were possessed of an enterprising mood, you could take West 25th the whole way. It becomes Pearl Road and then US Route 42, from which, 200 miles yonder, you turn left onto school grounds. But for the clock- and sanity-conscious, I-71 connects the two in something at least resembling straight lines. The terrain is flat and for the most part smooth. The scenery is agricultural. The badness is linked only to construction, and the monstrous hemorrhoid of Columbus at rush hour.

Then:

The campus emerges, suddenly, beyond the vast patchwork of high-acreage farms, on either side of an unassuming road off State Route 435. Its coordinates mark the exact center of the shallow isosceles formed by Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton. Its buildings describe the brutalist tones of a lot of campuses re-conceived during the '60s and '70s, when a fear of riots and the USSR led to libraries and lecture halls that could withstand heavy shelling in a pinch.

Wolfe Administration Hall, however, is newer and pinker than its neighbors, set on the campus' western edge. There's certainly no shortage of cars in the parking lot, but of their drivers (or for that matter humans of any kind) there's no immediate sign.

Wolfe's interior is more Easter egg than doctor's office, but the soft pinks and teals recall both. For a university this size — something like 300 students, at last count — the various administrative departments can occupy single rooms on the first floor without even having to cram. A clueless freshman, upon arrival, could stand in Wolfe, spin 360 degrees, and see everything she'd need to orient herself: The Bursar's Office, Admissions, Financial Services, Academic Affairs. It's all right here. And before the spin was complete, the student would also cast her gaze upon the back wall and the headshots of the University's presidents all in a chronological row.

It's a distinguished roster:

Here's Daniel Payne. In 1863, he purchased Wilberforce for a cool $10,000 on behalf of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became the first black college president in the nation. He was at the helm when a fire ravaged the campus the same night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Here's Samuel T. Mitchell (1884-1900) who oversaw Wilberforce's designation as a center for military training (the first black institution to be designated as such).

Here's Rembert E. Stokes, the man for whom the library and main classroom building are named. From 1956-76, he oversaw a campus overhaul and Wilberforce's initial accreditation with the North Central Association. He also lured Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the commencement address in 1965.

Look, it's Yvonne Walker-Taylor, the university's first female president. She served quietly from 1984-88. And here's John L. Henderson who, from 1988-2002, completed multiple campus improvement projects (Wolfe Hall, for starters, built in 1995), instituted an academic program for adult students, and restored to WU the beacon and balm of intercollegiate basketball.

That's where the chipper milestones end. On the University's "timeline," via the library, it's as if the years after 2002 don't exist. And given the shitstorm to which Wilberforce's most recent presidents were chaperone and maestro, it probably would have been better for everybody if they didn't.

At the risk of bluntly pointing fingers, Wilberforce's two most recent presidents tanked.

Floyd Flake, something of a celebrity preacher out at an AME megachurch in Queens counting some 23,000 members, accepted the gig on condition that he'd still be able to preside over his flock on the East Coast. Flake was reportedly on campus one day per week, and as a "distance administrator" led the university with about as much rigor and success as elementary school students who "distance learn." Flake also saw fit, via Diverse Education, to inflate his salary from $143,000 to $340,000 over his six-year tenure, even as the school's finances went deeply red.

Patricia Hardaway (2009-2013), the former provost, took one for the team and cut her salary with the conviction that Flake had cut academic programs. Her fatal flaw was to presume that the school's prospects could be instantly overturned with positive thinking. She was guilty of wildly ambitious projections for fundraising and recruitment with no realistic execution strategy. Conditions worsened. In a protest last year over the quality of dorm rooms, the library, class offerings and general malaise, students marched to Wolfe and asked for withdrawal slips. They threatened to enroll at Central State University (the public HBCU down the street) en masse if things didn't improve. Hardaway chose not to speak with students that day, but agreed to resign after a vote of no confidence from the faculty and staff.

Interim President Wilma Mishoe has done what she can to build and restore trust. She isn't sure where the current presidential search stands, beyond the fact that it's delayed. "That's entirely in the hands of the board," she told me.

But the board, along with the "very much engaged" AME Church, and Wilberforce administration, has outsourced its media relations to a firm called Trevelino Keller — the fourth-fastest growing PR firm in the world, by its own claims — who, from headquarters in Atlanta, insist that now's just not a very good time for interviews.

Terry Futrell, though, Wilberforce's soft-spoken basketball coach and athletic director-by-default, has been so impressed with Mishoe and her leadership style that he hopes she stays.

"She recognizes the value of sports and extracurriculars," says Futrell, a warm and religious man, in his office at the Alumni Multiplex across the street. He says that he's been reduced to a department of one, and that prior administrations were almost hostile, taking so much funding away that it became nearly impossible to recruit athletes with scholarships or even to provide equipment and amenities for his players. Men's and women's basketball are currently the only sports offered at Wilberforce, but next year Futrell's been tasked with re-instituting programs in cross country and golf.

(A pragmatic junior named Antoine, from Cincinnati, when I chatted with him in Wolfe the next day, gestured to campus and asked rhetorically where the golf course was).

"I just hope that a new president sees the value too," Futrell says, "that sports — because they keep the students engaged and give them something to root for — are important not only to bring students here, but for retention."

The guy who was presumed to be tapped for the president position — Dwyane Smith, an administrator and multicultural specialist from Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis — confirmed via email that he's no longer in the running.

Standing in Wolfe, walking the row of photos as a sort of historical tour, it's obvious that a dynamic leader can singlehandedly, by the force of his or her will and charisma, alter the culture and prospects of an institution in distress.

***

Just ask Michael Sorrel. He knows a thing or two about the plights of HBCUs and the creative energy necessary to rustle up major contributions. Sorrel's the president of Paul Quinn College, in south Dallas. Paul Quinn's another HBCU under the aegis of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and in 2009, it lost its accreditation for reasons very similar to those currently laying siege to Wilberforce.

Sorrel, an alum of Oberlin College and Duke Law School, told me he met Paul Quinn graduates at a weekly basketball game at the Dallas YMCA after he'd been lassoed to Texas by a prominent firm — Sorrel worked in corporate securities law. He found a deep community of friends among the Paul Quinn community, and said that he hated seeing people he respected affiliated with a university that, at least in the public eye, wasn't thought highly of.

It wasn't long before he was asked to join the board. And it wasn't long thereafter that he became an unhappy board member. "We didn't aim high enough," he told me. "And that's a big problem at HBCUs across the board."

By phone, Sorrel chatted about the challenges of fundraising at a school like Wilberforce.

"People always point to recruitment and fundraising because they intuitively make the most sense," he said. "I think the problem is a different one. You have nothing to sell. What are you selling? If you have a vision that is achievable and people look at you and think you can accomplish it, they will give you money. The problem is, institutions that get in trouble aren't wired for short-term fundraising success. There's a process. We call it creating an investment mentality."

In Sorrel's case, that meant acknowledging first and foremost that his students were his products — students who didn't, at that time, convey to investors that they were a good bet, Sorrel said — and by enlisting their aid in fundraising initiatives.

Sorrel's innovative idea was to establish a non-negotiable "business professional" campus dress code at Paul Quinn. The business-savvy, PR-friendly president took to the airwaves asking for donations not of cash, but of suits and dress shoes for his students.

"The secret was that the dress code was a Trojan Horse for building fundraising capacity," Sorrel said. "The clothing drive created a network of donors that we could return to, and by the way we could gauge by the types of clothes people sent in just what their capacity to give might be."

The reason why Sorrel's outside-the-box fundraising thinking is so critical is because at HBCUs, the rate of giving among alumni is much lower than at other colleges and universities. Much of that has to do with the fact that many of the students are (still) the first or among the first to attend college in their families. The idea of giving back hasn't yet become part of the tradition.

Carole Bernardino, the newly minted alumni affairs director at Wilberforce, says she always stresses that for alumni, giving back should be an obligation, just like church.

"I say to them that whatever we could do and whatever we should do, we must do, for WU," Bernardino says.

At the end of July, at the annual alumni gathering in Memphis, Tenn., Wilberforce collected pledges of $2 million, $400,000 of which was raised in cash that night. Bernardino says that local chapters of the alumni association do their own fundraising as well — while I spoke with her in her office in Wolfe, she got a call from the Detroit chapter about scholarship info they'd placed in the Free Press — and send emissaries to the annual event to present money they'd raised. Only 159 alumni attended the Memphis weekend: That's more than $2,500 per person raised that night alone.

Next year, Bernardino is thrilled to report, the alumni weekend will be held in Cleveland.

***

"From the walls have gone forth

Stalwart sons and daughters brave

Reflecting honor on this mother

Who her blessing gave."

That's a rarely sung third verse of the Wilberforce alma mater, and one thing that mustn't be overlooked, here, is the insistence with which those within the Wilberforce community reference the "family atmosphere," the regularity with which the university is referred to in the third-person feminine.

At student orientation the first week of August, President Mishoe talked about a "rite of passage" candlelight ceremony in which freshmen became "a part of the Wilberforce family." Not part of the community or club. The Stokes library — depleted though it may be — greets students with a sign that says "Welcome to the Wilberforce family." All along and atop its shelves are student-made backboards with quotes and bios from famous alums: liberators, reformers, jazz musicians, Tuskegee Airmen.

The school mascot is the Bull Dog, but Forceans can be seen all over campus as well. It carries the elevated, personal weight of a surname.

"She's the mother of all HBCUs," says Dr. Talbert Grooms, the tall and well-appointed president of the alumni association. We've strolled the campus walkways and Grooms has reflected with dotage on the pastures and trees — "you'd think, the way people talk about the campus, that all the ceilings would be caving in." We've found ourselves seated at the Wilberforce Fountain:

It must always be there, where Forceans may gather and remember the past--the symbol of happiness and love that will last.

Grooms is on a committee to fight back against dwindling enrollment numbers. That group meets later this afternoon to discuss their training programs for student and faculty volunteers. His committee is one of five that formed recently to address the criteria of the Show-Cause letter — five criteria, five "Criterion Teams" — all part of the university's new Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research & Planning.

Grooms, in white ballcap, snappy orange polo and diamond jewelry, says that he attended Wilberforce's CLIMB program for adult learners in the early '90s before getting a Masters Degree from the University of Dayton. He now is an active member of the Dayton WU alumni chapter and says that "to be a part of this legacy...it gripped me."

Once again, to assume that alumni and administrators aren't working their tails off to address areas of concern is to see things only at surface level, to adopt the knee-jerk paternalism of, for example, the Northeast Ohio Media Group's Editorial Board, who called for the immediate resignation of the board of trustees.

"There is no other conclusion," they opined this summer, "after reading a blistering report from the Higher Learning Commission... we urge the accreditation team to work with the university and the university must work with the accreditation team... Interim president Wilma Mishoe must keep her word ... It's hard to believe at this point that any long-term board member can steer Wilberforce in the right direction. Resign."

It's as if they think nothing is being done, as if no steps are being taken. Surely no correspondent from NEOMG has reported on the ground in and around Xenia, so it'd be hard for them to know, let alone call for resignations.

Furthermore, the media only jumped on board after the Show-Cause letter in June, but the perennial problems facing Wilberforce have been blinking on the leadership's radar for years. An April 10, 2014, article in The Mirror, Wilberforce's student newspaper, reported that the criterion teams had already been meeting for a month.

"We're starting small," Grooms says at the fountain, of his recruitment efforts, "with the local schools and churches," but they plan to branch out using the resources of the national AME church. He says that, regarding fundraising, his biggest hope is that Wilberforce can attract corporate sponsorships, companies that, beyond funds, might donate materials or resources or SMART classrooms.

"We've got some," says Grooms, "but I'd like to have all SMART classrooms." He also says that corporate partnerships could yield positive steps in specific curriculum development and professional opportunities for students.

***

"Where are my sons and daughters?

I need them to survive;

Seek and search for all of them, that I might stay alive.

Go find my sons and daughters,

Bring in the young and old,

To rally at the Fountain,

And uphold the Green and Gold.

Harken you my children,

To me you must be true,

Renew your loyalty and trust,

Wilberforce calls for you."

— Ida Walls Lee,

Wilberforce Class of '36

Back in Mishoe's office, I mention that low enrollment actually sort of enhances the family dynamic. College-as-family-reunion. Mishoe says yes yes yes, quietly when she agrees with what you're saying, and reiterates points in accordance with their significance.

"Ultimately, it's about relationships," Mishoe says for the sixth or seventh time — this is key, then. "Anywhere you go, it's about relationships. And the relationships formed here are family relationships."

Case in point: Coach Terry Futrell and Stephen Knox, a 24-year-old who has arrived this morning from Southern California. Knox is a handsome, if lanky, point guard who has just driven two-and-a-half straight days to attend Wilberforce at the behest of Futrell.

Knox lost six hours because of a flat tire in Arizona and he's not happy about it. He was already cutting it close. It was only through Futrell's advocacy and an instructor's lenience that he got to leave summer school at L.A.'s Harbor Junior College a couple days early and start at Wilberforce a couple days late. His decision, from inception to execution, took less than a week.

After the tire got repaired, he pummeled headlong across the continent until Indianapolis, where, dog tired, he slept for a few hours outside Lucas Oil stadium. He logged the final leg in a daze, rattling his head to keep his eyes open.

When I meet him, he still hasn't slept. He was able to drop anchor, briefly, at a dorm room just to set his bags down, but then he had to meet with the registrar, and he still needs to sort out financial aid — Futrell insists that all his players do work-study — and iron out a class schedule before tomorrow. Futrell is guiding him through all of this with patience and pride.

Mishoe and Bernardino and the administrative gang are already gushing about young Knox, the man who moved hell and high water to attend the oldest HBCU in the land. This is the story they want me to tell. Trevelino Keller couldn't have choreographed this if they tried.

But the truth is, Knox just wanted to play basketball. He'd been playing in Los Angeles and knew his eligibility wouldn't last forever — he's got one year left, in fact. He said he wanted to see more of the country while he still could.

"I had heard something about it being the oldest HBCU," Knox says, "and I wanted to see Ohio. I grew up in Phoenix, and have been in California, and I'm just the type of person who likes to see as many places as possible. This is real different."

The other truth is that Knox is an exceptional man, and so is Terry Futrell, who kept vigil by his cell phone as his prospect chugged across America. Futrell walked Knox through a harrowing process when he arrived to make sure he felt at home. And all he knew about Knox was that he was 6'3," and would come if he could.

So Futrell asked.

The willingness to ask for help, though, or lack thereof, has been perceived by some alumni as a hurdle for many HBCUs, whose boards are often narrowly comprised of church officials and provincialist alumni. But Mishoe says a broadening is necessary, not just for the board but for the community as a whole.

"Honest to goodness, I see this as a wonderful opportunity to reinvent Wilberforce," she says, "to make some wonderful changes and modifications. And we'll accept all the help we can get."

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at news@clevescene.com.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club


Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.


Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.


Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.