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

Lost in Wilberforce

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."

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