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Alumni Rallying to Support Wilberforce University

CINCINNATI ― Alumni of the country’s oldest historically Black private university are committing money and other support to help their alma mater’s fight for survival amid the risk of accreditation loss and financial deficits and low enrollment.

The alumni association of southwestern Ohio’s Wilberforce University, founded in 1856, says graduates have committed to raise $2 million in cash donations, including $400,000 pledged at last weekend’s alumni conference. The university has already received $200,000 of that, alumni and university officials said Wednesday. The university also says it has a strategy for upcoming changes, including realigning Wilberforce’s board, modifying facilities and academics, revising financial procedures and finding a president to move the school forward.

The university is in the midst of a presidential search.

Talbert Grooms, president of Wilberforce’s alumni association, said in a statement that alumni believe change is a “critical part of staying relevant.”

Last month, the Higher Learning Commission issued a “show-cause” order, which stressed serious financial issues, lack of leadership and a deteriorating campus among other problems at the school. It requires Wilberforce to show why the commission shouldn’t withdraw its accreditation.

That loss would be a major blow. It could result in lack of eligibility for federal financial aid for the estimated 80 to 90 percent of Wilberforce students receiving such assistance and cause problems with transferring credits. Wilberforce must respond by Dec. 15 and schedule a commission team visit to the campus by Feb. 9.

Interim President Wilma Mishoe has said Wilberforce is committed to complying with the commission’s accreditation standards.

But Richard Deering, president of the Wilberforce Faculty Association, says deteriorating dormitories, declining enrollment and accelerating debt over several years are huge obstacles.

“It’s not a matter of being pessimistic or optimistic,” said Deering, who has taught at Wilberforce since 1968. “It’s the facts on the ground, that Wilberforce—for whatever reason—lost its way.”

The commission’s June letter to Mishoe said Wilberforce ended the 2013 fiscal year with a $9.7 million deficit, and its proposed operating budget for 2014 was based on a 500-student enrollment—while actual enrollment was about 377. Wilberforce is unlikely to reach its projected 200-student enrollment this fall, the letter said.

“The University has not demonstrated its ability to make adequate and realistic plans for the future,” the letter said.

Other small, under-resourced schools face similar troubles, said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania higher education professor and an expert on historically Black colleges and universities. But she says they have had a particularly difficult time because of disparities in government funding and typically smaller endowments than majority White institutions.

“Wilberforce’s problems have been known for a long time and are now coming to a head,” she said. “Wilberforce must be willing to change, even if it means compromising and making some people uncomfortable.”

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