Historically black college faces tough financial challenges following the Great Recession. School hires a turnaround specialist as president
By Frederick H. Lowe
Wilberforce University, a Historically Black University owned by the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, will know in November if it will remain an accredited institution, nearly 150 years after it was founded to educate the black children of white slave owners.
The school, which is based in Wilberforce, Ohio, and is named for British abolitionist William Wilberforce, is being investigated by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits degree-granting, post-secondary educational institutions in the North Central Region of the United States.
The Commission, which is based in Chicago, posted on its website on June 12, 2014, that Wilberforce had to present a case to commission members as to why accreditation should not be withdrawn.
Although Wilberforce remains accredited during a “Show Cause” period, commission members advised students they should contact other institutions to learn whether or not that college or university will alter its acceptance of credits if Wilberforce loses it accreditation.
Concerns About the University’s Operations
In the “Show Cause” order, Commission members listed a number of concerns they have with the university.
Commission members were concerned about its institutional mission and guidance of operations, integrity of the university’s oversight of finances and adherence of policies and practices and the sufficiency of the institution’s financial resources. In addition, the Higher Learning Commission also said the University Board has a history of not following a process to make decisions in the best interest of Wilberforce.
Commission members have visited the school, which was founded in 1856 by the United Methodist Church. The school closed in 1862 and was bought by the A.M.E Church for $10,000 in 1863. It is the oldest private coeducational university owned and controlled by African Americans.
School officials have also issued a requisite written report to the Commission, which was due in December 15, 2014. The Commission will issue a decision sometime in November as to whether Wilberforce will keep its accreditation.
Wilberforce’s problems stem mostly from the Great Recession Jeff Sellers, Wilberforce’s vice president of Institutional Advancement, told NorthStar News Today.com
The Great Recession and how it continues to hurt the university
The Great Recession, December 2007 to June 2009, continues to wreak financial havoc throughout much of the African community, causing the greatest drop in black wealth since 1984, according to the research paper, “The Great Recession in Black Wealth,” published by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The school’s enrollment dropped to a low of 300 in 2014 from a one-time high of 1,200. Unlike universities like Harvard, which have huge endowments, Wilberforce has to rely heavily on growing its enrollment to meet its financial obligations.
The drop in enrollment was directly tied to the economy because 95% of Wilberforce students receive Pell Grants, education grants which are named in honor of U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. The grants were designed to make college more affordable for students from middle-and low-income families
In the 2011-2012 school year, Pell Grants were cut to $4,705 per year per student from $5,500 annually. The maximum grant for 2014-2015 award year now is $5,730.
The grant can be used toward a student’s tuition, fees, and room and board, if the student lives on campus. Any money left over is paid to the student for other expenses: books, living expenses if the student does not live on campus, and transportation.
Enrollment has improved at Wilberforce. Some 500 students will attend classes when school opens on August 10.
New president is a turnaround Specialist
The college also hired Dr. Algeania Warren Freeman as its 20th president in September. Dr. Warren Freeman, a native of Benson, N.C., has a reputation as a person who can turnaround financially troubled colleges.
“I am the person who is called when institutions get into trouble with their accreditation, with their deficit spending, with low student enrollment. I am that transformative change agent president,” she during a 2014 interview.
She has orchestrated turnarounds t at Livingstone College in Salisbury, N. C. and Martin University in Indianapolis, where she closed a $653, 000 deficit by increasing fund raising and cutting staff.
But her tactics at Martin drew criticism, resulting in seven members of the 16-member board of trustees resigning after she fired a popular professor.
During her tenure at Livingstone, she received the Harlem Renaissance Award for outstanding HBCU president. She also won the award at Martin.
Warren Freeman, who has a Ph.D. from Ohio State University, took the job at Wilberforce when the university faced a $9 million deficit. She has reputation for being a prolific fundraiser.
Most of the funds are coming from the A.M.E. Church and Wilberforce’s National Alumni Association, which has pledged to raise $2 million. The A.M. E. church has been asked to raise $5 million. The A.M.E. Church has launched a “Save Wilberforce Now” campaign last November. Church officials said they must reduce Wilberforce’s debt by $15 million in addition to coming up with a viable financial plan. The school’s website for donations is https://giving.wilberforce.edu/
The school wants to raise $2 million to $3 million now and $5 million later, Sellers said. The school has budgeted $3 million to renovate two dormitories.
Wilberforce also is changing its curriculum. “You can’t come here and get a degree in French Literature,” Sellers said. The school, which has college of engineering, is focusing more on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And it is in the very preliminary stages of offering a five-year degree in accounting.
“We want offer programs that make sense for graduate recruit and for the school’s budget,” Sellers said.
In order to graduate, students have to work in two co-op programs in which they take job in their major for six to eight weeks, Sellers said.
The Board of the Higher Learning Commission meets November 5th and 6th, and it is expected to issue a decision to Wilberforce in seven to ten days. “So expect a decision in mid-November,” said a spokesperson for the Higher Learning Commission.