Wilberforce University is an American treasure. Founded in 1856, when African-Americans virtually had no access to education due to the horrors of slavery, Wilberforce offered a salvation to Blacks in the North. However, in 2012, the institution is in trouble. It is facing a decaying campus and large financial struggles. Although these struggles have been looming for years, they recently came to a head and resulted in tremendous dissatisfaction and push back against the administration by the students. To date, 330 out of 510 students have requested withdrawal forms and have made attempts to transfer to Central State, which is a public HBCU that sits side by side with Wilberforce.
In particular, the students are concerned about the state of the library and its holdings as well as lab hours on campus. They find the food service unacceptable. In addition, they claim that tuition costs are unreasonably high ($19,000 for tuition, room and board) and have accused the administration of misconduct. The student body president, as well as members of the senior class, is leading the student push-back against the university. Although the institution’s president, Patricia Hardaway, has stated that she has an open-door policy and is willing to listen to students’ concerns, students say they do not feel heard.
According to President Hardaway, Wilberforce is stronger today than it has been in recent years. It has restructured its debt and secured a lower interest rate on this debt. Currently, the institution is $25 million in debt.
Regardless of the financial status of a university (finding a factual analysis is difficult), when the majority of its students want to withdraw, there is a problem.
Our review of the situation at Wilberforce brings about several questions. First, we wonder how much the disgruntled students at Wilberforce know about the finances of the institution. The students are projecting that the institution will close in three years. From where does their perspective originate? What kind of voice do students have in the university’s governance? Open communication between students and the administration is needed on any college campus. Research tells us that some leaders and scholars think that student voices are not important to the inner workings of colleges and universities. However, it is important to remember that these students become alumni and HBCUs, like any college or university, need satisfied alumni that are willing to give back, and support their alma mater.
In addition to opening communication lines between students and the administration, the university needs to be open with the media and local community. The president needs to be clear about the state of the institution, providing a well-defined picture of what is happening and asking for assistance if it is needed. Most people who care about their alma mater will contribute in times of need if the problems are clear and communicated.
Although student protest can be frustrating for university administrators, it is also commendable that the students care so much about their institution and want to see it perform at a higher level and in more efficient ways. The actions of the students at Wilberforce exemplify the power of student protest and student voices. In this case, students are exercising their rights as consumers of higher education. In the past, many students who attended HBCUs did so out of loyalty and family tradition; this is not always the case in the 21st century.
We are hopeful for the future of Wilberforce but also want to see the concerns of the students addressed and the challenges of the university communicated in ways that engage students, alumni and concerned citizens who care about the future of HBCUs and higher education.
Co-author Felecia Commodore is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.