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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

Page 2 of 5

"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.

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