Was Today Wilberforce University's Last "First Day of School" Ever?

Today was the first day of classes at Wilberforce University, and given the looming specter of its accreditation status, it's fair to at least wonder whether or not it may have been the final first day for the oldest historically black college (HBCU) in the country.

As of today, the university still hasn't announced a new president. Interim president Wilma Mishoe indicates that whoever is selected will shepherd in a new era of campus renovation, financial security and innovation. 

The presidential announcement was presumed to have occurred at the alumni association's annual assembly in Memphis two weeks ago, but alumni were told then that they'd be informed of a decision "at a later date."  

Today, a spokesperson for McKinley Young, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's 3rd District, with which Wilberforce U. is institutionally affiliated, couldn't say how long the search committee might take, only that the process has been "delayed." 

Dwyane Smith, the current VP of Academic Affairs at Harris-Stowe State University, an HBCU in St. Louis, had been considered the front-runner for the job. But when Scene reached him by email this weekend, he said that he's longer in the running: 

"I will be continuing at Harris-Stowe State University," he wrote on Saturday. "We have some tremendous academic activities, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that I am leading. The National Science Foundation just recently awarded Harris-Stowe a $1.7 million dollar grant for our STEM initiatives."

Wilberforce has been in the news most recently for its accreditation situation. The Higher Learning Commission issued a Show-Cause letter back in June which cited a wide range of serious concerns. Those concerns — most of them have to do with financial mismanagement and low enrollment — must be satisfactorily ameliorated by December 15 if the college is to retain its accredited status. 

The official numbers from today have yet to be tallied, but the school's total enrollment should this year hover between 200-300. Back in June, a professor told a reporter from Inside Higher Ed that the number of students who had put down a tuition deposit was "in the single digits." (The Inside Higher Ed piece remains the finest summary and analysis of Wilberforce's precarious position). 

For a school whose budget remains primarily tuition-based, numbers like that don't bode well for subsequent accreditation proceedings.

Still, Dwyane Smith says the presidency isn't an unattractive position. In fact, he wrote that it's an "excellent" position for a well-versed administrator. 

"Wilberforce is going in the right direction in terms of addressing the concerns by the Higher Learning Commission. There is a stronger commitment by key institutional stakeholders, especially the financial commitment of its alumni. This institutional commitment will help to solidify Wilberforce’s future."
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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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