An HBCU Transformed
Wilberforce, the nation’s oldest private Black college, emerges from one of its darkest periods just in time to celebrate its 150th birthday.
By Ronald Roach
Few institutions have embodied African-American history as completely as Wilberforce University. Established before the Civil War, the nation’s oldest private Black college was a powerful focal point in the struggle for equality and served as a destination point on the Ohio Underground Railroad. Closed briefly during the Civil War, officials with the African
Methodist Episcopal church brought Wilberforce back to life in 1863, purchasing it from the predominantly White Methodist Episcopal Church. That purchase made Wilberforce the first Black college to be owned and operated by African-Americans. Some years after its revival, Wilberforce would spin off two additional Black academic institutions, Central State University and Payne Theological Seminary.
Wilberforce has played host to some of the most famous and influential African-Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, the pre-eminent Black scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, taught there for two years. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who spent much of his life living in nearby Dayton, often performed his poetry readings at the small, rural campus. Other notables, including Leontyne Price and Dr. William Julius Wilson, earned their undergraduate degrees at Wilberforce.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Wilberforce continues to showcase the viability and promise of the small private, historically Black college. The sesquicentennial anniversary comes at a time of uncertainty and financial hardship for many small Black institutions. Wilberforce itself only recently overcame arguably its largest financial crisis since the Civil War.
In 2002, the university was facing a $5 million debt, despite an $18 million annual operating budget. That year, Wilberforce installed former U.S. congressman and alum the Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake as its 19th president. Flake immediately began to make a difference, and the institution has since found its bearings under his leadership. Wilberforce’s financial turnaround has sparked a new sense of optimism about the future of the university.
“Under the administration of Rev. Floyd Flake, Wilberforce has taken on a new life and is poised to grow,” says James A. Padgett, an art professor and the faculty representative to Wilberforce’s board of trustees.
“I would say on the broader institutional issues, Floyd has been very strong and positive on behalf of Wilberforce. He’s basically taken a troubled institution, stabilized it, and gotten it in a position where it can begin to rebuild and have a positive future,” adds Dr. Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.
Wilberforce may not be as picturesque and visually impressive as some other small rural campuses in the state, like Ohio University. The buildings at Wilberforce are mostly gray concrete and sprawl across a hilly spread in southwestern Ohio. They project an austere, almost industrial look to the campus. But that cold, impersonal image is almost immediately dissolved by the palpable, family-oriented spirit that pervades the campus and manifests itself in the interactions among the faculty members, administrators and students.
It’s not unusual to see Marshall Mitchell, Wilberforce’s vice president for institutional advancement, winding his way through campus buildings, dispensing hugs and high-fives, teasing some students, and urging others to make appointments with him to discuss serious matters. Mitchell conducts himself like the concerned vice principal at an urban high school or the adult brother prodding younger siblings and cousins to do their best.
Rickey Jackson, a senior from Riverside, Calif., says the personal, caring spirit of Mitchell and other administrators and faculty members has sparked his own intellectual and social growth. He says that spirit helped ease the transition from his suburban Southern California life to existence in isolated, rural Ohio.
Jackson says Flake sets a strong example of how a college president can prove a motivating force to students like himself. “President Flake’s very real and down to earth. You get the sense that he really cares about us,” he says.
Wilberforce’s faculty and staff radiate a can-do spirit that seems to be absorbed by the students. In contrast to the days when the university laid off staff, cut degree programs and instituted faculty pay cuts, administrators like Mitchell can now talk confidently about university plans to build two new dormitories to accommodate student enrollment growth. And they are stepping up efforts to secure federal dollars to enhance the research capacity of the faculty.
Currently, Wilberforce enrolls more than 800 residential undergraduates and operates a continuing education division that serves roughly 400 working adult students. Since fall 2002, tuition, fees and room and board for residential students have stayed consistent at $16,200. Ninety-five percent of Wilberforce students rely on financial aid.
“We are quite proud of the fact that we’ve been able to hold down tuition and fees while turning the financial situation around,” Mitchell says.
With plans to grow the residential undergraduate enrollment to 2,000, the school has already revamped its admissions operations and gone from purely open enrollment to selective admissions. Mitchell says Wilberforce’s national visibility and reputation as an A.M.E. institution have helped grow the applicant pool in recent years. School officials now accompany the nationally acclaimed Wilberforce choir on their annual East and West Coast tours, drumming up student interest. When the choir performed in Idaho earlier this year, admissions officials were on hand, actively recruiting in an area that has been traditionally below the radar of historically Black schools.
“Our approach [to attracting applicants] works well with personal contact and putting students in touch with people who can share their personal experiences with Wilberforce,” says Kenya Napper, the vice president for student development and enrollment management.
School administrators like to tout the student-friendliness of its cooperative education program and the unique partnership it has with the Princeton Review test-prep organization. The cooperative education requirement mandates that Wilberforce students participate in two internships or jobs during their undergraduate careers. To help them meet that requirement, the school has established relationships with hundreds of employers across the nation, according to Hardy Brown, director of the cooperative education office and a Wilberforce alumnus.
The Princeton Review arrangement enables the university to offer graduate school test-preparation programs to students free of charge. In addition, the Princeton Review provides placement testing to entering students in English/language arts, writing and mathematics.
According to John L. Walker, the chair of Wilberforce’s board of trustees, the university’s deteriorating financial situation in 2002 was common knowledge to the board. It was about that time that then-President John L. Henderson announced his resignation. Henderson presided over the school from 1988 to 2002 and was credited with overseeing the construction of several new buildings and initiating the Credential for Leadership In Management and Business continuing education program. But officials say lags in fund raising during Henderson’s last years and debt from the new building projects began to jeopardize Wilberforce’s future. The school was already on notice following a 2001 reaccreditation by the North Central Accrediting Association, and had to have its finances and facilities management in order by 2003-2004, in time for a special site visit by the association.
“We knew we had to get someone in the president’s office on an interim basis that could begin to turn this situation around,” Walker says. Flake, also a trustee at the time, immediately emerged as a potential candidate for the position.
Flake accepted the board’s request, saying he would commute to Ohio from his home in Queens, N.Y., where he has pastored the Allen A.M.E. Church for since 1976.
“The biggest challenge obviously when they asked me to consider taking the presidency was that the university was in debt. I was not aware of how great the debt was because of many of the issues in its financial operations; [the trustees] assumed they had about a $3 million debt; it turned out it was closer to $5 million,” Flake says.
It didn’t take long for Flake to realize that fixing Wilberforce’s financial situation wouldn’t be a short-term exercise. He told Walker, a former banking executive, that he would need at least two years to bring the university back to financial and organizational health.
Flake recruited Mitchell, who had been a senior vice president in the Edison Schools organization, to assist him at Wilberforce. Mitchell had previously been Flake’s chief of staff in the latter years of his congressional tenure. Based in Philadelphia, Mitchell, like Flake, commutes to Ohio weekly.
Mitchell says a complete reorganization of the school’s academic programs, combined with an aggressive fund-raising campaign, was necessary to start the healing process at Wilberforce. They trimmed the academic spectrum from 54 majors to 17, eliminating the ones that had seen little student demand over the years. And with the approval of the trustees and the faculty senate, the school slashed salaries, cut staff and increased faculty workloads. The drastic measures worked, as Wilberforce fought its way back into financial health by the 2005-2006 academic year.
“With some very tough decisions, significant reductions in staff and being able to bring in some additional resources over a two-and-a-half year period, by year three we had completely come out of debt and had about a $300,000 surplus,” Flake says.
In addition, Wilberforce has seen its endowment grow from $8 million in 2002 to $11 million in 2006.
Federal funding obtained through appropriation earmarks have also demonstrated the extent to which Wilberforce has tapped into new financial resources. As a former congressman, Flake knows who to speak to and how to get things done in Washington. According to Mitchell, the university has secured roughly $13 million in federal earmark funding during Flake’s tenure.
Prior to Flake’s arrival, Wilberforce had not been a player in the congressional appropriations process responsible for earmark funding, says Mitchell. With the new funding, the university has begun research partnerships with federal agencies including the Homeland Security Department, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
“I think the fact that [Flake] has such great connections in Washington, with the government, and New York, with the philanthropic community, is going to work to the further benefit of Wilberforce,” Lomax says.
That Flake has been able to cure Wilberforce’s financial ills and position it for future growth is a testament to his pragmatic, back-to-basics leadership. Columbia University political scientist Dr. Manning Marable compares Flake to Booker T. Washington. Though Marable says Flake doesn’t subscribe to Washington’s reactionary and accommodationist political views, he says the minister wields the kind of innovative organizational and management acumen for which Washington was known. Both leaders have stressed an emphasis on economic development and a focus on building successful Black institutions, says Marable.
Dr. William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College and a native of Queens, N.Y., says he grew up seeing first-hand the impact of Flake’s economic development programs, which transformed the urban community around the Allen A.M.E. Church. The church, under Flake’s leadership, has built housing for senior citizens and operates a school that has 800 K-8 students. Cobb notes that Flake has crossed the political aisle on a number of occasions to support Republican politicians, including current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“He’s bedeviled people with his politics. He’s hard to classify,” Cobb says. “Floyd Flake is one of the few people in Black political leadership circles who has a track record at building viable institutions.”
Dr. Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, says Flake’s support of school choice and school vouchers while serving in the U.S. Congress put him at odds with fellow Congressional Black Caucus members. That Flake’s ties to Republican leaders would benefit Wilberforce does not surprise Walters.
“Flake’s adopted a pragmatic approach to politics,” Walters says. Graduating from Wilberforce in 1968, Flake, a native of Houston, later earned a doctor of ministry degree at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton. In the 1970s, he worked as an academic administrator at Boston University and at Lincoln University. Flake was elected to Congress in 1987 and represented his Queens district for a decade.
Flake says part of his motivation for Wilberforce stems from wanting to raise academic standards and opportunities for college students. “I think part of what drove me to want to come to Wilberforce was trying to bring the same kinds of standards that had driven me in creating the design for our school at Allen Church and in what I’ve done in charter schools and Edison Schools. I’ve tried to implement the means by which we can see the same kind of results among African-American students coming out of college,” he says.
“I believe that my being at Wilberforce helps me to create some modeling for higher education for African-American students. [That modeling is] not only challenging them to do their best, but also trying to change the academics in such a way that students are prepared for the new global marketplace,” he adds.
Wilberforce plans to host a number of alumni events during the spring, summer and fall, aimed at spotlighting the work of the current administration. Alumnus Barbara King, who has lived in Dayton for the past 36 years and is active in the national alumni organization, says it’s been fascinating watching her alma mater transform itself over recent years.
She says Wilberforce’s ability to attract resources, expertise and funding reflects the school’s historic stature and its importance to the nation.
“We’ve had the worst of times and the best of times since 1970,” King says, noting that the current administration will likely get credit for generating the better of times.
Reader comments on this story:
There is currently 16 reader comments on this story:
“Proud Wilberforcean!”I must say that it makes me proud to read such a great article on my beloved alma mater. This article captures the true essence of Wilberforce – as a recent graduate, I have seen the phenomenal changes that have taken place. I am assured in knowing that Wilberforce will continue to thrive amongst the nation’s great institutions and continue to carry on our legacy of being the “First, Finest, and the Future.”-Tatum Rucker
“Wow!”Wow! I could not think of any other way to title my comment, but wow! While reading this phenomenal piece, tears formed in the corners of my eyes-not tears of sadness, but tears representing my gratitude to God for allowing me, a native of the Caribbean (West-Indies) to partake of an unforgettable experience at the oldest private HBCU. Wilberforce University is certainly in my heart and I love my Alma Mater. As I articulately stated in my speech as I addressed the students, on May 19th, 2004, “Wilberforce University was the first and will be the last to fall!” I believed that then and I believe this even now! One of my heart desires is to be able to give back to support my Alma Mater, particularly because it gave so much to me. As I conclude, I charge my dear President Flake to continue the race that is set forth before you, reaching for the prize of the High calling! I love you President Flake and I thank God that he has planted you there for such a time as this!!Sincerely,Bewindi Bobb, Honored Alum (04)
“do not recommend Wilberforce”Wilberforce is the worse HBCU as yet – they use students, they treat students very poorly, and they cheat them out of their education. I would never recommend attending Wilberforce to anybody.-Clarence Hall
“proud graduate of Wilberforce”Thank you for an excellent article. Your article made me proud to say I am a graduate of Wilberforce University.-Wanda BarberClass of 1990
“Thank you, Dr. Flake”I just want to thank God for having this wonderful article on my great school. I love where Wilberforce been and where it is going. It has touch the lives of many, especially me (Katrina Vicitm). I will reccomend this school for anyone. Students who don’t like the school don’t have a drive for education, they also don’t make the school a better place. Thank you Mr. Flake for your love and caring heart for our school. You can be anywhere in the world right now but you choose to be with us.-Ashley Causey
“Love it!”I am a very proud alumn!!! I love WIlberforce University!!! When I was away from my family and friends, it was my home and the students and faculty were my family. Like Bewindy, I too got emotional. I am proud to read about the advancements and outstanding progress the university has made. I was there during the financial trouble, the construction of “the new dorm” now Henderson Hall, the changing of presidents and the beginning of the uphill battle to regain financial stability. I am estatic to read that my alma mater is again living up to its motto of being the first, the finest, and the future.-Jamila Collins
“A real HC will CU”The First, the Finest, The Future…….
I will say that the atmosphere at this institution was very welcoming when I attended. I transferred from Cal and knew 2 people in the entire state. From the faculty to the students, something was in the water…something that sparked the old fashion “community traits” that were once prominent in the AA community. I would never trade the experience for anything. And if I could do it all over again…..there is very little (1 or 2 things) I would change. Any Alumni of the university has more PRIDE and UNDERSTANDING of the importance of this traditions of the HISTORICALLY Black College. I have encountered Alums from both HU’s, Morehouse, VSU, Bowie, Morgan, etc…. None of them could even sing their school song. Some couldn’t tell you the name of the president when they graduated or even the yr when their university was founded. These are minor, but when you talk in circles that talk about school pride , and you claim to have it, but can’t tell me anything about “where” you came from…..SAD. I love Wilberforce, “THE WU”, GOOD OLE W U. There is none like it.“Men and Maidens throng the campus, from All states they come, and from all the rolling waters to this common home, hail the chorus, ever on to Gold and Green be true, hail to the our Alma Mater, Dear OLE WU.”
“Suo Marte”-William Douglas Lye
“Wilberforce University”Thank you for an excellent article. Your article made me proud to say I am a graduate of Wilberforce University.-Wanda Barber, Class of 1990
“Still we rise”Fantastic Article! As we celebrate Wilberforce’s “Sesquicentennial Anniversary” this article should energize and be a call to all able Alumni to take part in what could be one of the most important periods of the University. At a time when many institutions of higher learning, not just HBCU’s, are struggling to keep their doors open, we should be proud of the recent accomplishments and take part in this transformation. The theme of the 2006 National Alumni Conference is “Stepping Out on Faith, Standing On Our Heritage, AND Still We Rise”. The theme depicts Wilberforce’s distant and recent past while claiming our bright future.
-Darryl W. Mills, Class of 1979, Member-Alumni Board of Directors
“Giving back to our alma mater”This article hit home for me. What a wonderfully written summary of how, why, what, and where we need to be and go! I enjoyed reading this article and hope others will continue to give back their teasures, talents, and time to their or someone else’s Black historically college or University. Behold, a Green and Gold “Spartan”…-Youlander M. Hilton
“thank you”Thank you for the postive commemts on WU. During the 60’s and 70’s WU give African- American students an opportunity to achieve to their fulliest protenial. I thank GOD for WU and all HBC.
-Hendrian H. Williams, ‘72
“a great school!”I can only speak for myself and I’m sure countless others will agree. Wilberforce University is more than a school! For 9 months out of the year,(in class and on the basketball team) it is my home and family.
WU was there for me when I graduated early. They believed in me when I was unsure of my dreams. It was their support and God who has blessed me with the opportunity to begin my senior year at the age of 18. And as young as I am, they have prepared me! They have loved me, cared for me, supported me, and definitely challenged me. They gave me a chance, when other schools wouldn’t even send me an application, because they didn’t know that the youth are leaders! Wilberforce taught me to go above and beyond what is expected and to strive for excellency. I love yall! I love this school! God is definitely here. And in the coming year, God willing, this too will be my Alma Mater. Thank you faculty and staff, Mr. Brown, B-Ball Coaching Staff & Teammates, President Flake and Vice President Mitchell! I appreciate you all very much! God has blessed!-Edlyn Antonia Violette
“speechless”I am speechless. This article really did bring tears to my eyes. I am also extremely proud to be a graduate of an institution of higher learning w/ such a rich history. Other HBCU’s can’t claim that. As Will stated, most people can’t run off their school history like Wilberforceans can. Lastly, I am honored to have graduated under the leadership of Dr. Flake. Great article! Great article! Great article!!!
“a proud alum”I come from a family of HBCU Alums. Tuskegee, Alabama A&M, and Alabama State just to name a few. So when I chose to attend the then lesser known Wilberforce the questions flew. After my first visit I was sold and shortly thereafter my family was as well. The one on one attention I received from professors and administators who truly care about your well being could not and cannot be matched. I have made it my business to refer any young person to Wilbeforce University because it is indeed a treasure!
~Natasha N. Lee c/o 1998
“Proud to be a Forcean”I am extremely proud to be a Wilberforcean!!! Having traveled around the country and met other Forceans, I find “ALL” them to have a spirit of Thankfulness and a desire to grow and give back to society. Wilberforce taught me to strive for the next level and help others in the process. I attended other Universities for graduate school, but there is nothing like the “FORCE”. I encourage ALL to remember Wilberforce in their WILL.
-Rayford L. Bourn
“nowhere else I would rather be”This article has truley made me a proud Wilberforcean. It is true that ALL institutions (HBCU’s, Ivy Leagues, Traditional, etc.)have hardships that they must overcome. But I must say that Wilberforce University has met and exceeded our hardships humbly and gracefully. We Wilberforceans come together like none other. We are not only highly educated individuals, we are a family. This article makes one appreciate their situations and opportunities. I thank Dr. Flake for taking on the challenge that intimidated many, for setting the standards, for believing in our institution, and for providing us students with a chance to excel. There’s nowhere else I would rather be. I am definitely a proud Wilberforcean!
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