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

Lost in Wilberforce

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At the end of July, at the annual alumni gathering in Memphis, Tenn., Wilberforce collected pledges of $2 million, $400,000 of which was raised in cash that night. Bernardino says that local chapters of the alumni association do their own fundraising as well — while I spoke with her in her office in Wolfe, she got a call from the Detroit chapter about scholarship info they'd placed in the Free Press — and send emissaries to the annual event to present money they'd raised. Only 159 alumni attended the Memphis weekend: That's more than $2,500 per person raised that night alone.

Next year, Bernardino is thrilled to report, the alumni weekend will be held in Cleveland.


"From the walls have gone forth

Stalwart sons and daughters brave

Reflecting honor on this mother

Who her blessing gave."

That's a rarely sung third verse of the Wilberforce alma mater, and one thing that mustn't be overlooked, here, is the insistence with which those within the Wilberforce community reference the "family atmosphere," the regularity with which the university is referred to in the third-person feminine.

At student orientation the first week of August, President Mishoe talked about a "rite of passage" candlelight ceremony in which freshmen became "a part of the Wilberforce family." Not part of the community or club. The Stokes library — depleted though it may be — greets students with a sign that says "Welcome to the Wilberforce family." All along and atop its shelves are student-made backboards with quotes and bios from famous alums: liberators, reformers, jazz musicians, Tuskegee Airmen.

The school mascot is the Bull Dog, but Forceans can be seen all over campus as well. It carries the elevated, personal weight of a surname.

"She's the mother of all HBCUs," says Dr. Talbert Grooms, the tall and well-appointed president of the alumni association. We've strolled the campus walkways and Grooms has reflected with dotage on the pastures and trees — "you'd think, the way people talk about the campus, that all the ceilings would be caving in." We've found ourselves seated at the Wilberforce Fountain:

It must always be there, where Forceans may gather and remember the past--the symbol of happiness and love that will last.

Grooms is on a committee to fight back against dwindling enrollment numbers. That group meets later this afternoon to discuss their training programs for student and faculty volunteers. His committee is one of five that formed recently to address the criteria of the Show-Cause letter — five criteria, five "Criterion Teams" — all part of the university's new Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research & Planning.

Grooms, in white ballcap, snappy orange polo and diamond jewelry, says that he attended Wilberforce's CLIMB program for adult learners in the early '90s before getting a Masters Degree from the University of Dayton. He now is an active member of the Dayton WU alumni chapter and says that "to be a part of this gripped me."

Once again, to assume that alumni and administrators aren't working their tails off to address areas of concern is to see things only at surface level, to adopt the knee-jerk paternalism of, for example, the Northeast Ohio Media Group's Editorial Board, who called for the immediate resignation of the board of trustees.

"There is no other conclusion," they opined this summer, "after reading a blistering report from the Higher Learning Commission... we urge the accreditation team to work with the university and the university must work with the accreditation team... Interim president Wilma Mishoe must keep her word ... It's hard to believe at this point that any long-term board member can steer Wilberforce in the right direction. Resign."

It's as if they think nothing is being done, as if no steps are being taken. Surely no correspondent from NEOMG has reported on the ground in and around Xenia, so it'd be hard for them to know, let alone call for resignations.

Furthermore, the media only jumped on board after the Show-Cause letter in June, but the perennial problems facing Wilberforce have been blinking on the leadership's radar for years. An April 10, 2014, article in The Mirror, Wilberforce's student newspaper, reported that the criterion teams had already been meeting for a month.

"We're starting small," Grooms says at the fountain, of his recruitment efforts, "with the local schools and churches," but they plan to branch out using the resources of the national AME church. He says that, regarding fundraising, his biggest hope is that Wilberforce can attract corporate sponsorships, companies that, beyond funds, might donate materials or resources or SMART classrooms.

"We've got some," says Grooms, "but I'd like to have all SMART classrooms." He also says that corporate partnerships could yield positive steps in specific curriculum development and professional opportunities for students.


"Where are my sons and daughters?

I need them to survive;

Seek and search for all of them, that I might stay alive.

Go find my sons and daughters,

Bring in the young and old,

To rally at the Fountain,

And uphold the Green and Gold.

Harken you my children,

To me you must be true,

Renew your loyalty and trust,

Wilberforce calls for you."

— Ida Walls Lee,

Wilberforce Class of '36

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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