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When Lincoln University opened its state-of-the art $23 million International Cultural Center in November, the small liberal arts college reached another milestone in its sweeping modernization program aimed at boosting its appeal to students in an increasingly competitive higher education environment.

Not far from the cultural center, with its art gallery and 1,045-seat auditorium, is the new Science and Technology Building, a $45 million, 116,000-square-foot facility.

A few steps away from those buildings is a new 409-room singleoccupancy dorm that will be complemented by a 600-bed residence hall set for occupancy in 2011. Intercollegiate football returned to the school last year for the first time in 50 years. A campus radio station signed on this fall. A campus TV station is set to go on the air in January.

To say Lincoln, a small, quasi-private historically Black college, is on a roll might be an understatement. The good fortune is the result of tough choices, trade-offs, program and operational changes and the constant reminder of competition in the neighborhood.

“When we finish in a couple of years, we will be the center of attraction to local residents,” says Lincoln President Dr. Ivory V. Nelson, the chief architect of the new Lincoln who is marking his 10th year at the helm. “We have worked on, and I think succeeded, in making sure Lincoln becomes a place of choice.”

While very much a private institution, the physical remake of Lincoln is propelled by an infusion of millions in public funds, the product of a quid pro quo deal the school struck in 2003 with Gov. Edward Rendell and former state Attorney General Mike Fisher.

At issue was “control” of the Barnes Foundation, an arboretum and prized collection of thousands of pieces of art including works by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and others. Created in 1922 by Dr. Albert Barnes, a wealthy owner of medicine patents and art collector who had a royal distaste for the Philadelphia art elite, the foundation is now worth billions and is housed in a small facility picked by Barnes in Merion, Pa., a few miles outside Philadelphia.

In his last will and testament, Barnes, who developed a friendship with former Lincoln President Dr. Horace Mann Bond, assigned Lincoln the right to nominate four of the foundation’s five directors, in effect giving the school eventual control of his foundation, an educational trust whose principal assets were the arboretum and art collection to be used for teaching purposes.

Lincoln began exercising its responsibilities in the late 1980s. The chance to build on Barnes’ hopes for an institutional relationship never materialized, however, as a longtime champion for arts education never emerged from Lincoln’s ranks. By the late 1990s, the Barnes collection was awash in various kinds of litigation, some $3 million in debt and had depleted its endowment. After some soul searching, the Lincoln-controlled foundation board filed a court petition seeking to expand its board to 15 people. The change could get more feet on the street to generate funds and greater support for the foundation. It would also diminish Lincoln’s presence in the foundation to footnote status.

Stunned by the move, Lincoln’s Board of Trustees, then chaired by alumnus Adrienne Rhone, filed papers opposing the foundation’s request. After Rhone stepped down at the conclusion of her term in 2003, Rendell stepped in and persuaded the new Lincoln board leadership to acquiesce.

With promises in hand, a divided Lincoln board voted to withdraw its challenge to the Barnes Foundation’s court petition. With court approval, the foundation expanded its board and announced it was headed to Philadelphia with more than $100 million in donations for building a new Barnes facility in the city’s artsy Center City District. A groundbreaking for the facility was held in November.

“The Barnes Foundation was not aligned with Lincoln’s goals at the time,” says Kimberly Camp, who served as the first president and CEO of the Barnes Foundation from 1998 until 2005. Lincoln never tried to control the foundation, she says, though the school could have worked with the foundation to develop a world-class arts education program. That such a relationship never materialized “is the sad part about it,” says Camp.

In Lincoln’s makeover, the university launched a new Lincoln- Barnes Visual Arts major with nine students in 2007. The program is run through one of the school’s new Centers of Excellence. The new major “prepares students for versatile and cutting-edge careers in museums and collections studies, museum education and museum communications,” the school says.

“There were those of us who came to the (Lincoln) board and saw the merits of re-engineering the partnership” with the Barnes Foundation, says Lincoln chairman Bishop David G. Evans, a Lincoln alum and a pastor. “We didn’t see it as all a negative. We saw some positives.”

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