Tensions Increase At Troubled Wilberforce University

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Inside of a damaged dormitory room in Valentine Hall at Wilberforce University.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)
Inside of a damaged dormitory room in Valentine Hall at Wilberforce University.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)

Wilberforce University is the oldest black owned private university in the country. But the 157 year old school near Xenia faces an uncertain future. Students and faculty members worry the university may close if it cannot get more resources to fix the financial and structural problems on campus. The troubles have increased tensions at the university.

Protests have become a regular occurrence on the Wilberforce University campus. Last month about 150 students and teachers picketed and called for the school’s president Patricia Hardaway to resign. Student leader Brandon Harvey organized the protest.

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

“Those students were protesting, trying to fight for change. I think things have to change now. We have to tear down the dorms, build new ones. We have to spend the money, take the risk,” Harvey says.

Last fall, several hundred students and faculty marched to the administration. Students threatened to withdraw from the school that has seen sharp drops in enrollment and growing financial problems.

The small campus sits alongside a country road, several miles from Xenia. Wilberforce is a private, coed, liberal arts and historically black university, or what’s commonly referred to as an HBCU. The African Methodist Episcopal Church bought it outright after the Civil War.

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

Today campus buildings show wear and tear. The bookstore is closed and in disrepair. From the outside, dormitory buildings look sturdy. Inside there are a lot of problems.

Wright Hall is closed for students, while Valentine Hall that is attached is open but only a few rooms are occupied because the others have heavy water damage.

A burst water pipe in Jackson Hall forced students living on the second floor to move up to the third.

Even a dormitory built within the past decade has issues. Senior Ran dall Leneau describes one of them.

“There are times when water will actually drip from the upper level to here and as you see the mold will build up in that corner and it makes the paint peel,” says Leneau.

“There’s no magic bullet and that’s what I say to anyone who is looking for a quick fix,” says Wilberforce University President Patricia Hardaway.

She admits the school has its challenges.

“We’re working on moving to raise the funds to renovate those dorms; we demolished one dorm that we would like to use the footprint to build a new one. Those things are not going to happen within a few weeks or a few months,” explains Hardaway.

 Lincoln Park, a former housing project on the far south side of Columbus.

Hardaway says Wilberforce faces budget problems similar to what other universities face. The school has an annual budget of $16 million. According to tax returns for the fiscal year ending June 2011, Wilberforce ran a half-million dollar operating deficit. 2007 and 2008 tax returns show losses of up to 3 million dollars a year. The school’s total debt stands at $24 million dollars.

“Everyone has to recognize that the economic environment that Wilberforce is facing is not strictly Wilberforce. The entire world is facing the same economic downturn that is impacting everything,” says the university president.

Hardaway says the cost of educating students is much higher than what students pay. This year’s tuition is just over $12,000. That’s about a third of the $30,000 average tuition cost at private schools nationally.

Hardaway says the school has tried to bridge the gap by holding fundraising events and increasing alumni donations and grants. The school gets up to 40% of its funding from the federal government.

Over the past 7 years, Wilberforce’s undergrad student population has dropped dramatically from 800 to about 500.

President of the Wilberforce Faculty Association, Richard Deering blames the decline in students to cuts in core academic programs. Today there are only 17 core programs, down from 37 a few years ago.

“It was as though we were in deep financial difficulty and therefore the university had to cut its majors in half in order to be able to accommodate what was going on at the institution. I think it was a very negative kind of thing,” says Deering.

To save money, the University stopped contributing to employees’ retirement. Employees, including president Hardaway took a pay cut. For Deering, frustration mounts.

“We have had no new regular faculty members at the university since the fall of 08. We have new visiting faculty, we have temporary full-time faculty, adjunct faculty,” says Deering.

The cuts prompted an investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, but the year-long probe found no financial wrongdoing.

But some students say putting band aids on head wounds won’t be enough to attract the students Wilberforce needs.

Senior and Vice President of Student Government, Shenell Dixon.

“We’re the first, the first historically black college, the Wilberforce University, so we should get the support we need to let the students succeed,” says Dixon.

President Hardaway says her fight continues.

There is no knight on a horse that’s coming in anywhere to say here. So we are exploring and following all available opportunities,” insists Hardaway.

But many students and faculty say the school’s problems will not be solved until there’s a new administration.

  • Marion Johnson

    Oh how my heart hurts for what I am reading about my belove WU, I am a graduate class ’70. It hurts to read the many problems through out the social media.Board of Trustee, Bishops/Pastors of the AME church can’t yousee the handwriting on the wall the shape our oldest Black university is in financial as well as physical disarray , needs help. Meet with Pat, form a coalition to bring the issues to the table,no rose color glasses but the truth. If need administration levels need altering from the top to the ,bottom. We can’t let the doors close. I pray to god daily because Wilberforce made me the professional retiree that I am.

    • antigreenman

      Hope will get you heartbreak. If you feel so passionate, then step up to the plate and figure out how to help and get the school back on its feet. In reality, the doors should be closed. Even Antioch figured that out yet still is coming back once they got their house in order.

  • Tom

    I am from Xenia and have long yearned to turn Wilberforce and Central back to their glory days. It is time for change! My team would love to purchase Wilberforce and re establish it to its rightful place.

  • myke

    Wilberforce suck now sucked in the past and will be closed in the future not a good school parents send ur kids to a good school dont waste ur money!

  • antigreenman

    “the first historically black college, the Wilberforce University, so we should get the support we need” glad to see the entitlement mentality rules the student’s thought process. A university is as much a business as it is a school. They admit as much they don’t charge what they need to in order to run the school. BAD BUSINESS. When bad business decisions are made, businesses close; the same goes to schools with administrations with no sense or fiscal goals/planss. They should cut their loses and close the doors. They are doing a great dis-service to every student there providing half an education.

  • Ramiro Ferrand

    I am using a student athlete meet and greet to assist HBCU,s with this financial crisis. Sports at the college level makes millions, we all know this. please view link and share all HBCU’s are welcome. @FerrandSports