Wilberforce University struggles to survive

Lack of students and lack of money are threatening the future of historic Wilberforce University.

Wilberforce, founded prior to the Civil War, is one of the oldest historically black colleges in the United States and alma mater to a notable roster of African-American alumni, but its rich history may not be enough to save the struggling school.

On-campus sources say the school, near Dayton, has 460 students registered for classes this fall.   That’s far below the enrollment Wilberforce projected it would have in a report to the Higher Learning Commission.

Eye on Ohio has obtained copies of correspondence between Wilberforce and the commission, an accreditation agency for colleges and universities in Ohio and 18 other states.  The Higher Learning Commission is part of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

According to that correspondence, Eye on Ohio interviews with university officials, and previous reports, Wilberforce has been beset by a heavy debt load, deteriorating physical conditions on campus, fewer and fewer course offerings that would attract students, and generally insufficient efforts to retain students and beef up development funds.

Because of the slow progress in correcting these problems, the Higher Learning Commission is sending a team of peer evaluators to Wilberforce in October. Their findings could influence the school’s accreditation, according to a commission spokesman.

Richard Deering, an economics professor at Wilberforce and sharp critic of the administration, believes the university needs to turn itself around this year or risk insolvency.

Wilberforce University Dwindling Assets

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs / Eye on Ohio

Wilberforce University Dwindling AssetsOdelia E. Scruggs / Eye on Ohio

“We’re running on fumes,” said Deering, who’s been teaching at the school since 1968.

Marybeth Gasman, an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, isn’t as pessimistic about Wilberforce’s future as Deering.

“Wilberforce will be around longer than that because HBCUs in general have a way of lasting,” said Gasman, a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Accreditation agency watching closely

The Higher Learning Commission has been advising Wilberforce to make serious changes since an accreditation visit in 2010.  At that time, the commission instructed the school to submit yearly progress reports on how well it was faring, particularly in the areas of finances and enrollment. Normally, schools are accredited for 10 years. Wilberforce was granted only a five-year accreditation.

All schools are required to submit annual reports on common standards, such as enrollment, to accrediting agencies. Wilberforce also has been required to submit additional progress reports in order to maintain its accreditation.

The commission issued its 2012 findings on both reports – the standard report and the additional report – in August and November, respectively.  The findings were so grave, the commission decided the campus visit this coming fall was in order.

Wilberforce University's enrollment figures

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs / Eye on Ohio

Wilberforce University’s enrollment figuresOdelia E. Scruggs / Eye on Ohio

In its reports, the commission noted that 2011 fall enrollment had fallen by 37 students, continuing a trend that began in 2007; the commission called enrollment the most serious problem that Wilberforce is facing.

The school last year responded to the commission by promising it would raise enrollment by 5% each year until 2015 and increase tuition and fees in 2015 by 7% to bring in enough cash to meet its financial obligations.

Wilberforce also told the commission it would have 700 students in the 2012-2013 academic year.  Commission reviewers last year couldn’t determine whether the school was on target: Wilberforce omitted a total fall enrollment figure from the 2012 progress report.  

The school aimed to have 750 students this fall, according to the projections submitted to the Higher Learning Commission.  The goal, which not been met, was ambitious given the school’s recent difficulties in attracting students.  Although Wilberforce accepts about half its applicants, fewer than 20 percent of them enroll.

Although total enrollment figures weren’t given to the commission, school officials reported about 1,000 students were admitted for fall 2012. Only 167 enrolled – about 16 percent.  That compares to a national admission-to-enrollment average of 37%.

New admissions declined drastically this year. On-campus sources say the entering class totals 75 students.

Deering has reviewed the school’s tax returns from 2002 to 2011. He concludes the school needs about 750 to 800 undergraduates to be financially stable.

“With that number, we can have reasonably successful programs, and we can increase salaries,” he said. “At 600 (students), we’re treading water.”

But enrollment figures from the commission’s reports show Wilberforce hasn’t had 800 undergraduates in several years. In fall 2007, Wilberforce had 716 undergraduate students in fall 2007. By fall 2009, the enrollment had slipped to 590 undergraduates.

Finances: another problem

The Higher Learning Commission documents reveal a school that is scraping to get by.  The commission’s August report noted that Wilberforce consumed a quarter of its cash assets during the first nine months of FY 2012. The school’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

“The evidence suggests the institution is not positioned to maintain a sustainable cash position,” the commission reviewers wrote.

The reviewers also questioned the way the school added money to its cash accounts in the previous fiscal year.  In its fiscal year 2011, its cash balance increased from roughly $449,000 at the beginning of the year to $794,000 at the end. But the school’s investments fell from $1.65 million to $1.05 million, according to its 2011 tax return.  The commission’s reviewers concluded the school raised cash by selling investments instead of making a “fundamental change in operations.”

“The school has not provided evidence of its capability to sustain operations moving forward,” they said in the August 2012 report.

In its November 2012 document, commission evaluators said they couldn’t comment on the schools finances because Wilberforce didn’t send its most recent audit report.  Still they were disturbed by results from the previous fiscal year.

Tax returns and the commission reports showed the school ended the fiscal year with a $445,000 operating deficit, well over the $260,000 shortfall the school had projected in an earlier report to the commission. Net assets had fallen as well, from $6 million to $5.5 million by the end of the fiscal year.

The report noted that Wilberforce had not made contributions to its employee pension fund in 2011 or 2010.

A damaged reputation

Deering believes that all of its problems in the last few years have damaged the Wilberforce name, further hampering its ability to recruit and retain students.

“Wilberforce’s reputation has taken a shot,” he said. “It’s a combination of (lack of) stability and (declining) resources and academic programs.”

Last fall, the school got unwelcomed media attention when more than 300 undergraduates marched to the administration building and threatened to transfer if the administrators didn’t clean up the dormitories and improve its course offerings, student services and dormitories.  (Wilberforce is mostly an undergraduate school; only 10 graduate students were enrolled in the 2011-2012 school year.)

At a press conference after the protest, Patricia Lofton Hardaway, the school’s president, promised to address the students’ concerns; this summer she announced she would be retiring in December.

The sources of Wilberforce’s problems are subject to much speculation and controversy.  Officials at the university – including the president, other administration personnel, and members of the board of trustees and alumni association – did not return many requests for comment for this story.

Deering lays the blame for the school’s troubles squarely at the top.

“Wilberforce has had two disastrous presidents and administrations,” Deering said. “We’ve been in free fall for the last several years.”

Hardaway became president in 2008.  She previously served as provost under Floyd Flake who served as president from 2002 to 2008.  Both presidents repeatedly sparred with the faculty union, which Deering once led, over school finances and enrollment.

Wilberforce in comparison to other HBCUs.

Gasman doesn’t believe Wilberforce’s situation is typical of the majority of the country’s 105 HBCUs, though some news reports have raised questions about how the economy and loss of assets in African-American communities have affected the schools.

Gasman instead places Wilberforce among a small group of private HBCUs that have had difficulty with leadership and attracting students.  That group includes now-bankrupt Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which still is open but lost its accreditation in 2002 because of financial and academic woes,  and St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., which closed in June. 

Gasman believes HBCUs that are struggling schools need bold leadership able to craft creative solutions. She pointed to Paul Quinn College in Dallas, where college president Michael Sorrell eliminated a money-losing football team and adopted other measures to garner support from the local community.

Wilberforce, said Gasman, can no longer rest on its past reputation as a strong liberal arts college and the school needs to distinguish itself in the education marketplace.

“(Wilberforce) doesn’t have a niche or a specific draw for students,” said Gasman. “In this day and age where most young people want to be special and want to go to a place that has something special about it, if you don’t have a niche or specialty, it’s hard to get noticed.”

A proud history

The school’s dire straits are disheartening for a proud institution more than 150 years old.

[Interactive: Timeline of the university’s notable students and alumni]

Wilberforce dates back to 1856 when two denominations – the predominately white Methodist Episcopal Church and the predominately black African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church  – founded the university at Tawawa Springs, a resort near Xenia.

Named after English abolitionist William Wilberforce, the school had roughly 200 students by 1850. During its early years, funding for Wilberforce came from Southern plantation owners whose mulatto children attended the school.

The Civil War closed that pipeline of students and money, and the school closed in 1862. It reopened in 1863, after the AME Church bought Wilberforce.

The university counts among its alumni civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, noted sociologist William Julius Wilson and opera singer Leontyne Price, who was enrolled in the university’s normal and industrial department before it split from Wilberforce in 1947 to become Central State University. The schools consider themselves sister institutions.

Those who revere the school’s history no doubt would like to see its tradition live on –  and not just through fond memories.  But the future is uncertain at best.

“Wilberforce basically has one year to make a dramatic change,” Deering said. “If we’re about the same next fall as we are (now), we’re going to be dead anyway.”


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